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Chicago sit-in a window onto hard times

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

On the chilly factory floor of the Republic Windows and Doors plant, Apolinar Cabrera and a couple hundred workers have decided to make their stand.

Their jobs evaporated Friday when this Chicago company unexpectedly closed its doors, blaming lender Bank of America for cutting off its credit line and preventing it from paying the workers’ severance and vacation.

Cabrera and his co-workers have refused to leave.

“We need only what is promised to us, nothing more, nothing less,” said Cabrera, a 17-year veteran of the plant who hasn’t been home to see his pregnant wife and two children in four days. “I know the economy is bad . . . but this just isn’t right to do this to us.”

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Here, in this corner of the recession, the standoff between the workers and Bank of America has quickly evolved into a symbol of the divide between the financial rescue plans for Wall Street and Main Street.

While the government pumps billions of dollars into the banking system, on this corner of Main Street, so far, there is no reprieve.

“I don’t understand how we could take the hard votes, give billions of dollars in the bailout and still see something like this happen,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, said at a news conference Monday.

The state of Illinois on Monday cut off all business with Bank of America until the matter is resolved. After learning of the workers’ plight, President-elect Barack Obama has come out in support of their claims. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich and others have dropped by to show their support. Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan has launched an investigation into the company’s closure.

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While a resolution may eventually come, Durbin was certain of one thing: As the economy spirals to the worst crisis since the Great Depression, the worker sit-in at Republic Windows and Doors will probably be the first of many.

Talks Monday between workers and the bank were adjourned last night with no resolution. The meeting is scheduled to resume today.

“This story has resonated around the world,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, told the Associated Press.

Until last Tuesday, workers said they had no idea the company was close to ruin.

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“We were cutting out glass for an order for 1,000 new windows last week,” said Vicente Rangel, 34, who been with the firm for 15 years. “There was work to do. Then, the bosses called us to a meeting and said everyone was quitting, whether they wanted to or not.”

It had been a good job. The roughly 240 union workers at the plant -- 80% of them Latino -- earned an average of $14 an hour, and received medical coverage and retirement benefits, according to Leah Fried, an organizer for Local 1110 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.

When they heard the news, some workers were furious. Others cried. Rangel panicked. His wife had been sick for weeks and had recently seen the family physician.

“I got a call from the doctors. The insurance company said they won’t pay because the company canceled all our policies and didn’t tell us,” Rangel said. “I have a mortgage. I have a child. What do we do if he gets sick?”

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On Friday, the workers’ union was slated to meet with the factory’s owners and Bank of America officials. But the company’s executives failed to show, Fried said. The meeting never happened.

When word reached the workers -- who remained on the factory floor after their shifts had ended, waiting to hear the outcome of the meeting -- they held a vote over what to do.

The result was unanimous: Sit down and stay.

Company officials could not be reached for comment.

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Bank of America said that it is the manufacturer -- not its lender -- who is at fault for failing to pay employees.

“When a company faces such a dire situation, its lender is not empowered to direct the company’s management how to manage its affairs and what obligations should be paid,” the North Carolina-based financial institution said in a statement. “Such decisions belong to the management and owners of the company.”

Inside the factory’s crowded lobby, hand-scrawled signs of support from local residents and area workers covered the mustard-and-white walls.

“Thank you for showing us all how to fight back!” wrote one person. Another opined: “Here’s to change, from the bottom up.”

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Fellow union workers streamed through the factory’s glass front doors throughout the day, toting stacks of pastry boxes and trays piled high with homemade tamales. Friends arrived with fresh changes of clothing. Women pushing strollers, with their toddlers swaddled in fuzzy Superman blankets, tearfully embraced their husbands, siblings and grandparents -- happy to be reunited, if only briefly.

Inside the cafeteria, dozens of workers sipped cooling coffee, while others leaned against the concrete walls and tried to doze, workers said.

Even if the workers win, Fried said, the amount they would receive is relatively modest. On average, the company would owe each worker an average of about $6,250, according to union officials.

That’s enough for Cabrera. His last paycheck, for $400, comes Friday. It will just be enough, he said, to pay the mortgage for one more month.

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