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Chicago Factory Occupiers Form Worker Cooperative

Supporters for Republic Windows and Doors workers in 2008. (Photo: Andrew Ciscel / Flickr)

First, they occupied the factory to get their wages from the bosses that owned the machinery. Then, they occupied their factory to keep the second bosses from shutting down their machinery. And, now, they are on their way to owning and running the machinery.

The group of workers who occupied their Chicago factory in 2008 and again in 2012 incorporated a worker-run cooperative on May 30, 2012. The factory window makers will take over was formerly owned by Republic Windows and Doors and then Serious Energy, and will now be run by New Era Windows, LLC.

Their battle to win wages and back pay from Republic Windows and Doors by occupying the factory is often mentioned in the same breath as the occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union bill as a flash point of progressive struggle since the recession took hold.

Armando Robles, president of the United Electrical Workers Local 1110, said that the school of struggle the workers went through with both factory occupations helped them win the confidence to take over their factory.

“We learned how to fight against the bosses and now to negotiate contracts with the owners of Republic and Serious Energy, how to negotiate in contract negotiations and how to make escalating actions before going on strike.”

The story began in 2008, when the Republic Windows and Doors Factory shut its doors without paying workers their severance pay or accrued vacation time in “a perfect parable of all that was wrong with the financial crisis.”

“Just a few days after receiving $25 billion in bailout funds from the federal government, Bank of America cut off the company’s credit line, leading Republic’s management to immediately and unceremoniously fire all 250 workers without providing the 60 days’ notice or 60 days’ pay required of them by the federal WARN Act,” reported Salon.

In response, they called for an occupation. The workers spent six days barricaded inside the factory before Bank of America was pressured into agreeing to reopen the company’s line of credit, and the workers were paid their due.

“Here the banks like Bank of America get a bailout, but workers cannot be paid?” asked Leah Fried, an organizer with the union workers, in 2008. “The taxpayers would like to see that bailout go toward saving jobs, not saving C.E.O.’s.”

When Serious Materials (now Serious Energy) bought they company, it promised to hire all of the fired workers. But in February 2012, it also fell victim to a continuing economic downturn, and announced it would be closing immediately.

In response, the workers occupied again. In the rain and cold, and with the support of Occupy Chicago, they won a temporary reprieve after only 12 hours. Serious Energy promised to sell the business and keep the factory open for 90 more days.

“When we found out nobody is going to buy the company we started this idea [to form a cooperative] and brought it in proactive,” said Robles. “We started having meetings about it.”

The next step for the workers, whose business in now incorporated with the State of Illinois, is to raise the investment money to start the cooperative and buy the machinery from their former employer.

Robles says they are working on getting the money together – about $2 million to purchase the machinery – and have already started building the structure of the cooperative: “we already have a steering committee, we have two treasurers. We will keep doing forward.”

They expect to start producing windows in two or three months, said Robles, and running their unionized cooperative.

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