Chicago Workers End Sit-In at Closed Factory
CHICAGO - With cheers and chants that echoed President-elect Barack Obama's campaign of change, jubilant workers agreed to a $1.75 million settlement that ends their six-day occupation of a shuttered Chicago factory that became a symbol of the plight of labor nationwide.
Republic Windows & Doors, union leaders and Bank of America reached the deal Wednesday evening. Each former Republic employee will get eight weeks' salary, all accrued vacation pay and two months' paid health care, said U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who helped broker the deal. He said it works out to about $7,000 apiece.
"We lost the jobs but we got something," said Lalo Munoz, who worked at the plant for 24 years.
About 200 of 240 laid-off workers began their sit-in last week after Republic gave them just three days' notice the plant was closing. The workers had argued that Republic violated federal law because employees were not given 60 days' notice. They vowed to stay until they received assurances they would get severance and accrued vacation pay.
Workers carrying sleeping bags left the factory late Wednesday amid cheers of "Yes We Can," a slogan that became part of Obama's campaign.
Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, said $1.75 million will go into an escrow account for the workers, $1.35 million of which came from Bank of America in the form of a loan to Republic.
"Although we are a lender with no obligation to pay Republic's employees or make additional loans to Republic, we agreed to extend an additional loan to be used exclusively to pay its employees," David Rudis, the bank's Illinois president, said in a statement.
New York-based JPMorgan Chase & Co. pledged $400,000 to use strictly for the protesting employees, Gutierrez said.
The workers are "very, very satisfied" with the agreement, said Mark Meinster of the United Electrical Workers union, which represents the employees.
"Hopefully this is an example for workers across the country that when things like this happen, you can step up, you can speak out, and you can win," he said.
Lawmakers earlier criticized Bank of America 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 the government's financial bailout package. The bank was given that money so it could provide credit to companies like Republic that employ workers, Meinster said.
"We're hopeful the banks got that message," he said. "My sense is it's going to take a lot more."
Around 100 supporters of the workers gathered Wednesday in downtown Chicago where negotiators were meeting, some beating drums and others chanting: "They got bailed out. We got sold out."
"This money is not, under any circumstance, to be used for corporate bonuses, luxury cars or any other perk for the owners of the plant," Gutierrez said in a statement.
Republic officials did not return messages Wednesday from The Associated Press. Messages left seeking further details from JPMorgan Chase were also not returned.
Rudis said Republic is "unable to operate profitably." Over the past two years, the factory lost $10 million while borrowing the maximum amount possible under its agreement with Bank of America, the company said.
Associated Press writer Rupa Shenoy and videographer Raza Siddiqui contributed to this report.