February 3, 2009

Revolt on Goose Island: The congressman


In today’s installment of her ongoing Melville House “Live Book” project, Kari Lydersen talks to one of the key players in the story of the Repbulic Windows & Doors take-over story: Congressman Luis Gutierrez ….

Chicago, 3 February 2009 — Congressman Luis Gutierrez and UE western region president Carl Rosen had been friends and fellow activists since the days of Harold Washington, Chicago’s legendary first African American mayor, whose 1983 election not only broke racial barriers but also was a historical upset of Chicago’s Democratic Machine. Since then Gutierrez’s and Rosen’s paths have crossed often in movements for immigrants rights and other causes. So when the Republic Windows workers were told the evening of Tuesday Dec. 2 that the factory was about to close, Gutierrez was one of the first elected officials to find out.

He was familiar with the factory – workers who live in his mostly Latino district had shown up at his office years before seeking help in decertifying their former union, the notorious Central States Joint Board. (Gutierrez remembers it as an unusual situation, as he is usually called on to support rather than boot unions). Republic Windows is not in Gutierrez’s district, but a number of the workers live in Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Pilsen or other heavily immigrant neighborhoods he represents.

In Gutierrez’s telling, he spent Wednesday strategizing and researching with Rosen. As the workers were planning their occupation, Gutierrez and Rosen were trying to determine what laws might have been broken and what political pressure points might be probed. They got a crash course on the WARN Act. Gutierrez called a Friday afternoon meeting between union reps, Bank of America officials and factory owner Richard Gillman. But Gillman was a no-show. After the meeting, the Congressman headed over to the factory, where the story was gaining steam and a clutch of reporters and public supporters were clustered in the small chilly lobby. “I wanted to see first-hand what this ‘taking’ was actually about,” Gutierrez said, making quote marks with his hands, on a recent afternoon in his elegant condo in a rehabbed industrial building in a still-gritty northwest side neighborhood.

That Friday evening, a reporter asked him whether the workers’ sit-in was illegal. Not in his mind. He shot back that the workers were taking a “lien” on the fruits of their labor. “It takes two things to make that window – parts and labor,” he said. “To the extent the labor hasn’t been paid for, those windows belong to the workers. If a plumber fixes my toilet and I don’t pay him, he can take out a lien. The workers don’t trust the courts, so their lien is their bodies.”

Gutierrez had seen enough similar situations to know the institutions – bankruptcy courts, federal labor laws – that are supposed to guard workers’ interests usually leave them high and dry. The 2004 closing of a 70-year-old Fannie May candy factory which employed many of his constituents was just one recent example showing how workers will get screwed if they don’t take things into their own hands.
“They are protecting what’s owed them, and I see that as perfectly legal.”

From the factory Gutierrez headed over to a fundraiser for then-governor Rod Blagojevich. It was a questionable decision, as just that morning The Chicago Tribune had published a damning story about the FBI searching pharmacies owned by key Blagojevich donors as part of an ongoing federal corruption investigation. Four days later Blagojevich would be arrested. Gutierrez ended up spending hours defending his presence at the Dec. 5 fundraiser, as he was one of the possible candidates for Barack Obama’s former US Senate seat which Blagojevich infamously tried to sell to the highest bidder. Gutierrez says his sole motivation in going to the fundraiser was to corner Blagojevich about Republic Windows – “I knew the governor would be there, and I could get him at street level,” he said. (A week later, Gutierrez withdrew himself from consideration for the Senate seat.)

Over the weekend Gutierrez popped back over to the factory numerous times, watching how the occupation blossomed by Sunday into an international news sensation. He got much media face time, and this combined with his long-standing network of contacts meant that tips and offers of information were pouring in. He felt like a reporter breaking a big story. Though he declined to give names or details, he said various people approached him with documents and anecdotes shedding more light on the situation. One of these documents, he said, was a report from an independent financial consultant present at an October meeting where Bank of America representatives and Gillman discussed options for liquidating the company. Several possible liquidation scenarios were proposed, Gutierrez said, and one of the items on the agenda was whether or how to comply with the WARN Act.

This revelation angered the congressman. He recognized that Bank of America did not have legal authority or duty to make sure Gillman complied with the WARN Act, but he was irked by the fact that the bank was aware of the impending liquidation and the WARN Act and didn’t somehow push Gillman to comply. At that point, Gutierrez noted, WARN compliance would have been as simple as notifying the workers that the factory was closing, so they would have 60 days to find another job. The Act doesn’t explicitly mandate severance pay; only 60 days notice or severance pay if that notice is not given.

(This account of the October meeting jibes somewhat with a statement put out by Gillman, who has not responded to interview requests, indicating that in October bank officials shot down the idea of beginning the process of WARN Act compliance. However Gillman implied the bank had full authority over such a decision, which is a misrepresentation. Bank of America officials have not yet responded to questions about any October meeting.)

The fact that Bank of America had just received $25 billion in TARP bailout funds was significant to Gutierrez.

“While not sanctioned in law, certainly from a public opinion standpoint and a corporate citizen point of view Bank of America had not fulfilled its responsibility to the workers,” said Gutierrez. “And then with the bailout, those workers and all Americans became shareholders in Bank of America. While I understand they didn’t have a legal responsibility, the issue of the WARN Act was raised and they didn’t do anything about it. If you are taking the public’s money you should do a better job.”

Gutierrez is a member of the House Financial Services Committee in Congress, and he had no qualms about throwing this weight around. He called committee chair Barney Frank (D-Mass.) early on asking  for advice and staff resources, and he said he threatened to subpoena various witnesses and documents regarding that October meeting and other financial dealings if bank officials did not cooperate. Meanwhile he felt like a few of the most vocal Republic Windows workers seemed suspicious of him and viewed him as a friend of the banks. This was perhaps a logical perception given how the organization Open Secrets describes the Financial Services committee: “This committee, formerly known as the Banking Committee, has long been considered a ‘big money’ panel, with jurisdiction over commercial banks and savings and loans that traditionally have been very generous with their campaign contributions to committee members.” (Read more here http://www.opensecrets.org/cmteprofiles/overview.php?cmte=HFIN&cmteid=H05&cycle=2008)
But it was an insult to someone who takes pride in his working class heritage and connections. Gutierrez was determined to prove where his loyalties stood. “My father drove a cab, my mother worked in a factory, these workers could be my parents,” he said.

Gutierrez was scheduled to leave for his family holiday trip to Puerto Rico, but he knew he had to stay in icy Chicago until the struggle was over. (“My first thought when I got the call was, ‘Why can’t we ever have problems in the spring and summer!’” he said.) And there was a more important force making Gutierrez feel a sense of urgency. Over two decades in office he had seen many times how fickle the media can be, and he knew journalistic and public attention were crucial to their campaign. They had to push for a resolution while the iron was hot.

Another meeting was called for Monday evening, Dec. 8, at Bank of America’s headquarters. In advance Gutierrez huddled with two city councilman, Billy Ocasio and Ric Munoz, in Ocasio’s office. Both councilmen are also known as defenders of immigrants rights and as relative political independents, though they and Gutierrez have made peace with the Democratic Machine since the heady days of Harold Washington when more radical political change seemed possible. Ocasio represents the largely Puerto Rican Humboldt Park neighborhood, Munoz the mostly Mexican immigrant neighborhood of Little Village.

When the three got over to Bank of America – across the street from Obama’s then-transition headquarters – Gutierrez was annoyed to see more people than he’d expected: representatives from the city treasurer’s office, the chamber of commerce and other agencies and interest groups. He felt like Bank of America had invited these guests to “dilute the chances of success for the workers” and make bold action more difficult. Too many cooks, he called it. “It’s human nature that you have a harder time reaching consensus the more people there are in the room,” he said. “I said, ‘Don’t anybody leave, but your presence here is suspect until I see your actions.’ The meeting didn’t start out real well.”

There was no resolution that night, though things seemed to be moving along despite the rocky start. Gutierrez stopped by the factory to promise the workers – and a crowd of TV cameras – that a proposal was in the works. Meanwhile as the sun set Monday evening and a frigid slushy rain began to fall, a semi truck pulled up outside the factory and disgorged bags of food, an effort Gutierrez coordinated. The Rev. Jesse Jackson had visited Sunday and donated turkeys, a logical choice given the holiday season, but the congressman had other ideas. “You need something you can freeze, turkeys are too big,” he noted. “And these are mostly Latinos, they don’t eat a lot of turkeys. I got together chicken, rice, beans, tortillas, tomatoes, onions, the things in my refrigerator.”

As fires blazed out of several trash drums, workers and supporters formed a line to throw the bags of food hand to hand from the semi up the sidewalk through the crowd into the factory, a lively exercise accompanied by much chanting and cheering.

Tuesday as the workers continued their occupation, the negotiators gathered again around a large table in a Bank of America conference room: the elected officials and government agency reps, Bank of America staff, the union members, Gillman and a slew of lawyers. The talks were freewheeling and by turns conciliatory and contentious. By the evening, Bank of America was asking Gillman to present an invoice for paying the workers what they were due. He laid out a figure which included not only their WARN-mandated pay and accrued vacation pay, but also his own wages and tens of thousands of dollars for leases on several luxury cars –including a Mercedes and Range Rover, as Gutierrez remembers it.

“We got a little hostile,” said Gutierrez, grinning at his understatement. “When you have 200 workers in there waiting to be paid…it takes a lot of gall to do something like that.”

The riled-up negotiators took a time-out, and when they reconvened Gillman reportedly had withdrawn the request for his own compensation and agreed to kick in about $100,000 to meet that week’s payroll. Things were moving forward. A press release was issued touting Bank of America’s offer of a loan: a premature misfire since the workers hadn’t yet been notified of the deal, and though they had probably no legal power in the proceedings, the union was adamant about giving them a collective voice.

Meanwhile by this time JPMorgan Chase’s 40 percent equity in the company had come to light. Gutierrez said he got an unsolicited call from Bill Daley, JPMorgan Chase’s director of social responsibility, offering to come to the table. (The attorney general’s office indicated calls from both their office and Gutierrez summoned Chase to the negotiations).

Daley is also the brother of Mayor Richard M. Daley, a former nemesis turned ally of Gutierrez’s. Bill Daley was a special counsel on trade issues and later Commerce Secretary under President Clinton and a member of Obama’s transition team – just one more high-profile and powerful supporting actor in the factory occupation drama.

As Tuesday’s meeting dragged on, a final proposal was put together combining a $1.3 million loan from Bank of America and $400,000 from Chase. Gutierrez notes that though technically a loan, at the time the banks had virtually no hope of actually being repaid. “I’ve never seen a bank lend $1.3 million when they know they won’t get it back,” he said. “And JP Morgan Chase gave the $400,000 knowing they’d be second in line to Bank of America as creditors, meaning they would never see the money. But we got them to lend it. It was uncharted territory, it was a wonderful thing.”

Finally the offer was brought to the full Republic Windows workforce at the factory. Gutierrez waited outside as the union leaders shared the offer with the other workers and deliberated how to respond. It didn’t take them long to decide to accept, and soon the verdict was announced to the press and throngs of supporters. In a back room of the factory hidden from the press, top bank executives and workers and their families celebrated together, the past week’s hard feelings and antagonistic statements put aside.  It was Dec. 10, Gutierrez’s 56th birthday, and the celebration doubled as a party for him. There were at least three birthday cakes and multiple cards signed by the workers, he remembers. He took a chocolate cake home and left the other confections for the happy crowd to devour. Even after decades in activism and politics, Gutierrez felt giddy as he made his way to his oldest daughter’s house, balancing the cake precariously as he trod over ice-encrusted sidewalks. The next morning he booked tickets for his delayed holiday trip to Puerto Rico. At the airport, it seemed everyone had heard about the Republic Windows victory. “From the security screeners to the flight attendants and the captain, even all these businessmen – white Anglo Saxons in suits – everyone was happy for the workers,” he said.

Puerto Rico seemed a world apart, 50 degrees warmer and lush. But even there people were elated about the workers’ victory. There are close ties between the island and Chicago, and many Puerto Ricans had followed the struggle on WGN or Spanish language TV stations.

Gutierrez remembers that as the workers considered whether to accept the banks’ offer, their questions and concerns were not typical of the reactions he had observed during countless labor negotiations and strikes over the years. “They were saying things like, ‘Companero, when we reopen it we’ll have our own shares, right?’ It was all about their relationship to the plant, to the means of production. They were asking when they would start negotiations for reopening the plant.”

Over so many struggles and strikes Gutierrez has also seen how so much passion and dedication can fade out of the public consciousness so quickly. But that has not been the case with Republic Windows. Just last week Gutierrez was in a fancy downtown Spanish (not Mexican, he stresses, two very different things) restaurant when a well-dressed patron came up and congratulated him on the Republic Windows victory – just a small example of the lasting and ongoing impression the story made on people one wouldn’t immediately expect to sympathize with blue collar workers.

“I know things like this don’t tend to have legs,” Gutierrez said, after fielding a call from CNN doing a follow-up on the factory occupation — two months to the day from the closing announcement. “But here you had the economy in crisis, the big banks taking our money, and it was Christmas and the workers were out in the cold on the street. Workers are pissed off about the way they’re being treated, about the arrogance of corporate America as they are getting hundreds of billions of our dollars. This didn’t happen in a vacuum. This was a story demanding a happy ending — people need the underdog to win every now and then. It was a Chicago Christmas Carol.”