Parties to meet over Chicago factory sit-in

CHICAGO -- Apolinar Cabrera spent Sunday holed up inside the Republic Windows & Doors factory, joining a protest by dozens of workers angered by the abrupt closure of the plant Friday that left hundreds without jobs, severance pay or health insurance.

"We're going to stay here as long as it takes," says Cabrera, 44, who has worked at the plant for 17 years. "I'm going to receive my money that I earned. There's nothing that I want to take out of their (the company's) pocket. I want what I earned."

The Republic window plant protest is one of the first such actions by workers in the current recession, which the Labor Department said last week has resulted in the loss of 1.9 million jobs since last December.

President-elect Barack Obama, commenting on the Republic protest Sunday, said it's important to rebuild the nation's financial system but also to ensure "the plans and programs we design aren't just targeted at maintaining the solvency of banks but are designed to also get money out the door to help people on Main Street."

With three days' notice, owners of the window factory told about 300 workers last week that the plant would close, blaming a loss of credit with Bank of America, says Mark Meinster, international representative of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.

He says Republic should have given workers 60 days' notice under a federal law called the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN). The law, however, allows some exceptions to the 60-day rule, including one for "faltering companies" that may fear that a layoff notice could affect their chances of getting capital or new business.

"What's happening here is indicative of what's happening all across the economy," Meinster says. "The difference here is that workers decided to do something about it."

Union officials, representatives of the Bank of America and the owners of Republic have agreed to meet today, says Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill. Amy Zimmerman, a Republic spokeswoman, said Sunday night that the company would not comment until after the meeting.

Gutierrez says he wants to see Republic's financial records and does not want it to try to re-open in another state without taking care of what he says are its obligations to its Illinois workers.

"The company has consistently blamed the Bank of America (for its current financial problems) and I want to know if that's true," he says. "I'm going to do everything I can to get the workers their money."

At least 200 workers have committed to one of three eight-hour shifts during the sit-in, says Leah Fried, field organizer for the union.

They are patrolling the plant to ensure it's secure, doing clean-up and shoveling snow. On Sunday, supporters — including Jesse Jackson — stopped by, some dropping off food and other supplies. A single Chicago Police Department squad car was in the parking lot.

Complaints and lawsuits about companies failing to give notice of layoffs are on the rise, says attorney René Roupinian, a lawyer with Outten & Golden in New York.

Bank of America spokeswoman Julie Westermann says the bank cannot comment directly on Republic because of a confidentiality agreement but says the bank "does not have the right to control whether the company complies with applicable laws or honors its commitments to its employees."

Neil Bernstein, professor emeritus at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert in labor law, says the government didn't require banks such as Bank of America that got part of the federal banking bailout to help Republic or other companies. Extending Republic's line of credit might be a bad business decision, he says.

Cabrera says the turnout of workers and supporters at the factory cheers him.

"I have house payments like everybody and all the bills," Cabrera says. "It's really tough, but we've got a lot of hope. We've got a lot of support right now."

Appleby and Adams reported from McLean, Va.