From occupation to cooperative: workers fight for their jobs

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CHICAGO - On December 3, 2008, the eyes of the world were riveted on 260 workers occupying the Republic Windows and Doors factory here when it was learned the owners planned to close the plant and move it.

Community and international labor solidarity grew like lightning. The resulting unity won the workers their severance pay and stopped the company from moving operations to Iowa.

In 2012 the workers occupied the plant again, when the new owners closed the operation.

But on May 9, the workers officially opened the New Era Windows Cooperative in an industrial park after purchasing the production equipment and materials.

"This is a tremendous day," beamed Melvin Maclin. "Our fight is far from over. At least we have a base to work from. I'm so excited. We have our own machinery and spot."

The challenge facing the workers is daunting - setting up the business, capturing markets and meeting a payroll to name a few.

The cooperative numbers 17 workers at this point who are working without pay until the operation is financially sustainable. They are collaborating with several organizations that specialize in building worker run cooperatives.

Working World provided the start up loan, which amounted to $650,000 to buy the equipment and the entire stock of raw materials. This is far less than an estimated $5 million it would have cost through a private bank.

The cooperative has begun marketing windows to both the residential and commercial construction industries. The first window produced is named the 1110 series, after their union local, United Electrical, Radio Machine Workers (UE) Local 1110.

"Everything is very democratic," says Maclin. "We operate by one man one vote. We run things just like in our local.

For new workers to join the cooperative they have to buy a $1000 share, serve a year's probation and be voted on by 85% of their co-workers.

"I'm really happy and proud of my coworkers that we were able to make it happen, " said Armando Robles, president of the local. "Our goal its to build it and get all the other workers back full time."

Robles said they worked for a year now preparing the opening, including 7 months installing the equipment.

"It will take a while and a lot of sacrifice. We feel we are past the worst," he said.

The New Era workers are a part of a growing worker cooperative movement. They are in contact with cooperatives in the US, Mexico and Nicaragua. Recently they visited 7 cooperatives while on a tour in Mexico.

"It's not just factories. I learned anyone can make a cooperative, either growing produce, embroiderers, even teachers," said Robles. "We want to duplicate this model in the United States. It's a new era for the working class," said Robles.

The workers have a tremendous amount to learn. They are being trained in new skills by the Center for Workplace Democracy (CWD), which is working with other cooperatives locally including a coffee producers coop and a group of students at the Austin Polytechnical Academy to produce trumpet mouthpieces.

"We have assisted with general business skills training and cooperative business skills training and in filing all the necessary paperwork with the secretary of state, said Dennis Kelleher, of the CWD.

"It often takes a while for workers who have been exploited to get into a new mentality that they are worker-owners. The New Era workers picked that up quickly," explained Kelleher. "When we started, they looked around the room and said, 'it's up to us to make this go.'"

Photo: John Bachtell/PW

 

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