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Workers protest layoffs

EAST PROVIDENCE - Nearly 150 people gathered outside the Colibri Group's former East Providence manufacturing plant Tuesday, shouting, "Yes, we can!"

For these Rhode Islanders, the popular refrain had a different meaning than it did for the supporters of President Barack Obama - many in the protesting crowd were workers left unemployed by the factory's sudden closure.

Colibri - a nationally known jewelry-making firm based in Providence for 80 years - unexpectedly shut its doors on Jan. 20, leaving around 280 workers without a job, according to a Jan. 21 Providence Journal article. While some staff were notified of the closure, many Colibri employees came to work only to find the plant's doors locked.

Workers' rights group Fuerza Laboral, which organized the demonstration, and the former Colibri employees claim that the company violated the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Act, which requires that any factory with more than 100 workers give at least 60 days notice before closing. Additionally, the employee health coverage provided by Colibri ended shortly after the closure, leaving many workers abruptly uninsured, said Donna Walker, an employee who had been with the company for 21 years.

Fuerza Laboral representatives said the company owes its workers 60 days of wages, health care coverage and severance pay.

Reverend Duane Clinker of the Open Table of Christ United Methodist Church began Tuesday's rally, conducted in both English and Spanish, by telling workers that in a time of economic uncertainty, "Rhode Island is looking to you" to seek justice.

Clinker said though Colibri is now bankrupt and incapable of paying its workers, the company's Manhattan-based owner - Founders Equity Inc. - should be responsible for providing their benefits as required by the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Act. Colibri owes HSBC and Sovereign Banks about $14 million each, according to the Journal article.

A call to a number listed on Colibri's Web site Wednesday afternoon was not immediately returned.

"With ownership comes responsibility," Greg Pehrson, director of Fuerza Laboral, told the crowd. "(Founders Equity) must follow labor law."

Some laid-off workers also shared their experiences.

"I used to be able to hold my head high (because I was a Colibri employee). ... Now I'm ashamed to say I worked for Colibri, because this is not right," said Iris Medina, who spoke in Spanish but was accompanied by a translator.

"No somos basura," she said - we are not trash.

"You don't have to be ashamed. They should be ashamed," Rhode Island AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer George Nee later told Medina.

Thanking the workers for being "willing to fight so this law means something," Nee said that if they won, their victory would "send a message to the rest of the country."

Many people at the demonstration said they believed that a new administration in Washington and a new political climate would help their cause.

State Senator Juan Pichardo, D-Dist 2, said progressive Democrats and the State House's minority caucus would support the workers. Pichardo pledged to write a letter to his colleagues about the plight of the Colibri workers and to "CC the President."

Pehrson ended the meeting by reciting a Fuerza Laboral mantra - "the laws are the floor, not the sky." The audience cheered and shook empty Coca-Cola bottles filled with dried nuts.

Though the protest gave the workers hope, it didn't dispel their frustration altogether. "Why do we have to fight for something that's the law? Why do we have to beg for it?" Walker said.


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