Victorious Chicago union on tour to rally for labor law

DETROIT Mon Mar 2, 2009 12:45pm EST

Employees of Republic Windows and Doors picket outside the company's warehouse in Chicago, Illinois December 8, 2008. REUTERS/Frank Polich

Employees of Republic Windows and Doors picket outside the company's warehouse in Chicago, Illinois December 8, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Frank Polich

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DETROIT (Reuters) - A December sit-in at a closed factory in Chicago made national headlines for the workers at Republic Windows & Doors when they won severance and health care from the shuttered company's lenders.

Among those speaking in support of their cause was the new U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, a former Chicago community organizer. Now the workers have taken to the road to rouse other blue-collar workers to organize for a bigger battle.

As U.S. unions and business groups gear up for an epic fight over the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), unions claim the refusal of the Republic workers to back down can inspire the best chance in decades of winning more rights for other workers.

The EFCA -- which would allow workers to form unions by simply signing a card rather than having a secret vote -- was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in March 2007. But Republican opposition prevented it from coming up for a vote in the U.S. Senate.

The law -- sponsored by many lawmakers, including Obama -- is anathema to corporate America. It will face a stiff filibuster test in the U.S. Senate, where Democrats need at least 60 votes to bring it to Obama's desk for signing.

That's the barrier Republic workers are attacking.

"The workers at Republic Windows stood up by sitting down and demanding justice," Bob Kingsley, director of organization at the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), said at a recent rally in a packed union hall in Detroit -- and got a standing ovation.

More than 400 people -- white, black, Hispanic -- showed up to hear Kingsley, whose union members worked at Republic Windows. Detroit was one of 15 cities Kingsley has visited as part of a tour to exhort workers to organize for rights.

"This is the biggest crowd we've had in years," said Bill Bryce of Jobs with Justice, the event organizer. "The workers at Republic Windows have been a real inspiration for people."

Despite a carnival atmosphere -- a band played Latin jazz tunes from the musical "Forgotten" by Steve Jones, including "When You Organize" -- the serious business of the event was promoting the EFCA.

"Current legislation gives employers ample room to threaten, fire, or intimidate American workers who want to form a union," Saundra Williams, president of the local AFL-CIO union umbrella group, said as the audience booed. "We want to give employees the opportunity to make a choice."

'OBAMA HAS GIVEN US HOPE'

In early December, incensed by what they called resentment of the Bush administration's bailout of Wall Street banks and brokers, about 200 union workers occupied the closed Republic Windows plant in Chicago, demanding severance pay and two months of health coverage.

After five days, Bank of America Corp and JPMorgan Chase & Co, both creditors of Republic, provided a loan to cover those costs.

"It's good to finally see someone out there fighting for their rights," said Steve Waskul, a truck driver at automaker Chrysler LLC, which is controlled by private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management LP.

Waskul, standing at the back of the room watching a film presentation of the sit-in at Republic Windows, added: "All of our unions have been under siege for the past 30 years."

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership rose in 2008 for a second consecutive year to 12.4 percent of employed wage and salary workers, from 12.1 percent in 2007. But these gains come after decades of decline.

At their peak of power and influence in the mid-1950s, the unions represented about 26 percent of the U.S. labor force.

Many workers benchmark the long union decline to then- President Ronald Reagan's firing of 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981, an act of "union busting" they said set the tone for decades to come.

At the Detroit event, unionizers contrasted Reagan with Obama, who spoke out in favor of the Republic workers receiving the benefits to which their company had committed during a Chicago press conference one month after his November 4 election.

"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.

Allen Cholger of the United Steelworkers union in Michigan said Obama's words of support have been a "real shot in the arm for a movement that has been wounded for nearly 30 years."

"We hope to harness the energy of this success and show people what they can do if they organize," he added.

Standing at the back of the hall decked out in a colorful Teamsters union jacket, Shawn Ellis said a Democratic Congress and Obama's election boded well for EFCA finally becoming law.

"People are saying enough is enough and it's time to take a stand after decades of decline," Ellis said.

(Editing by Peter Bohan and Maureen Bavdek)

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