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Esther J. Cepeda Headshot

The Immigrant Story That Wasn't: Laid Off Republic Windows Employees Just Regular Working Stiffs

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I am absolutely stunned that the peaceful sit in at the Republic Windows and Doors factory and warehouse has not been stuck in the ghetto of "immigrant story" by our local and national media.

Indeed, most outlets here and nationally have so far ignored the fact that the workers are mostly brown-eyed and brown-skinned. Just months ago the three hundred laid-off workers who were let go without notice -- and without their owed pay -- would have all been ignored, and reviled, because they were, as I so often heard, "just more protesting immigrants."

"Well, they're always protesting something, aren't they?" one oblivious editor once said to me.

Nope, forget about the obvious "illegal" factor and the hook to comprehensive immigration law reform movements, this story is all about just what it is: the little guy standing up for his rights.

"I think this is a group of workers who have a history of pretty militant action," a sleep-deprived Mark Meinster, a United Electrical Workers organizer, told me shortly after negotiations between Bank of America management and Republic company officials closed for the evening Monday on day three of the laid-off workers' sit-in. "When there is a contract negotiation like this, organizers mobilize but it's especially true of immigrant workers and of Latino workers. But this is different and it's a product of the times."

"Two years ago these workers would have considered putting their heads down and gone off to find another job but because of the economic situation gripping the country -- and seeing how things are especially bad [in the Latino community] -- protesting like this now seems like a rational decision," he said.

Since being championed by President-elect Obama, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, and a host of union leaders, the sit-in at the Republic Windows and Doors warehouse has been peaceful on all fronts and quite effective in generating outrage on behalf of blue-collar workers across the country, regardless of the fact that the majority of workers at this particular site are overwhelmingly Hispanic -- and some, at least, might be presumed to be illegal immigrants.

Because Jorge Mujica of the March Tenth movement -- the mastermind behind mobilizing hundreds of thousands Latino marchers on May Day to demand comprehensive immigration reform for the past three years -- wasn't available to talk about this, his most recent mega-victory for low-paid workers, I had to rely on his co-organizer to relay the finer points of this exhibition.

"I think it's every union organizer's dream to pull off a sit-down strike inside a factory," Mark chuckled blearily, "in twelve years I've never gotten this much press and I probably never will again in my life, but this has really struck a chord. We had no idea that it was going to go to this level and generate this kind of support, but it's clear that given the mood of the country, that people want to fight back."

I called Jorge and Mark with morbid curiosity; I figured those from the anti-illegal-immigrant camps would have started dialing in the death threats and that reporters would be falling all over themselves to find out the status of the strikers.

"We've gotten no threats at all and we haven't received any questions around immigration because I don't really think that's the story here," Mark said as he and the 200-or-so workers who were cozying up for another long night at 1333 N. Hickory Ave. "The real story here is workers standing up to fight for their rights in a bad economy."

"This is an issue of jobs, not of status, and it touches at so many people's lives right now," Mark said. "The difference is this is happening to so many people; plant closings are putting people out in the streets everywhere. This group of immigrant workers has decided to do something that has really inspired workers everywhere, regardless of their race or national origin."

I told Mark to take it from someone who knows: news editors like controversy because it sells. "No, I think the media [hasn't pounced on the immigration issue] because it knows these are workers and this is where the country is at today. I think the media understands how folks are feeling right now." Mark said. "People want to do something about the economy and I think that trump some of the nativist sentiment out there."

Indeed, my mailbox has not been populated by messages from any of the vociferous anti-illegal immigration groups calling for counter-protests (though I won't rule it out, yet).

And the comments sections accompanying the web stories about the Illinois Governor suspending business with Bank of America (his email hit state employees' inboxes at 3:43 Monday afternoon) and the close of negotiations for the night, have been surprisingly absent of any anti-immigrant sentiment.

Of course, politics is all about spin and this story has plenty of it. Is it any coincidence that Barack Obama immediately lept to the defense of these workers though many of the same organizers of the sit-in have been gearing up for massive immigration-law reform marches in D.C. the day after his January inauguration? Nah, not coincidence, just smart politics.

Ultimately it doesn't matter how it came to be that Barack Obama, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson rallied to the defense of this particular group of workers, but maybe it happened because this is one case where it's clear that in our struggles we are more alike than we are different.

"It's really amazing that a group of Latino workers -- mostly women -- stood up like this," Mark said. "We're definitely really, really pleased that workers in America -- not just immigrant workers -- are very inspired. And when this is over that's really the part of this story that'll be significant.

"I hope this means that we have turned that corner."

Me, too, Mark. Me too.

Esther J. Cepeda reports on Latino issues on www.600words.com