Union in Republic Windows protest files labor charges against company

The union representing laid-off Republic Windows filed charges today against their former employer, alleging that the company violated labor law by failing to negotiate with workers in good faith. 

The workers are seeking to have Republic machinery moved to a factory in Iowa returned to the Chicago plant.

"We want to try to get the plant reopened," says Ron Bender, who worked at Republic for 14 years. "If a new owner wants to come in, he needs that equipment to open up the plant."

The United Electrical Workers union submitted the charges to the National Labor Relations Board's Chicago office this morning. Laurie Burgess, attorney for the union, says the company's owner, Richard Gillman, was dishonest in his talks with his employees and the union before the plant closed on Dec. 6.

"Instead of closing up shop due to economic hardship, which is what the company told the employees and the union it was doing, Republic changed its name, shut down operations, took the machinery, the clients and the jobs to Iowa," says Burgess.

Company representatives could not be reached for comment this afternoon.

According to papers provided by the union, the charges filed against Republic include shutting down operations without negotiating on the impact of the decision, creating a new corporate identity to avoid bargaining obligations, refusing to comply with request for information from the union, and purposefully bargaining in bad faith to avoid union contracts.

Burgess says Gillman plans to pay his workers in Iowa between $8 and 9 a hour, compared with the average of $14 an hour that Chicago workers made.

Workers first began to suspect something was wrong at Republic when machinery started disappearing in the middle of the night in early December. They learned they would be losing their jobs three days before the plant closed.

Republic blamed the closure on Bank of America, saying the bank refused to extend a desperately needed line of credit.

Workers staged a six-day sit-in at the plant, attracting support from local and national political leaders. Bank of America eventually provided the company money for employee severance and vacation pay. About 300 workers each received about $6,000.

Mark Meinster, international representative for the United Electrical Workers, which represents the workers, says Gillman was just trying to get out of his union contracts.

"If there's the means to open another plant in Iowa, there ought to be the means to operate here in Chicago," says Meinster.

Meinster says Gillman removed about 20 percent of the machinery from the plant to his new factory in Iowa.

Union leaders and attorneys say the National Labor Relations Board has sided with workers in similar situations in the past.

Kerr Glass, a Chicago-based maker of glass jars, moved half its machinery to Tennesee. A 1994 settlement between the board, the union and the company kept the company from moving the rest of the equipment, although the company did not have to return the equipment they've already moved, according to Carl Rosen, president of the UE Western Region.

Meinster says the union expects the charges to be processed within a matter of weeks, and hope that the incoming Obama administration will encourage tougher enforcement of labor law.

But local labor experts say claims with the NLRB can take months or even years to complete, and that the organziation has not been sympathetic to the concerns of workers in the recent years.

"In the last eight years of Bush, the labor board has been unbelievably not neutral," says Emily Rosenberg, director of DePaul's Labor Education Center. "It's been a bloodbath for labor."

But Rosenberg says if anyone will be successful, she would count on Republic's workers and the United Electrical Workers union to get their charges addressed.

"They use whatever practical tools they have in their arsenal," says Rosenberg. "They won the battle, and they'll try to do it again."

Union leaders say they're optimistic about finding a new owner to purchase the plant and reopen it.

"There are several people interested, but no offers to purchase the company have been made yet," says Leah Fried, organizer with UE. "We're hopeful that we'll find someone."

~ Staff Writer Claire Bushey contributed to this report

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