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

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

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