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actions & protests | economic justice

Laid-off Chicago workers hope to inspire others

They've taken their sleeping bags and pillows back home and hauled away their protest placards after ending a nearly weeklong sit-in at a Chicago factory that came to symbolize the plight of laid-off labor.
ut a day after dozens of protesting workers walked out of the Republic Windows & Doors plant with their demands met, they said they hope their triumph will inspire others nationwide to take similar stands against employers if need be.
"Sometimes people are scared to say something to big companies," said Ricardo Caceres, who spent his first night in his own bed after sleeping on a flatbed truck in the plant during the six day sit-in. "But we stood up -- opened everyone's eyes."

That should include the eyes of factory executives, some business leaders said Thursday.

"I'd be the first to say to companies that what you saw with workers at Republic will be repeated over and over across the country," said Jerry Roper, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. "We haven't seen this since the '30s."

About 200 of the 240 laid-off workers occupied the doors and windows manufacturer last week, demanding severance and accrued vacation pay after Republic gave them just three days notice before closing the plant down.

Jubilant workers cheered and chanted "Yes We Can" outside the factory late Wednesday night after they voted to approve a $1.75 million agreement that put an end to their protest.

"This has inspired a lot of people," Leah Fried, an organizer for the United Electrical Workers, which represents the Republic workers, said Thursday.

She said the union is looking to harness the goodwill springing from the sit-in, which even drew supportive words from President-elect Barack Obama. She said that could include networking with unions in the United States and abroad.

Caceres said he has already fielded calls from workers at other Chicago factories asking how the Republic workers took on their employer so successfully. The key, he told them: "You've got to stick together."

The deal ending the sit-in came after tough, closely watched negotiations between the union, company owners and creditors, who came under heavy pressure from politicians to meet workers' demands.

The company's main creditor, Bank of America, was criticized for cutting off funds to the plant after it exhausted its credit line even though the Charlotte, N.C.-based bank itself received $25 billion from a government financial bailout.

Roper said Bank of America was unfairly portrayed as "the bad guy," noting it was putting up the bulk of the settlement money. But he said Republic's treatment of its workers in laying them off with so little notice was properly scrutinized.

"We need to encourage companies to do an orderly winddown -- which means focusing on employees, pay and health insurance first," he said. "(Businesses) need to heed these lessons from the Republic incident ... or you'll be in the newspapers, on TV, you'll get a visit from the union and you could even get your name mentioned by the president-elect."

A message left at Republic's Chicago offices on Thursday was not returned.

Wednesday's agreement means the laid-off workers will each get about $7,000 in accrued vacation pay and eight weeks of salary. Each will also get two months paid health care.

Many workers who participated in the Republic sit-in, including Caceres, feared they would fall behind on their mortgages and even lose their houses if they didn't get the money they said they were due.

There's one thing they aren't getting as a result of Wednesday's agreement: another job.

"I know I'll have money now, but I don't know how long it'll last," said Apolinar Cabrera, a 44-year-old worker at Republic whose wife is expecting to deliver their third child around Christmas. He said he's already begun hunting for a new job.

Still, he hastened to add, he feels a deep sense of accomplishment.

"It seemed to be the right time to do what we did," he said. "People need to step up more and not be afraid to speak out. This was a little step up."