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Workers fight for unpaid wages

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Saturday, Feb. 14, 2009

When 240 workers refused to leave a Chicago window factory slated for closing in December, their fight for unpaid wages and benefits put a face on plant closings nationwide, labor leaders said Friday.

"They were going to close on us, and we didn't know when or how. We decided we were not going to leave until we got some kind of justice," Ronald Bender, a former union steward told about 80 supporters at the United Steelworkers Building, Downtown.

Bender, 56, represented members of United Electrical Workers Local 1110 who lived inside the shutdown Republic Windows & Doors Co. for six days in a nationally publicized battle to get the company to pay money they were owed. The sight of workers before the holidays, caught in a dispute between the owner and giant Bank of America, highlighted the struggle workers can face during the recession.

Supported by family members who kept them fed, and by police who told the company it would get bad publicity if the workers were dragged out of the plant, they persevered. Political support followed.

"We got the media coverage. Nobody left," Bender said.

Bender, who appeared at Carnegie Mellon University in Oakland yesterday, said if it weren't for the union, the workers would not even have known about a federal law that protects workers rights in plant closings. The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act requires workers get a 60-day notice when a plant closes.

Bender and his fellow window company workers could be back on the job next month because a prospective buyer, Serious Materials Co. of Sunnyvale, Calif., has bid for the closed Republic Windows plant.

John Hovis, president of United Electrical Workers' international union, based in Pittsburgh, said yesterday that the union on Thursday reached a tentative agreement on a new labor contract with Serious Materials, which owns the former Kensington Window plant in Vandergrift.

The pact with Serious Materials, along with its bid for ownership, still must be approved by a bankruptcy court judge in Chicago, said Hovis and Catriona Harris, a Serious Materials spokeswoman. If that occurs, the plant could reopen as early as next month, Hovis said.

Former Aliquippa Hospital workers in Beaver County have a similar problem as the Republic Windows workers: their employer closed without paying back wages and benefits.

In the case of the ex-Aliquippa Hospital workers, they may learn Tuesday whether they will get the back wages and benefits due them.

U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Bernard Markovitz scheduled a hearing in Pittsburgh on a request by Commonwealth Medical Center, parent company of Aliquippa Hospital, to pay those and other debts.

The 250 union and nonunion hospital workers have received $150,000 in back pay, but still are owed another $250,000, said Neal Bisno, president of the Service Employees International Union Healthcare Pennsylvania.

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