Chicago factory worker protest, Chicago factory worker sit-in, Republic Windows & Doors
Eric Y. Exit/AP
Workers pass out food in the lobby of Republic Windows & Doors, in Chicago, Sunday, Dec.
7, 2008.

Bank of America Steps Into Chicago Factory Sit-in With “Limited Amount” of Credit

December 10, 2008 01:24 PM
by Anne Szustek
After steep criticism, Bank of America, the creditor to now-shuttered Republic Windows & Doors factory, has said it would grant the company a bit of credit.

“A Tone of Reconciliation”

On day 5 of a sit-in of former Republic Windows & Doors factory workers demanding their fringe benefits after the company closed suddenly on Dec. 5, the company’s creditor, Bank of America, has agreed to lend the company a “limited amount” of additional financing. The move that brings all parties closer to reaching an agreement in the standoff.

The closing of the factory, located in the Goose Island neighborhood of Chicago, left 300 employees, including 240 union members, jobless.

To protest being laid off without fringe benefits to which the workers say they are entitled, as well as being notified only three days prior to the plant’s closing (rather than 60 days prior as required by law), the unionized members of Republic’s staff staged a sit-in.

Republic was $3 million in debt to Bank of America, a situation aggravated by sluggish sales in the home goods segment. According to a Monday statement issued by the door and window company, Republic tried to extend its closure process over several months—a plan that was apparently rejected by Bank of America, incurring deep criticism and poor publicity for the bank, despite the financial institution saying it was not required to keep the factory in the black.

A statement from the bank published by the Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday read, “Bank of America is prepared to make these additional loans despite the fact that Bank of America is not obligated to pay Republic’s employees or make additional loans to Republic.”

In an earlier release, Bank of America had said that it had already lent “the maximum amount of funding we can under the terms of this agreement.”

By Tuesday, the protesters had garnered national headlines and the support of major Chicago-area political figures such as Ill. Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Illinois Democratic members of Congress Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Luis Gutierrez.

Blagojevich, who was arrested by federal agents Tuesday morning in connection with corruption allegations, vowed Monday that “We, the state of Illinois, will suspend doing any business with the Bank of America,” Republic’s creditor. Officials of Cook County, where Chicago is located, as well as city aldermen also suggested a halt to official business with the bank.

“Flanked by union leaders, more than a dozen aldermen demanded that City Hall divest itself of funds deposited by Bank of America—and stop approving zoning changes sought by the bank and its subsidiaries,” reported the Chicago Sun-Times.

City officials are also after Republic to get the factory to pay back $9.3 million in tax-increment financing, or TIF, to build its Chicago plant. In addition, Republic set up a limited liability corporation in Iowa, where human resource expenditures are generally lower, a move that, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, “incensed” Chicago 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore.

Representatives from the union, Republic and Bank of America met for three hours on Monday to hash out disagreements, a step that Gutierrez said alleviated tensions and had “a tone of reconciliation,” as quoted by the Chicago Sun-Times. The congressman is pushing for a federal investigation into the company’s lack of employee severance pay.
United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America union organizer Leah Fried said that the furloughed employees are each due some $3,500 to $4,500 in severance. According to Fried, when vacation time is factored in, the total amount of compensation due is $1.5 million.

The statement issued by Republic said that on Oct. 16, the factory presented Bank of America with a proposal to see production cease in January 2009, which would have given the company ample time to fulfill worker notification obligations stipulated by the WARN Act, which requires 60 days’ employee notice before plant closings. Two days later, Bank of America apparently rejected the proposal, as well as an updated plan from Republic as well as a request to distribute vacation pay to employees.

Bank of America has particularly taken flak for accepting at least $15 billion in funds from the federal bailout bill, or TARP, yet rescinded Republic’s credit line.

Durbin came down on the financial institution, saying that “We are going to sit down with my friends in the Senate and talk about ways to reach out” to the bank.

The Charlotte, N.C.-based bank bought Chicago’s LaSalle Bank for $21 billion in October 2007. According to a Chicago Sun-Times source, LaSalle was the original holder of Republic’s line of credit.

Opinion & Analysis: Recession sentiment, responsibility

The Republic Windows & Doors factory worker strike conjures images of Depression-era labor organizing, writes Nelson Lichtenstein, a history instructor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and Christopher Phelps, who teaches at Ohio State University at Mansfield for CNN. After Flint, Mich., autoworkers told President Franklin D. Roosevelt just after his re-election in 1936, “You voted New Deal at the polls and defeated the auto barons. … Now get a New Deal in the shop,” the president signed the Wagner Act into a law a couple of months later, which encouraged labor organization and collective bargaining.

“Will history repeat itself?” Lichtenstein and Phelps write. “The Chicago factory occupiers, overwhelmingly Latino, don’t have much clout, but they rightly sense that the national mood is with them.”

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