All Apolinar Cabrera wants is his final paycheck. And he and some 200 of his former colleagues at the shut-down Republic Windows & Doors factory in Chicago are going to sit in the cold production-line floor until they get the money they've earned. "I know the economy is bad, for everyone," he said yesterday afternoon, standing in the plant's lobby, "but all I want to do is give my kids a nice Christmas. I'm going to stay until I get all the money we deserve." The father of two ages nine and six is expecting a new child on Christmas Day.
Cabrera, 44, spent the last 17 years building windows and working in shipping. He says he didn't really think he'd be part of the largest labor sit-in in recent memory. When Republic was still up and running, he had heard rumors about troubled finances. One of the guys on the factory floor said he had heard the company was planning to leave town, and maybe take its employees along. Last Tuesday, however, the factory's estimated 300 employees, including Cabrera, were called into a meeting and told that Republic would shut down three days later. Cabrera, who received a check that covered Thanksgiving week, says he is still due his final paycheck plus compensation for five weeks of vacation time that he says he's earned this year. But Republic's financial situation and abrupt closure sent tremors through the employee ranks. No one is certain that that final accounting will be done to their satisfaction. And Republic has said nothing to allay those fears. (See pictures of the recession of 1958.)
The union's 240 members voted to stage a sit-in late Friday. Since then, they have split into three teams handling cleaning the factory plant, security, and greeting media and supporters outside the plant. Each sit-in shift roughly follows the plant's old schedule: 6 a.m.-2 p.m., 2 p.m-10 p.m., and 10 p.m.-6 a.m. One of the workers inside the plant was Lalo Munoz, 54, a 34-year employee. "We're going to stay until we get all our money. This isn't fair," he said, before going back in to work his "shift."
At issue is Republic's compliance with federal government guidelines called the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (better known as WARN), an act which requires companies to give employees at least 60 days' notice before closing a plant or initiating mass layoffs. WARN also requires companies to fully compensate workers with all earned wages and vacation time. In a statement issued late Monday, Republic officials attributed the company's difficulties to the decline in the home construction market, which saw the company's sales plummet by 80%. Then it shifted blame to its creditor, Bank of America, which Republic said compounded the situation with its "unwillingness" to "continue funding the operations," according to the statement. Republic also said that it told Bank of America about possible WARN compliance issues in October 2008. For its part, Bank of America has simply said, "As a creditor of the company, we continue to honor all of our agreements with the company, and have provided the maximum amount of funding we can under the terms of our agreement." Bank of America was recently the recipient of $25 billion in federal bailout funds.
A meeting on Monday evening among executives of Republic and Bank of America, along with representatives of the workers' union, was inconclusive, and a new set of meetings is set for Tuesday afternoon.
The Republic shutdown and the plight of its workers has attracted statewide as well as national attention. On Sunday, President-elect Barack Obama acknowledged the workers' situation, saying, "I think these workers, if they have earned their benefits and their pay, then these companies need to follow through on those commitments." The Rev. Jesse Jackson appeared at the sit-in. Illinois' attorney general, Lisa Madigan, announced that her office planned to investigate various aspects of Republic's operations. On Monday, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich held a quickly organized press conference at the plant and vowed to ask a federal court to enforce federal guidelines. He also said the state would sever business dealings with Bank of America until the Republic matter is resolved. "It's a natural thing to step up to help workers when there's a situation like they're facing now," Blagojevich said. "This is the right thing to do, this is the just thing to do."
(Note: On Tuesday, Gov. Blagojevich was taken into custody on a U.S. District Court complaint of trying to take advantage of his leverage to appoint a U.S. Senator to fill Barack Obama's seat; it also said the governor tried to coerce the Chicago Tribune into firing staffers critical of the governor, in exchange for "millions of dollars" in assistance from the state of Illinois. The Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy this week.)