by Laura Flanders, Yes! magazine: http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/how-cooperatives-are-driving-the-new-economy/chicago-factory-workers
Laura Flanders wrote this article for How Cooperatives Are Driving the New Economy,
the Spring 2013 issue of YES! Magazine.
Laura is a former host of Air
America, and founder and host of GRITtv.
She is the author of Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species, and Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians.
She writes regularly for The Nation and the Guardian and appears as a regular guest on MSNBC.
Four years ago, as the recession took hold and layoffs around the
country were approaching 500,000 a month, a group of workers in Chicago
saved a factory and inspired a nation.
Fired by their boss, they
occupied instead of leaving. Fired by a second boss, they occupied and
formed a worker’s cooperative. Now they are worker-owners of a load of
equipment and they’re setting up a factory in a new location.
All they want to do is to get back to making and selling windows. It
shouldn’t be this hard to keep good jobs in Chicago, but “A cooperative
can be a way of surviving, of moving forward,” says Armando Robles, one
of the workers.
Robles was one of 250 workers fired in December 2008 without notice
or severance by Republic Windows and Doors when the company announced it
was closing its Chicago factory. The company said that it could no
longer operate because it had lost its line of credit with Bank of
The irony of the situation was clear. Bank of America had
received billions in government bailouts to keep the economy working,
and yet the Republic workers were being laid off without their entitled
payments and benefits.
Supported by their union, the United Electrical,
Radio and Machine Workers of America, Robles and his fellow workers
voted to resist. They occupied the plant for six days, winning back pay,
severance, and time for a new company to take ownership.
thousands of articles and news reports about their fight, they
encouraged a downcast nation, even an incoming U.S. president.
At a press conference during the factory occupation, then
President-elect Barack Obama declared: “When it comes to the situation
here in Chicago, with the workers who are asking for their benefits and
payments they have earned … I think they are absolutely right.”
The public relations potential, combined with the prospect of
stimulus spending and a green economy boom, spurred Serious Energy of
California to take over the former Republic plant in February 2009.
Among the investors in the new business was Mesirow Financial, a
Chicago-based firm, with close ties to (among others), then White House
Chief of Staff (soon to be Chicago Mayor) Rahm Emanuel.
With $15 million
from Mesirow alone, Serious looked forward to landing substantial
federal and city contracts.
Two years later, those contracts were yet to materialize. The
ballyhooed green economy? Chicago’s grand green retrofitting scheme?
They were nowhere in sight, and city and state spending was essentially
By the end of 2009, only 20 of the Republic workers had been
hired back. In February 2012, Serious announced it, too, was closing the
Chicago factory and selling off the machines.
This time, Robles et al. only needed to occupy for a matter of hours
before management agreed to a deal. Serious agreed to give the workers
the first option to buy the plant’s equipment and 90 days to come up
with a bid.
“Republic walked away from our jobs. Serious walked away from our
jobs, but we are not walking away from our jobs,” said Melvin Macklin,
who had worked at the plant for more than a decade.
In the time between
the first layoff and the second, the workers and their families became
aware of other options.
As it happens, after appearing together with
Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis on GRITtv, Robles and United Electrical field
organizer Leah Fried sat down with The Working World, a nonprofit that
has helped start and maintain worker cooperatives in Argentina and other
parts of Latin America.
With help from The Working World and advice from colleagues in the
co-op movement in the United States and abroad, on May 30, 2012, Robles,
Macklin and 22 colleagues founded New Era Windows, LLC, a worker-run
cooperative incorporated in Illinois to manufacture what they promise
will be “quality, affordable windows.”
Despite the initial agreement, it was not until last August, many
months and some intense struggle later, that Serious finally agreed to
let New Era buy the factory equipment.
The struggle was partly
political - Serious had to be pressured to keep its pledge to the
workers - but it was largely financial. The new worker-owners decided that
they would earn equal wages and have equal votes in decision-making.
They also agreed to each contribute a fee of $1,000 to “buy in.” At 58,
Macklin borrowed some of his buy-in from a nephew, but he says that the
stretch to raise the money was worth it.
“It’s not just about profits,” he says - it’s about sustaining
communities, keeping jobs in places where people need them.
be no big, fat-cat salaries, no CEOs, CFOs and COOs to pay, so our
bottom line will be easier. We already know how to make the best
windows … we don’t know for sure it’ll be successful, but we didn’t
know the occupation would be successful - I thought I was going to jail.
Unless we step out and try, we’ll never know.”
The workers took the leap, but investors have been less inclined to
follow. In spite of preparing a business plan and reaching out to social
impact investors, the co-op has thus far been unable to attract venture
Even with the collateral of the equipment, the workers have
been unable to win any loans. The $500,000 they were able to raise for
the purchase came from a single source, The Working World.
“It’s awesome that they’ve done it - this is as grassroots as it gets,”
says Brendan Martin, founder and director of The Working World. “But to
reverse the rules of capital, you need capital. It’s not enough for
workers to realize they have opportunity; resources also have to come to
“There should be governmental help to keep factories open and allow
the workers to try to keep their jobs,” says Robles. “When there is no
government help, at least there should be social help, community help,
anything. The loss to a community is overwhelming when a whole factory
Why support the co-ops in your community? The benefits might be further-reaching than you think.
President Obama knew as much four years ago, at that Chicago press
conference. The Chicago workers’ experience was reflective of a national
situation, he said.
“When you have a financial system that is
shaky, credit contracts. Businesses large and small start cutting back
on their plants and equipment and their workforces. That’s why it’s so
important for us to maintain a strong financial system".
"But it’s also
important for us to make sure that the plans and programs that we design
aren’t just targeted at maintaining the solvency of banks, but they are
designed to get money out the doors and to help people on Main Street.”
You’d think that helping a minority-run green business in a
high-unemployment community would be a smart way to help those
celebrated “people on Main Street,” but so far, no money has come out of
Absent a rational industrial policy from the government,
and a smart new stimulus package, the New Era experiment is in the hands
of the market.
For almost a year, the workers have hung on, living off
their severance, unemployment, and sweat. Their new factory’s almost set
up; they hope to start selling early this year, and they’re looking for
More information at newerawindows.com