As President Obama was speechifying about our economic futures this week, workers in one famous Chicago factory were taking a big step towards theirs.
A group of the workers who occupied the Republic Windows and Doors factory in 2008 have founded a worker-run cooperative. They’ve incorporated in the state of Illinois; they’ve made a bid to buy the machinery from their former employer; now all they are waiting for is a serious response from Serious Energy, the company that took over the plant from Republic.
Looking for a way to save good jobs in a tough economy? Go cooperative, say these workers. In 2008, they occupied their plant for six days after Republic closed the plant and tried to scuttle out of state owing the Chicago workers back-pay and benefits. (The occupiers won a $1.75 million settlement from Bank of America and Chase Bank.) After a lackluster couple of years, the subsequent owners, Serious Energy, announced their intent to close the plant this February. Says Melvin Macklin, a glass manufacturer who’s been working at the plant for over a decade:
“Republic walked away from our jobs. Serious walked away from our jobs, but we are not walking away from our jobs.“
On May 30, 2012 Macklin and twenty-two other workers founded New Era Windows, LLC a worker-run cooperative to manufacture what they promise will be “quality, affordable windows.” After a brief occupation earlier this year, Serious agreed to give the workers the first option to buy the plant’s equipment. New Era made the bid last month.
“We’ve opened a bank account, the workers have put in a bid, now what is the company waiting for?” says Leah Fried, field organizer for the United Electrical workers (UE,) which represents the workers.
It’s in this sort of situation that a functioning industrial policy could make all the difference, says Brendan Martin, a former Wall Street trader who founded The Working World to help support worker-run businesses. In tough economic times, keeping a factory in place in a hard-hit community helps the entire local economy. A newly-announced city plan to retrofit Chicago for energy efficiency could offer a green windows company a mountain of useful business. But it’s going to be heavy lifting for the workers to raise enough money to buy even the minimum amount of equipment they’ll need to go into production, let alone the most top-of-line technology.