Obama defends Republic Windows and Doors workers in strike

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Workers and union organizers rally outside of the Republic Windows and Doors factory on Saturday, Dec. 6, 2008 in Chicago. | Sun-Times file

President-elect Barack Obama on Sunday afternoon put himself on the side of laid-off workers who continued to peacefully occupy the factory and warehouse at Republic Windows & Doors.

Later in the day, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced she has begun investigating the factory’s “sudden closure.”

Some 200 workers are seeking vacation and severance pay, as well as their final paychecks. During a news conference announcing his new Veterans Affairs director, Obama said he understands their plight.

“When it comes to the situation here in Chicago with the workers who are asking for their benefits and payments they have earned, I think they are absolutely right,” Obama said.

“When you have a financial system that is shaky, credit contracts. Businesses large and small start cutting back on their plants and equipment and their work forces.

“So, number one, I think that these workers, if they have earned their benefits and their pay, then these companies need to follow through on those commitments. Number two, I think it is important for us to make sure that, moving forward, any economic plan we put in place helps businesses to meet payroll so we are not seeing these kinds of circumstances again.”

At the factory, workers continued to press for what they say is owed them. Apolinar Cabrera was looking forward to the birth of his third child, but now he’s wondering how he will support his growing family.

Cabrera is among the laid-off workers who continue to peacefully occupy the factory after Republic shut down Friday.

“We just want what is owed to us by the law,” said Cabrera, a 17-year employee. “We are angry, worried and sad at the same time.”

Support for the workers has come from across the city and the country, said United Electrical Workers union officials on Sunday morning as the Rev. Jesse Jackson delivered a truckload of food to the factory.

“This is a nonviolent wake-up call to all of America,” Jackson said. “It’s the beginning of a bigger movement to resist economic violence.”

The closing was due to Bank of America withdrawing a credit line because of the company’s declining sales. Union leaders say the company failed to give workers the 60 days’ notice required by federal law, and that Bank of America barred Republic from paying for the 60-day period or for vacations.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) has brokered a meeting set for this afternoon between the company, Bank of America and the union.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Madigan said she is looking at all aspects of the company’s closing, including whether it has met obligations to its employees regarding notice, any unpaid wages, severance, and vacation pay.

“I am extremely concerned with the actions of this company, which are having a significant impact on employees and their families,” she said in a statement.

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