CHICAGO - When 260 workers sat in at Republic Windows and Doors Dec. 5, 2008 for five days, they were hoping to prevent the company (and chief creditor Bank of America) from running off with their vacation pay and pensions. Their action got the attention of the nation, including president-elect Obama, who sided with them. They beat all odds and won.
The workers could not have known how their actions would inspire others across the country to stand up for their rights. Since then, the name Republic Windows and Doors is known to workers everywhere. They were featured in Michael Moore's latest movie, "Capitalism: a love story" as one example of how people are taking the fight against Wall Street greed into their own hands.
Armando Robles, president of UE Local 1110 was one of the leaders in this momentous struggle and became a star of Moore's movie. He sat down with the People's World to reflect how life has changed since the sit-in.
Despite the victory, the last year has been a difficult one for most of the workers. Shortly after the takeover Serious Materials, a maker of highly energy efficient windows and doors, bought the company and promised to hire everyone back and respect the union contract.
To date only 29 workers have been rehired although things have picked up recently. Robles said this was due to a combination of factors.
"This is a new production line so the windows have to be certified. In addition, the old Republic management told us not to clean up the last six months. It took us 3 months just to clean the plant and paint the floors," said Robles.
With the economic crisis, sales haven't rebounded yet. Nor are they yet getting any hoped for sales from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by Congress, that would go to funding weatherization projects.
Serious is in negotiations with hardware retail giant Lowe's to supply the chain in the Midwest. Contractors from around the region are also checking the windows out.
"There is some talk of putting our windows in Willis (formerly Sears) Tower. We started making windows for large commercial buildings. This is a market Republic never had," he said.
Robles also said the company supplies windows for 75 contractors of CEDA, the federal program that assists low-income families with their gas and light bills. CEDA has a weatherization program and Serious provides the windows for Illinois.
"To weatherize the homes and offices across the country is a huge market," he said. "We'll need more companies like (Serious) and more workers would be put back to work."
Jobs creation is a big concern for Robles and the other workers. "If the money goes to the workers, the economy will improve. The government gave the money to the banks to help people with their foreclosures. But the people are still having a problem because the money never got to them," he said.
"We need people to spend money. Stores will start selling stuff. But they way they did it, the banks are keeping the money. Workers are still losing their homes and jobs," he said.
While a public works jobs program would be great, Robles doesn't think the Obama administration is convinced it's needed yet.
"We have to convince people that we can do it and it will work," he said. "We have to believe in ourselves and act!"
Robles and the other workers remain on the front lines of the battle, regularly participating in demonstrations and election campaigns. They continue to encourage others to fight.
When asked how it felt to be a movie star, Robles laughed. He said his son gives him the thumbs up, but he feels more comfortable fighting with his fellow workers at the grassroots than being an actor.
Photo: John Bachtell