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Labor Victory in Chicago

When Barack Obama revealed after the election that he was reading a book on Franklin Roosevelt's first 100 days as president, the "new New Deal" discussion went into overdrive. Progressives dared to believe that Obama's presidency might, due to economic necessity and the president-elect's interventionist inclinations, be a reprise of the last extended period when economic fairness was on the agenda.

But there will be no new New Deal if Americans wait for Obama to lead them out of the domestic quagmire into which Bill Clinton and George W. Bush steered the country with a toxic blend of free-trade absolutism, banking deregulation and disdain for industrial and agricultural planning. Just as a well-inclined but cautious Roosevelt needed the prodding of mass movements and militancy to talk the Washington establishment into accepting radical shifts in the economic order, so Obama will need to be able to point to some turbulence at the grassroots.

Remarkably, even before Obama takes office, a plant-closing struggle in the president-elect's hometown developed into just the sort of fight that will be needed.

More remarkably, Obama responded as FDR might have.

And, perhaps most remarkably of all, the workers have succeeded in forcing not just their employer but one of nation's largest banks to bend to their demands.

After the Bank of America --- a $25 billion recipient of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's Wall Street bailout --- refused to extend operating credit to Republic Windows and Doors, a Chicago-based manufacturer, the firm disregarded federal rules that require 60-days notice of a plant closing and announced that its factory on the city's north side would be shuttered December 5. But instead of going home to a dismal holiday season like hundreds of thousands of other newly unemployed workers, Republic's employees occupied the factory.

United Electrical Workers Local 1110 members engaged in the contemporary equivalent of the 1930s sit-down strikes, which led to the rapid expansion of union recognition nationwide and empowered Roosevelt to secure more equitable labor laws. As in the 1930s, the union is objecting not just to a company that may be inclined to shift work out of a unionized plant but to bank policies that encourage those inclinations and to federal policies that reward the bankers and fail the workers; stickers worn by UE protesters tell Bank of America: You Got Bailed Out. We Got Sold Out.

"We're going to stay here until we win justice," said Blanca Funes, 55, as she and other UE members shoveled snow and did routine maintenance at the plant where many of the 250 mostly Latino workers have been employed for decades.

As it happens, justice -- or, at least the small measure that the workers were seeking -- came in less than a week.

The Bank of America agreed on Thursday to provide a $1.35 million loan to enable Republic Windows and Doors to meet the obligations the company has to its employees under the federal law that requires companies to provide 60 days' advance notice of closings or significant layoffs. Along with $400,000 from another creditor, JPMorgan Chase & Co., the payout to workers will be in the range of $1.75 million.

Let's be clear that this is not a today victory.

A total victory would have involved a decision to maintain operations on the plant, so that the union members would have been able to keep working.

But the workers have gotten what was owed them -- roughly $7,000 a piece. And, after so many years of so many stories of workers being denied their due, this result is worthy of note.

Amid the cheers of the UE members, Lalo Munoz, who worked at the plant for 24 years, said, "We lost the jobs but we got something."

Even more worthy of note is the way in which it was achieved.

The Chicago protest highlighted A fundamental flaw with Paulson's bailout scheme. Bank of America accepted bailout money that Congress was told would loosen constraints on credit and stimulate the economy. But the bank and other major financial institutions have instead used taxpayer dollars to buy smaller banks, provide executive bonuses and pay shareholder dividends. At the same time, Bank of America refused to extend credit to Republic--a firm that, like many in the home-building industry, is now struggling but could prosper once Obama's stimulus package, with its emphasis on retrofitting public buildings and homes to make them energy efficient, comes through. The company and the union say the bank rejected financial plans to provide workers with vacation and severance pay to which they are legally entitled. The bank says it had no obligation to do so, but after several days of hard negotiations finally agreed to extend the loan.

UE statements throughout the standoff were steadfast and blunt: saying union members sought to "at least get the compensation that workers are owed," but adding that ideally they "seek the resumption of operations at the plant."

Unreasonable demands? Not according to the president-elect, who said two days after the sit-down strike began that "the workers who are asking for their benefits and payments they have earned, I think they are absolutely right." Observed Obama, "What's happening to them is reflective of what's happening across this economy."

That's not a to-the-barricades broadside. Like Roosevelt, Obama is merely offering workers some space in which to organize. What's significant is that UE, an independent union with roots to the militant labor organizing of the 1930s, is seizing the space. And unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win coalition are supporting a small struggle with a big message. "If this bailout should go to anything, it should go to the workers of this country," argued Richard Berg, president of Chicago's powerful Teamsters Local 743, as he rallied with the Republic workers.

Illinois officials and Chicago City Council members got on board as well, moving to bar state and local agencies from doing business with the Bank of America. Chicago Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and Congressman Luis Gutierrez are pressuring the Treasury to require banks that accept taxpayer financing to use the money to benefit America's workers. That move is especially significant, as Republic's circumstance is anything but unique.

Nor should UE's response be unique. Obama may sound like a new FDR, but his presidency will not produce that new New Deal unless labor -- in Chicago and nationally -- grabs the opening offered by a rare moment and a potentially rare presidency to fight to keep workers on the job and manufacturing industries functional as the economy stumbles. As UE's Mark Meinster said after the settlement, "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."

When that happens, it will be a lot easier for Obama's administration to renew not just Wall Street but Main Street.

Indeed, when the right history of this time is written, it should be said that the new New Deal began in Chicago -- both because Obama comes from the city and because workers there chose to stand up by sitting down.

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