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Working-class hero: UE Local 1110 president

Published Nov 18, 2009 4:55 PM

A highlight of the Workers World Party national conference on Nov. 14 was an address by Armando Robles, president of United Electrical Workers Local 1110. In December 2008, Robles led his members in the historic occupation of Republic Window and Doors in Chicago after the company tried to close shop without providing vacation or severance pay for workers.

Special session with Armando Robles, president United Electrical Local 1110, Republic Windows and Doors, Chicago. Speakers are Jill White, Dante Strobino and Armando Robles.

As he took the stage, Robles was greeted with a prolonged standing ovation and chants of “¡El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido!” (The people united will never be defeated!)

Robles described how workers at Republic Windows and Doors began noticing management loading office equipment into U-Haul trucks late at night in November 2008. Over Thanksgiving weekend Robles came to the plant with his 7-year-old son and followed a truck taking equipment from the plant to another area of Chicago. This was when he learned the company planned to shut down and move to Iowa.

There were other signs. Workers learned the company had only paid for their health insurance through Dec. 15. The company canceled the union contract. On Dec. 5, the workers were told to show up four hours later than their scheduled starting time. But the workers came early. Only three days before they had been told the company was closing, they would be without jobs, and that they would receive no vacation or severance pay—in violation of state laws.

Through the union, the workers had been preparing their response. Before he spoke, Robles showed a new UE video, “¡Hasta la Victoria! Until Victory is ours! –The worker occupation of Republic Windows and Doors,” which gave a short history of this historic working-class struggle that is still unfolding. The video is available at the UE web site ueunion.org.

When the workers realized the company planned to close without paying their vacation and other benefits, they began to discuss plans for occupying the plant, taking into consideration who among them could risk arrests. Many among their ranks were immigrant workers or parents with children to care for.

On Dec. 5, when management gave notices to the workers and told them to leave, the workers said, “No, we’re not leaving!” To make it difficult for management to make them leave they began scattering around the plant.

Once the occupation was under way, the 275 workers organized into rotational teams to tour the plant for security as well as making food for the sit-down strikers. As word of the occupation spread, other workers began bringing food and supplies in an important show of solidarity.

Robles described the important solidarity rallies held by workers in Chicago and around the country outside of Bank of America to draw attention to the role corporate greed played in this conflict.

This mega-bank received $25 billion in federal T.A.R.P. funds, yet refused to extend loans to the owners of Republic Windows and Doors to cover payroll and other expenses. A popular slogan throughout the struggle was, “Bank of America got bailed out, we got sold out!”

After five days of this first factory occupation in the U.S. since the great sit-down strikes of the 1930s, Bank of America offered $1.25 million to cover the benefits owed to the workers. The national attention focused around this struggle also led to a California company, Serious Materials, stepping up to take over operation of the plant.

“They signed a contract with UE that they can’t hire anyone outside of Local 1110 and agreed to the same contract we had before,” Robles told the audience. “This year they received stimulus money and we are now producing more energy-efficient windows, so demand for our product has grown.”

There have been other developments impacting the previous owners. Robles described how ongoing efforts by UE resulted in one owner, Richard Gillman, being thrown into jail with a high bail because “the judge said this man threw 275 workers and 275 families into the streets.” On Oct. 4, the courts filed charges against Gillman for plotting to steal money from the workers and other company’s creditors–a clear case of corporate greed.

UE also found out that the former financial officer of Republic Windows and Doors was working at a hospital in Miami. “He was always very arrogant,” Robles said. “We called a newspaper in Miami and told them who he was. We found out the next day that he was fired.”