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Illinois governor turns up the heat

He is trying to pressure a bank into helping laid-off workers staging a sit-in.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich stands with workers on the fourth day of a sit-in at Republic Windows & Doors Inc., of Chicago.
Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich stands with workers on the fourth day of a sit-in at Republic Windows & Doors Inc., of Chicago.Read moreM. SPENCER GREEN / Associated Press

CHICAGO - Gov. Rod Blagojevich yesterday ordered all state agencies in Illinois to stop doing business with Bank of America Corp. to try to pressure the bank into helping laid-off workers staging a sit-in at their shuttered factory.

The governor wants the bank to use some of its federal bailout money to keep Republic Windows & Doors Inc. open, resolving the protest by about 200 company workers.

The sit-in began Friday and has fast become a symbol of the sour economy's impact on labor. The workers have promised to remain inside the plant in shifts until they get assurances they will receive severance and vacation pay.

"We hope that this kind of leverage and pressure will encourage Bank of America to do the right thing for this business," Blagojevich said yesterday from outside the Chicago plant. "Take some of that federal tax money that they've received and invest it by providing the necessary credit to this company so these workers can keep their jobs."

Republic has not made a move to evict the workers since they began the sit-in Friday, the day they lost their jobs with just a few days' notice.

Their plight has drawn support from President-elect Barack Obama, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and others.

"We're going strong," Leah Fried, an organizer for the United Electrical Workers union, said yesterday.

Fried said Republic officials told the union that Bank of America canceled its financing. Bank of America said it was not responsible for Republic's financial obligations to its employees.

The company did not return calls for comment, but issued a timeline of its discussions with Bank of America.

Republic said it presented a plan for an "orderly wind down" to Bank of America in October, including its intention to end manufacturing in January 2009.

On Nov. 25, Republic said it requested "permission" from Bank of America to issue vacation pay to its employees, but said the next day the bank "rejected" that request.

In a statement, Bank of America said it had "worked with the company and shared our concerns about the company's situation and its operations for the past several months." But the bank said it agreed that Republic should try to honor its obligation to employees.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) said from the shuttered plant that he would talk to fellow senators about reminding banks that taxpayer dollars are not for dividends or executive salaries.

"We have been sending billions of dollars to banks like Bank of America, and the reason we have sent them the money is to tell them that they had to loan this money out to companies just like Republic so that we can keep these companies in business and not lose these jobs here in the United States," he said.

The governor, meanwhile, said the state planned to pursue a court injunction today to make sure federal law is followed in giving workers benefits. State Attorney General Lisa Madigan said she was investigating the circumstances surrounding the closure.

The laid-off workers are occupying the plant around-the-clock in eight-hour shifts, Fried said. About 60 were inside yesterday.

Obama said Sunday that the company should honor its commitments to the laid-off employees.

"The workers who are asking for the benefits and payments that they have earned, I think they're absolutely right and understand that what's happening to them is reflective of what's happening across this economy," Obama said.

One of the workers, Silvia Mazon, said in Spanish that she needed the money owed to her for an $1,800 monthly house payment. The 40-year-old Cicero resident said she had enough money saved to survive for one month.

"We're making history," she said.