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Worker Protest May Be Emulated at Other Firms

February 2, 2009
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In December, at Republic Windows and Doors’ plant in Chicago, management abruptly informed 240 union employees that they were being laid off because the plant was closing in just three days.

The workers’ response was to stage a sit-in at the plant, refusing to budge until they were paid 60 days of severance pay and accrued vacation they say were owed to them.

Coming at a time when ordinary Americans are fearful and increasingly angry about the worsening financial crisis, the Republic sit-in became a cause celebre, with extensive national media coverage and even President-elect Barack Obama showing support.

After six days, workers got what they demanded. Bank of America, which had cut off Republic’s credit line, agreed to lend the company $1.35 million to pay off the workers, and part owner JPMorgan Chase came up with $400,000.

Now, the question is whether their tactics will be imitated by others facing layoffs, and how employers—and their lenders—might respond to such moves.

Fran Tobin, a Chicago-based activist for Jobs With Justice, a national organization that tries to forge alliances between labor unions and community groups, thinks the Republic workers sparked a fire that will spread elsewhere.

“Since their victory, there have been calls from people all over the country asking them to talk,” says Tobin, whose organization is putting together a speaking tour for Republic workers. “That suggests to me that others find this kind of tactic inspiring.”

Sean Safford, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, thinks the strategy worked because the workers were able to link their plight and two institutions that have benefited from the federal bailout. “It was interesting that the workers directed their anger at the bank, not just at the company owners. They were voicing demands about how the federal TARP [Troubled Assets Relief Program] money should be spent.”

Safford sees the sit-in as an unorthodox tactic suited to unprecedented times.

“We’re in a situation where even Alan Greenspan is raising questions about our form of capitalism, where Henry Paulson and Bush and Obama have come in and rewritten the rules where there’s public involvement in the private-sector economy,” he explains. “But what that all means is not yet defined. ... A very basic but ambiguous idea has been put out there—that if our money has been used in the bailout, we should have a voice in how it is used. I do think these tactics may show up elsewhere.”

Thomas Petrides, a partner at law firm K&L Gates, doesn’t think workers elsewhere necessarily will emulate the Republic workers’ success. He thinks many employers—particularly ones that don’t produce or sell consumer products and are less vulnerable to public disapproval—simply would call in police and have the sit-in participants arrested.

“If they’re a business manufacturer, they probably [couldn’t] care less,” he says. “But if it’s a retail store, they may not want to have the media showing people being pulled out by their arms and legs. I think you can look to certain industries being subjected to protests.”

—Patrick J. Kiger

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