Far from the canyons of Wall Street, a bailout drama is playing out inside the closed-down Republic Windows & Doors factory in Chicago, where more than 200 angry workers have hunkered down after they were abruptly fired. Protestors in Chicago were abruptly fired without final pay or benefits.
"I'm going to be here for the long haul," one factory worker said. "Whatever happens, I'll be here. We all will."
For four days, workers have staged a sit-in, protesting how their manufacturer, Republic, fired them without the 60 days pay or notice that federal law requires.
"You start thinking about payments, your bills, your mortgage, your rent," said Vicente Rangel, a 34-year-old maintenance technician who was laid off after 15 years working for the company.
The union workers believe they are victims of a bungled bailout and that Bank of America, which received $25 billion in the federal rescue package, stands between them and their paychecks. Workers carried signs outside the factory today, attacking the bank, saying: "You get bailout, we get sold out."
Republic's sales of windows sank along with the housing market. But the union is quite literally casting the bank as the "rat," blaming it for not extending the company's credit line.
"Frankly, it's shameful that a bank that got $25 billion in bailout money turns around and shuts down a factory by cutting off their credit and then refuses that money be spent on people's rightfully earned benefits," said Leah Fried, a union organizer for United Electrical Workers. "We're going to hold Bank of America accountable for what they are doing here."
Bank of America says that, as a lender, it cannot tell the company "how to manage its affairs and what obligations should be paid." Republic says the bank has displayed "unwillingness" to continue funding the troubled company, which the bank denies. The dispute surrounding Republic's laid-off workers is generating sympathy from President-elect Barack Obama.
"When it comes to the situation here in Chicago with the workers who are asking for their benefits and payments they have earned, I think they are absolutely right," Obama said at a news conference Sunday. "If they have earned their benefits and their pay, then these companies need to follow through on those commitments."
Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich today called for a boycott to pressure the bank to provide credit and lend support to the workers.
"We have contacted all our agencies across state government and, as of now, every agency has been ordered to suspend doing any business with the Bank of America," Blagojevich said. "We hope this kind of leverage and pressure to do the right thing for this business -- take some of the federal tax money that they've received and invest it -- by providing the necessary credit to this company so these workers can keep their jobs."
The dispute is caught up in the tangle of the bailout money, hundreds of billions, handed over to big banks with few strings attached.
"Companies are failing now because they can't get bank lending, despite the fact that the government has handed out so much of the bailout money," said Lynn Lopucki, law professor at UCLA and Harvard. "The Treasury should have extracted from the banks, as a condition of this money, a promise that they were going to lend."
At Bank of America's Chicago offices, officials met today to hammer out some kind of deal. Meanwhile, protests spilled over to some of the bank's branches and, back at the factory, workers insist that the drama will continue until they get the money they say they are owed.