Meet the takers: They took over their factory, they took on their bosses, they took the initiative to form a worker cooperative and today they’re taking the wraps off a brand-new worker-owned company: New Era Windows. It opened May 9 in Chicago.
The workers in this story are members of the same workforce who, when they received word that their plant was about to be closed with no notice at what was then the Republic Windows and Doors factory in 2008, occupied their plant and became a cause célèbre in a grim winter of mass layoffs. When they were laid off again in early 2012, by a second owner, they decided, as Apple would say, to “think different.” With encouragement from their union, the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE), and The Working World, a progressive investment group that helps co-operative start-ups internationally, they formed a company, “New Era LLC.” New Era is 100 percent owned by workers and now, at last, open for business.
“We decided to make a co-op because we were tired of our life being in someone else’s hands,” window maker Melvin “Ricky” Macklin told GRITtv the day before the opening.
“When [Republic] closed we felt like it was the end of our lives…but we realized, we’re not nobody,” added co-worker/owner Armando Robles, president of the union local, UE 1110.
It hasn’t been easy. Last year the New Era team had to fight for several months even to be allowed to bid on the factory. After that came contract negotiations and a move to a cheaper new location. To save on expensive moving costs, workers shifted the equipment from their old plant, themselves, in eighty tractor trailer loads.
“There have been times that we weren’t sure that we were going to be able to get New Era off the ground,” recalled Macklin. “You need investors. Well, we didn’t have a lot of people knocking on the door to give us money.”
That’s where The Working World stepped in.
“We have to remember, it still has a long way to go,” says The Working World’s Brendan Martin. But the only way the company has been able to get launched in less than a year, he says, is because of the potential unleashed in the process of launching a cooperative. “If this were looked at by normal investment institutions, they’d have assumed it would cost $2-5 million to open a business like this. It’s been less than a million and the only reason for that is because that other $2-3 million of value has been brought by the workers.”
A day before the opening, workers were putting the final touches on the plant, showing the fire inspector around and thinking about the work ahead of them. With just twenty worker-owners currently employed, the factory space looks large. Will they get enough orders to fill it? They are confident (and they passed the fire code inspection).
The former owner of Republic Windows and Doors didn’t go bankrupt. He’s still operating a factory in town. New Era is small by comparison. As Martin put it, “They don’t have all the inside connections; they don’t have all the backroom buddies.”
On the other hand, they don’t need a massive profit margin to be viable, and they live in a community that needs good, modern windows.
“Now more than ever they need support,” says Martin. Among other clients, they’re hoping that housing cooperatives and other cooperative businesses will choose to buy their windows from New Era in solidarity. “It’s not just about financial support, but it is about customers,” he says.
Becoming owners brings with it new responsibilities and work. GRITtv asked the workers if they’re nervous:
“In opening up this plant we have learned we are so much more than what we thought we were,” Macklin said. “In opening up this plant we’ve done our own electrical work, we’ve done the plumbing work. And all we thought was we were just window makers.”
You can read more about the journey to New Era here, here and here and watch GRITtv’s 2009 discussion of worker takeovers with Naomi Klein, Avi Lewis and UE organizer Leah Fried here. For more information on New Era, go to newerawindows.com.
Why did fast food and retail workers strike yesterday in St. Louis? Read Annie Shields’s report.