Bum deal in Chicago

The city of Chicago provides my other story epitomizing what is wrong with today’s America. Unlike the death of a Wal-Mart employee by stampeding customers, which largely got lost in the news, this story at least got some attention. It deserves more.

More than half a million Americans lost their jobs in November alone. So perhaps the plight of just two hundred employees at Republic Windows & Doors in Chicago does not matter. Unlike most of America, which is not unionized, Republic Windows & Doors is a union shop. Its workers belong to the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. Supposedly, in the event their employer goes under, the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act makes their job losses less painful. This law requires that covered employees, in most situations, must get sixty days of notice before a layoff or sixty days of salary.

They got only three days because Republic Windows assumed it would get credit that it did not receive. They requested credit from their creditor, The Bank of America. Ironically, Bank of America recently received $25 billion courtesy of the American taxpayer because it was having a financial crisis of its own from foolishly investing in sub-prime mortgages. However, Bank of America summarily refused to extend any of that credit to Republic Windows. With no money to draw from, Republic Windows felt it had little choice but to shut down promptly. It provided its workers just three days notice before closing the factory. Employees received no severance pay.

Probably because its workforce is unionized, the uppity employees of Republic Windows decided that, gosh darn it, they were entitled to the benefits due them under law! They occupied the plant (with the grudging approval of management, who said they could only do so if they kept the equipment in good order) while others protested outside the factory and tried to draw media attention.

It is unlikely that these employees would have fought their situation if they were not unionized. Only 12% of the American workforce today is unionized. With a union behind it, employees had a ready structure in place to stand up for what was lawfully due them. Chicago is also a heavily Democratic area and one of the more unionized areas of the country. (Indeed, Chicago features prominently in the union movement, which makes the location of this incident particularly appropriate.) It took a few days but their cause drew some media attention. Recently indicted Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was among a small number of politicians who rallied for the union workers. Even President-Elect Obama came out in support of these union workers. (Unsurprisingly, there was no similar statement from President Bush.)

All this publicity is beginning to show some results. Bank of America reluctantly joined talks with Republic Windows and the union. Talks are still underway and if press reports are to be believed, Bank of America reluctantly suggested it could lend Republic Windows enough money so it could pay its employees’ claims. Another bank, JP Morgan Chase reportedly is also offering a loan of $400,000. It is even possible, with the heat it is under and with the inconvenient fact that it took $25 billion in tax dollars, Bank of America may extend all the credit needed so that Republic Windows can stay in business. I hope that in this situation its employees retain their jobs that seemed certainly lost. If so, it will only be due to their backbone to protest loudly and vigorously.

Bank of America, like many troubled lenders, eagerly took taxpayer money. Unbelievably, it was never required by the government to use the money to issue loans. That’s right, our government was so incompetent (or devious) that it issued hundreds of billions of dollars to lenders with no requirements that they use the money to address the credit needs of the employees and businesses that were fueling the recession. Bank of America, like most banks taking the handout, seems more concerned with its own profitability and solvency than in lending money.

As this situation proves, lack of money can triumph over rule of law. If a company has no money to live up to its requirements under law, apparently it feels it can walk away from them. That seems to be the case with Republic Windows, although it is a fair question to ask how they could pay severance if they did not have the money to do so.

In today’s America, labor is simply not valued. It has been this way for decades, but the problem now has becomes more obvious with our major economic downturn. Good, decent and hardworking Americans get to take it on the chin with nary a thought for their financial plight. Rather, employees are routinely treated like a drunk tossed out on the street. One day management smiles at you and then next you are as valuable as used toilet paper. However, because they are unionized, workers at Republic Windows could fight back.

The Republic Windows protest may be (I hope) the catalyst for real labor reform. Our new president is sympathetic to unions. In addition, it appears that a larger Democratic congress will enable passage of the Employee Free Choice Act into law. This urgently needed law will go a long way to leveling the playing field, that has given management the upper hand in labor negotiations.

In the long term, expanded workers’ rights are probably in business’s interest too. We cannot sustain the economy forever with an American middle class that continually shrinks and loses income every year. Generally, workers are more productive when they feel vested in their jobs. Employees who have to continually worry they can be thrown out on the street at any moment are likely to be skittish and disloyal to those they work for.

In any event, it is nice for a change to see workers stand up aggressively for their rights and get some results, even if it still means they lose their jobs. At least they should get the severance lawfully due them. Our nation is a country of laws. This case demonstrates that it is important that the law should be not just respected but also actually followed. I hope workers everywhere are watching and learning. Workers deserve a fair deal again. We deserve better treatment than the shabby way we are often treated by employers today. What happened in Chicago is Dickensian. We are human beings, not rubbish to be discarded the moment it becomes convenient for an employer.

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