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How Obama Can Leverage the Chicago Factory Sit-In to Help American Workers

Grassroots activism helped Obama win the presidency. It could also help him fix the economy.

Since Friday, 240 members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), a small but feisty union that has always been in the progressive wing of the labor movement, have displayed uncommon courage. They have illegally occupied their Chicago factory after their employer abruptly told them that it was shutting down the plant.

Equally impressive, President-elect Barack Obama, by quickly endorsing the workers' protest, showed the kind of bold leadership that progressives have been hoping for, but didn't expect to see so soon. Indeed, Obama's statement puts him ahead of Franklin Roosevelt, who didn't embrace worried workers' escalating demands until after his inauguration in March 1933, when a quarter of the workforce was unemployed.

The workers began their sit-in on Friday, after their employer, Republic Windows and Doors, closed the factory with only three days notice. The company management told the workers and their union, UE Local 1110, that the Bank of America had canceled Republic's line of credit, making it impossible to stay in business -- or even pay employees the severance and vacation pay they'd earned. The company immediately terminated the workers' health insurance.

The BofA said that the cancellation was routine business practice, caused by Republic's cash flow problem in the wake of declining sales in the nation's housing construction downturn.

"When a company faces such a dire situation, its lender is not empowered to direct the company's management how to manage its affairs and what obligations should be paid," declared the North Carolina-based BofA in a statement. "Such decisions belong to the management and owners of the company."

The BofA's antiseptic statement reflected the kind of cold-blooded market fundamentalism that has led a growing number of Americans to demand more government regulation of big business.

But the Republic workers didn't wait for government action. They refused to walk away from their jobs quietly or to accept the argument that the lay-offs were an inevitable result of the nation's economic hard times. They peacefully took over the plant, where some of them had worked for decades, and demanded that the Bank of America and Republic management find a solution. The workers insist that they won't leave until getting assurances they will receive severance and vacation pay, but they also hope to find a way to keep the plant open.

Although by occupying the factory they are breaking the law, no politician has called for the Chicago Police Department to arrest them -- a sure sign that their action has become a symbol of working families' distress in the unraveling Bush economy. Millions of Americans, watching interviews with the workers on TV during the past few days, can identify with their plight - the loss of their jobs, their health insurance and perhaps their homes - only a few weeks before Christmas.

The sit-in began the same day that President Bush reluctantly acknowledged, for the first time, that the country was in a recession. He released a Department of Labor report revealing that U.S. employers axed 533,000 jobs in November, the biggest monthly cut since 1974. As a result, the official unemployment rate has jumped to 6.7 percent. Now in its twelfth month, the recession is already the longest since a 16-month slump in 1981-82. Some economists predict that this downturn will set a new post-World War 2 record.

"When it comes to the situation here in Chicago with the workers who are asking for their benefits and payments they have earned," Obama said during a press briefing on Sunday, " I think they are absolutely right. What's happening to them is reflective of what's happening across this economy."