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Chicago workers' sit-in sends a message Union steward tells of fight for rights

He stood up to corporate greed -- and won.

Ron Bender, one of 240 workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago who staged a five-day sit-in at the factory after it was closed in December with just three days' notice and, in doing so, became heroes to the labor movement -- came to Buffalo Thursday to share the workers' story. The event was organized by the United Electrical Workers and the Coalition for Economic Justice, the Buffalo wing of Jobs with Justice.

Manny Fried, a longtime Buffalo-based organizer with UE, which represents the Republic workers, introduced Bender to a standing-room-only crowd gathered for the talk in Lafayette Presbyterian Church.

"They touched a nerve," Fried said of the Chicago workers. "People are losing their jobs and threatened to lose their jobs, given two-tiered wages and what have you," Fried said. "They wanted to do something. No one was giving any direction until I read what happened in Chicago. That really touched me. The old UE is back!"

Bender recounted to The Buffalo News how the sit-in started.

Workers at Republic Windows had been suspicious for weeks that the management was getting ready to shut down their plant, Bender said.

"The machinery started to disappear," said Bender, a father and grandfather who had worked at the factory for 14 years.

The workers asked what was going on, and they were told that the machinery was being sold off so that the company could keep a line of credit open.

Next, the company got rid of an entire production line -- and the union began to come up with a strategy in case the company shut down.

Then on Dec. 2, a Tuesday, Republic announced to its workers that Friday would be their last day and that their health insurance had already been canceled. The workers demanded to know whether they'd be getting paid for their accrued, unused vacation pay. They were told they wouldn't.

The union members discussed several plans. There was talk of some workers chaining themselves to some of the machinery. In the end they decided to occupy the plant.

The union also learned that Bank of America was Republic's chief creditor. This news came shortly after Bank of America had received $25 billion from the government in the bank bailout.

When Friday came, Bender said, the workers all showed up and received their paperwork, but then refused to leave the plant.

"We had all got the word from the union: Don't go anywhere," he said. Instead the workers spread out to different parts of the plant, to make it harder for them to be rounded up and forced out.

"We were just all around the plant," he said. "There was a group of us right there in the front of the door, and there were people outside, too, standing around making sure they wouldn't lock the door."

Local media outlets had gathered outside the plant to talk to laid-off workers, but as news spread that the workers were occupying the building, the story soon became a national sensation.

The story resonated with fed-up Americans who were already skeptical about the bank bailout and angry with corporate fat cats.

Even president-elect Barack Obama weighed in, saying the workers were owed their money.

On the fifth day of the sit-in, Bank of America agreed to loan $1.75 million to Republic Windows -- money that has been used to pay the workers eight weeks of severance pay, two months of continued health insurance and pay for all unused vacation days.

Bender told The News that he believes what he and his fellow workers achieved shows other laborers that they are not powerless.

"Unions are important," said Bender, who is a steward for his local. "And they've been down for so long. . . . But this action, I think there will be a resurgence."

He told the crowd at the church that the lesson he learned is to never back down. "You have to fight back," he said.

Abraham Mwaura, a field organizer with UE in Chicago, hoped the Republic workers would inspire more job actions. "You can do it, too," he said. He pointed out that the UE was formed in Buffalo.

"You all got a legacy," he said.


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