Laid-off Chicago Workers Continue Sit-In

It is a day four of a sit-in by more than 200 laid-off workers at Republic Windows and Doors, a Chicago factory that closed its doors Friday. Negotiations continue to get those workers jobs back or at least vacation and severance pay.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In Chicago, a sit-in at a window-making company has grown into a national incident. Workers at Republic Windows and Doors have been meeting today with company owners, bank officials, and politicians. About 300 workers lost their jobs last Friday, when the company abruptly closed its doors. NPR's Cheryl Corley joins us now from Chicago. And, Cheryl, this is day four of this sit-in. You've been out to the factory. What do the workers say they want?

CHERYL CORLEY: Well, they want a number of things, Robert. And I must tell you, it's a fairly peaceful sit-in. People are bringing in their children with them. People have come by to bring food and hot chocolate to them. Politicians are dropping by.

For years, workers have assembled vinyl windows and sliding doors at this plant. But as you mentioned, it closed last Friday after Bank of America pulled back the factory's credit line because of its declining sales. And the workers at the sit-in, about 240 union workers, say they deserve much better.

They say they got little notice, were told they wouldn't have any health benefits, and they just are really trying to work through the shock of it all. There was one worker who talked to reporters whose name is Vicente Ronjel(ph). He's worked at Republic Windows for 15 years, and here's what he said the workers wanted.

Mr. VICENTE RONJEL (Former Employee, Republic Windows and Doors): What we're asking for is nothing more than what belongs to us under the law. We're just asking to get extended health care, to get our payments on vacations, to get our severance pay. What we really want here is to save the jobs.

SIEGEL: Now, these workers have become a symbol of troubles in the economy, and they've won over some big supporters, including President-elect Obama - doesn't get much bigger than that - or the governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich. What have they been saying? What have the politicians been saying?

CORLEY: Yesterday, President-elect Obama said the workers at Republic Windows were right, and they deserved to be given the pay and the benefits that they've earned, and he called for more oversight of the bank bailout funds. And today, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich continued on that line, talking about the bank bailout and saying that Bank of America had received billions of dollars as part of the financial bailout. So he announced today that he has ordered every state agency to suspend doing any business with Bank of America. And here's the governor.

Governor ROD BLAGOJEVICH (Democrat, Illinois): If the taxpayers have been already asked to bail out these big banks, then we expect those banks to bail out businesses like this to keep them afloat and keep these workers working.

SIEGEL: That's the governor. What did Bank of America have to say about that?

CORLEY: Well, the bank issued a statement today saying it's not responsible for Republic Windows and Doors' financial obligations to its workers. That's really the company's obligations - obligation. It said it had worked with Republic for several months, had reached out to the management and ownership of the company to see what they could do to resolve the issue, and that it's just really unfortunate that Republic hasn't been able to reverse its declining circumstances.

SIEGEL: So, just clarify Republic circumstances. When they shut their doors, did they file for bankruptcy as well?

CORLEY: They did not file for bankruptcy. They did not. What they told the union essentially was that they needed this line of credit in order to pay workers the severance and vacation time owed to them, but they did not declare bankruptcy.

SIEGEL: And have the workers indicated how long they might be willing to stay at the plant?

CORLEY: They say they are going to stay as long as it takes.

SIEGEL: NPR's Cheryl Corley in Chicago. Thank you, Cheryl.

CORLEY: You're quite welcome.

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