It may seem awkward to descend from the lofty heights of the previous chapter to the low terrain of a case-study, but it is precisely on the level of local institutions and their mutual self-help--with political assistance--that a new economy will have to develop. Its cooperative dimension will emerge in a variety of ways: people starting a co-op from scratch, buying out an employer, benefiting from liberal initiatives as in Cleveland, using their union to start a cooperative, etc. In the following I’ll consider the second case, that of buying out an owner. In the U.S., since the late 1970s there have been countless attempts by workers to buy out employers that planned to shutter factories; few of these have been successful, typically because of capitalist resistance. For example, in 2010 a hundred employees at an aerospace plant in Taunton, Massachusetts that was about to be closed by their employer, Esterline Technologies, wanted to buy its equipment so as to run the plant themselves. After being rebuffed by the company, they and their union, United Electrical Workers (UE), convinced the city of Taunton to pursue the use of eminent domain to seize Esterline’s machinery and buy the factory on behalf of the workers. This was unprecedented in recent labor history, and the tactic holds great promise for the future. Unfortunately, it didn’t work in this case, for complex reasons we need not dwell on here.
Despite past failures, one can expect that such attempts will continue, indeed will probably become more numerous as unions and the progressive elite embrace the idea of employee buyouts and/or using eminent domain to save jobs. The more success stories are publicized, the more attractive these options will be (and the easier it will be for workers to find financial assistance). One such success story is that of New Era Windows, which bought its factory from the former owner in 2012. This case is particularly interesting and instructive given the workforce’s history of militancy, including factory occupations, and success in confrontations with employers.
For people who want to start a co-op from scratch, there are dozens of books and manuals, some of them available at www.usworker.coop. University courses are now being offered as well, at UMass Amherst, Rutgers, the University of Connecticut, Southern New Hampshire University, MIT, and other places. It is probably more feasible, however, that large cooperatives are started by buyouts and takeovers than from scratch by entrepreneurs, so those scenarios are what I focus on in this chapter.
The New Era Windows cooperative is run by a workforce that, since 2008, has grown used to the glare of the media spotlight. In 2008 these workers symbolized the nation’s disgust with the greedy and corrupt bankers who had run the economy into the ground and then gotten bailed out, and their defiance of the leviathan that is Bank of America was inspiring. Even Barack Obama, no leftist, felt compelled to express support for them: “I think they’re absolutely right and understand that what’s happening to them is reflective of what’s happening across this economy.” Six years later, they symbolize not only defiant action for workers’ rights but defiant construction of an alternative to corporate capitalism. Coverage of their actions by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, The Nation, Yes! Magazine, the major television networks, Democracy Now!, Al Jazeera, and innumerable other media outlets around the world testifies to how deeply their story resonates with the public. The obvious questions, then, are: what is their story?; how have they accomplished all that they have?; and how can their victories be replicated?
Journalist Kari Lydersen published an excellent account in 2009 of the workers’ struggle against Bank of America and Republic Windows and Doors, entitled Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What It Says about the Economic Crisis. In the first part of what follows I’ll draw disproportionately on her book, summarizing some of its main points in order to provide context for the discussion of the cooperative later.
Republic Windows and Doors was formed in 1965, and continued to grow until the end of the century. By the 1990s it was selling vinyl replacement windows and patio doors not only to small home-improvement contractors, as earlier, but to businesses, factories, and apartment complexes. It owned a large factory on Goose Island in Chicago where it employed hundreds of workers, primarily Latinos who had left Mexico and their families behind. This predominance of Latino workers is, of course, not an unusual thing in the postindustrial U.S. More than 50 million Latinos live in the United States, 23 million of whom are in the labor force (employed or unemployed). Millions of these people are recent immigrants who regularly send money back to their relatives at home or try to earn enough for their families to join them someday in the U.S.; for instance, three-quarters of the workers at Republic had emigrated from Mexico. In part because of the rising proportion of Hispanic immigrants, low-wage workers in the U.S. are increasingly likely to be Hispanic.
Given these trends, it is not much of an exaggeration to say that “the future of America’s labor movement will be written in Spanish.” This fact should, perhaps, be encouraging to labor organizers, because, as the Republic occupation and other militant actions in recent decades suggest, there are clear tendencies for Hispanic workers to be more easily radicalized than white or African-American workers. The latter groups have been socialized into the neoliberal American way of behaving and thinking, an unfortunate amalgam of atomism, loneliness, cynicism, interpersonal alienation, semi-passive resignation, disdain for unions, and so forth. Latino immigrants, by contrast, having come from a very different society with its own history and culture--in most cases a vibrantly leftist or “populist” one at the grassroots--have not typically internalized American atomism and ennui in the way that the mainstream has. This is evident simply from impressionistic observation. Moreover, the very fact of constituting a minority in another country, speaking another language, being more cruelly oppressed than most mainstream groups, and to some extent possessing a common culture different from the dominant one, pushes people towards solidarity, mutualism, and militancy in social and political struggles. These are good omens for the future labor movement in the United States, especially considering that Hispanics are the largest and fastest-growing minority group.
Richard Gillman, who became the owner of Republic in 2005, thus had the bad luck of inheriting an intractable workforce. This was particularly the case because the workers had voted in 2004 to end their association with a union called the Central States Joint Board (CSJB) and affiliate with UE, one of the most militant and progressive unions in the country. Disenchantment with the conservative, undemocratic, and corrupt CSJB had become acute in 2001, when the union negotiated a dismal contract with Republic. As Lydersen recounts, workers were so disgusted that they organized a wildcat strike a couple months later, in January 2002. For more than two weeks, in the freezing cold, they held out against the opposition of the company, the union, and the police, who all encouraged workers to cross the picket line (as some did each day). “On a particularly frigid morning,” for example, “some workers were lured across the picket line by the quintessentially Chicago bait of Krispy Kreme doughnuts and coffee.” Despite the support of Latino elected officials, including U.S. Congressman Luis Gutierrez, the strike failed and workers were forced to return to their jobs--while continuing to nourish the hope that someday they could get rid of their union.
Through informal contacts with labor-rights and immigrant-rights groups in Chicago, the workers eventually met with UE organizers, who convinced them that theirs was a much more effective union than the CSJB. In late 2003, about a year before the CJSB’s contract was going to expire, “UE launched its typical organizing drive, holding meetings to inform workers of their rights, providing stickers and flyers, and pointing out all the things the CSJB was not doing for them.” As is usually the case, a “militant minority” among the workers was crucial to the success of the organizing drive (and would prove crucial to the 2008 factory occupation). Armando Robles, for example, a maintenance worker in his late thirties who had started working at Republic in 2000, discussed with his coworkers week after week the merits of UE, passing out flyers, holding meetings in community centers, and in general trying to counter the company’s anti-union propaganda. When it came time for the election, UE trounced the CSJB, 340 votes to 9. (About 100 workers voted for no union at all, having been disillusioned by their earlier one.)
Since UE played a critical role in later years, it’s worth saying a little about this unique union. It was formed in 1936, when independent local unions attended a conference in Buffalo, New York to create a national union that would organize the radio and electrical manufacturing industries. A few months later, it became the first union granted a charter by the newly formed CIO, which was a progressive alternative to the old, craft-union-based AFL. In the legendary years of the late 1930s when the United Autoworkers was organizing the automobile industry, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee was organizing the steel industry, and the Packinghouse Workers of America was organizing the meatpacking industry, the UE was making swift and fantastic gains at General Electric and other major corporations. Its victories continued through World War II, so that by 1945 it was the third largest CIO union, with over 500,000 members.
The organizational structure that made possible these early successes—as well as the union’s later tenacious survival in difficult times—was unusual in the U.S. labor movement. The UE was and remains a much less centralized and bureaucratic union than others, with radical democracy enshrined in its constitution and by-laws. Union members not only elect, from among their ranks, local officers, stewards, negotiators, and delegates to national conventions; they also decide, themselves, when to strike and to end a strike, when to accept a contract and what terms to demand, and how to use local dues. The salaries of union staff and executives do not exceed the highest wage in the industry, a provision unique among American trade unions. On rights for women and African-Americans, the UE was far ahead of its time and most other unions, for example supporting “equal pay for equal work” during World War II and fighting to end workplace discrimination against blacks. It has also not been afraid to take controversial political stances such as
opposing the Vietnam War (when the AFL-CIO resolutely supported it) and being actively involved in the civil rights movement. On the whole, it is hard to imagine a more progressive and militant union.
In the context of the Cold War, however, progressivism was not unequivocally an asset. It led several unions, including the UE, to be branded as Communist and hounded out of the CIO. The 1950s were a dark time for the UE: under a barrage of attacks from business, the federal government, and mainstream unions, its membership plummeted to 60,000. It’s a miracle that it survived at all; virtually no other left-wing union did. In the 1960s it began to rebuild its numbers, but the deindustrialization of the 1980s and 1990s wiped out many gains. At present the UE has about 35,000 members, and even this relatively low number has only been made possible by the union’s trademark radicalism and flexibility. It has branched out from its traditional industrial jurisdictions to include teachers, nurses, and clerical workers, and it was one of the first unions to embrace undocumented immigrants. It has also been at the forefront of efforts to build transnational alliances, having formed a close alliance with the Mexican union Frente Autentico del Trabajo in the 1990s when they were both fighting NAFTA.
In the light of this honorable history, it should come as no surprise that the contract UE negotiated with Republic was fantastic from the workers’ point of view: “They obtained a nearly unheard-of average $3-an-hour raise over the course of three years, with $1.75 in the first year. They overhauled a subpar bonus system. And they won the right to have 19 union stewards on the shop floor, compared to five before. This meant more power for the union and more ability to file and win grievances.” A couple years later, Armando Robles was elected president of the local—Local 1110—and Ricky Maclin vice president, forming a partnership that would prove effective and long-lasting. Being a democratic union, the UE gives leadership training to its members, particularly the stewards. This “consciousness-raising” and confidence-boosting is essential to giving members a sense of empowerment, efficacy, and self-respect vis-à-vis management. Leah Fried gives the example of training in grievance procedures. Stewards will learn about the different kinds of grievances, the steps involved in filing a grievance, and how to follow through in meetings with management. After reading through the contract and learning all the procedures, they then simulate a grievance meeting: one person plays the boss, another is the steward, a third the worker filing the grievance. Later, after a real grievance meeting, they meet to go over what went well and what to do differently next time, and so the learning process continues over months and years. Gradually the workers become more effective at standing up for their rights.
For instance, one time a Republic worker was fired for taking out the garbage. Literally: as Fried recalls, “he took out the garbage and the supervisor fired him, saying ‘You weren’t supposed to take out the garbage!’ So we got everybody to wear a picture of [the worker who had been fired], and they marched into the boss’s office during their break…” Combined with the filing of a grievance, this collective action got the worker rehired.
Horizons, in short, weren’t very sunny for Republic on the labor side of things; but the business side wasn’t doing much better. The situation became especially dire in 2007, when the real estate boom collapsed. The loss of customers meant that Republic quickly used up its $5 million line of credit from Bank of America, which refused to grant more loans. By the summer of 2008 the company had lost $10 million in less than two years, and its factory was in the process of being downsized from 500 workers to 250. November 2008 is when the real drama started.
Armando Robles and other workers noticed that factory equipment was being spirited away in the night, to an unknown destination. Managers assured them and UE officials that nothing was amiss, an obvious lie given the business’s economic troubles (of which workers were well aware). It was revealed later that the equipment was intended for a factory in Iowa that Richard Gillman planned to be the base of operations for a new, un-unionized, company; at the moment, all that the workers knew was that they couldn’t sit idly by while their factory was dismantled, an action sure to presage the elimination of their jobs. As Lydersen relates, the workers organized a surveillance team to keep an eye on the factory during nights and weekends. One Saturday, Robles and Sergio Revuelta, a union steward, were fulfilling their watchman duties in the parking lot when they saw boxes being loaded onto two trailer trucks at the factory’s front entrance. They decided to follow them, curious where they were headed. Fifteen miles later they ended up at a truckyard, where the trailers were parked. Robles called UE representative Mark Meinster, who drove out to them to discuss what they should do. Angry at Republic’s brazen contempt for its workforce, Robles suggested stealing the trailers to force the company to negotiate with them. Or at least deflating their tires. Meinster, likewise determined to get the truth about what was going on, hit upon another idea: occupy the factory. Robles liked the suggestion, and in the following days he and Meinster found others enthusiastic as well.
So that’s how the idea was born. Factory occupations are more common in Mexico and other parts of Latin America than in the United States, so it isn’t surprising that a Latino workforce, or at least a sizable minority of it, would be attracted to the idea. The local’s executive board certainly was; its members saw no other option in the case of the plant’s closure. Many other workers were similarly enthusiastic, and it was easy to find volunteers to occupy the plant. No action was taken for the moment, except to organize 24-hour surveillance over the long Thanksgiving weekend, each shift lasting two hours.
The workers’ strange “limbo” situation lasted until December 2, when the plant operations manager called them to a meeting in the cafeteria and announced, predictably, that the plant would be closing on Friday, December 5. They wouldn’t get severance pay or accrued vacation pay, and their health insurance would end on December 15 (in fact earlier, as it turned out). This sudden closing of the plant was in apparent violation of the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, which requires that employees be given either sixty days’ notice or sixty days of severance pay, a fact that would be exploited by workers and their allies in the following days, when they declared to the media that it was illegal to close the plant under these conditions. After bringing his grim tidings the manager hastily retreated, leaving everyone to contemplate the destruction of the lives they had known.
It's at this point that connections became especially important. Most things in the modern world depend on connections; luckily the Republic workers had them, through the UE. Union representatives got in touch with their contacts in the Chicago political world and such groups as Interfaith Worker Justice and Jobs with Justice; it was decided that the next day there would be a rally in front of Bank of America’s headquarters downtown. This was the strategy they had decided on: it made more sense to publicly shame Bank of America than Republic, in part because the latter had insisted that everything was the bank’s fault for having cut off credit, and in part because the bank had just received a $25 billion bailout from the government and was by no means popular with the public. This was, after all, the moment when Americans were enraged by the financial sector’s sabotage of the economy and disgusted by the TARP bailouts of the chief culprits. Attacking Bank of America for destroying jobs even after accepting public funds was a brilliant strategy--which the media, for its part, was happy to facilitate, given the public’s mood.
As Leah Fried explained in an interview later, the union and workers crafted their image in a very conscious and knowing way. The issue couldn’t be worker rights, because, as she said, “the media doesn’t cover worker rights. It’s very rare that they will. In fact, some of them right up front said we can’t cover a union story.” So instead, the union framed it as a story of the bailout. “This is what the taxpayer bailout is really doing. It goes to these financial institutions who then turn around and shut down factories. People are losing their jobs, and on top of that, they’re not even being paid the money that they earned.” This so effectively tapped into the public’s rage that, in the end, the workers had much more success than they expected.
The rally on Wednesday gained visibility for the coming struggle, but of course it was the occupation that captured international headlines. On Friday morning Robles, Fried, Meinster, and other union leaders met with the full workforce to ask once more if they wanted to go ahead with their plan: everyone did. “Si se puede!” they cheered. “Yes we can!” About thirty people said they would occupy the plant, while the others would support them outside on the picket line. (The action was illegal, after all, and some workers were worried about the repercussions for their families if they were arrested.) Later in the day, though, when a final vote was taken just before the action was to commence, everyone wanted to occupy, no doubt caught up in the thrill of what they were doing. They formed committees to organize it, deciding, for example, that only thirty or forty people would occupy the plant at any given time; only workers, union staff, and family members would be allowed inside (with exceptions for political figures); and the place would be kept tidy for the sake of public image. Soon after the occupation had begun at 5 p.m., managers called the police to implore that the workers be forcibly removed; the police, however, refused, having been told earlier by the city councilman representing Goose Island that this was a labor-management dispute in which they shouldn’t intervene.
This points to the importance, again, of having connections with progressive members of the elite. From the very beginning, Congressman Luis Gutierrez was an articulate defender of the workers, an intermediary (along with union officials and others) between them and Bank of America, and an effective coordinator of resources such as food. Other political figures who showed support in the following days included the Illinois Attorney General, concerned whether Republic had broken laws in its treatment of workers; Governor Blagojevich, who visited the factory on Monday (three days after the occupation had begun) to declare his support for the workers; Obama, who on Sunday had done the same thing in a press conference; Jesse Jackson, who showed up at the factory to hand out turkeys and offer encouragement; U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, various city councilmen, and county commissioner Mike Quigley. All wanted to bask in the popularity of these workers who were seen as defying the monster that is Bank of America.
The press, including correspondents from national and foreign media, were already at the factory on Friday before workers emerged to announce that they were occupying it until their demands were met. UE’s contacts with the media and activist groups around the city thus paid off from the start. Republic officials hadn’t shown up to a meeting on Friday with Bank of America and union leaders, so the sit-in continued into the weekend. A support rally on Saturday drew several hundred people, and donations of food, sleeping bags, pillows, and other items flooded the plant. Jobs with Justice continued to organize solidarity rallies nationwide in the following days. Inside the factory the atmosphere was in fact somewhat festive, despite people’s fear of arrest. Initially, indeed, they expected to be arrested, and yet were determined not to leave. When several policemen ventured inside the plant on Friday night some of the occupiers prepared to chain themselves to the equipment, but were relieved to see that the police were only checking for vandalism. The lengths to which workers were prepared to go to defend their jobs is a poignant illustration of their outrage and desperation, shared by millions of others that winter.
Another meeting with Bank of America and Republic was called for Monday, but this one didn’t go very well either, at least at first. Gutierrez and a couple city councilmen joined Robles, Maclin, and union reps, all of whom faced a room of representatives from the bank, the Chamber of Commerce, the city treasurer’s office, and other state agencies and interest groups. Maclin got angry when a Chamber of Commerce official asked the workers to tone down their statements to the media and stop making the bank look so bad; he slammed his fist down on the table, cursed loudly, and retorted that he’d tell the media whatever he wanted. Things went a little more smoothly later, but no resolution was reached. On Tuesday, after another day of the media “eating out of the workers’ hands”--even Fox TV, no friend of labor, praised them--talks resumed, this time more fruitfully. Richard Gillman angered the labor side when he asked, incredibly, that any new loan from Bank of America (to pay workers’ wages) include severance pay for himself and funds to pay the leases on two luxury cars--“even his own attorney looked at him like he was crazy,” said Maclin later--but after a huddle with the negotiators he withdrew his request and agreed to pitch in $117,000 of his own money to meet his ex-employees’ final payroll. The bank then agreed to extend a “loan”--really a donation, since there was little chance it would be paid back--to cover the rest of the money owed the workers. The deal couldn’t be finalized immediately, though, since UE officials, consistent with the union’s democratic traditions, insisted that all the workers would have to vote on it later.
On Wednesday a final meeting occurred with Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase, which had 40-percent equity in Republic. Their proposal amounted to $1.35 million from the former and $400,000 from the latter to cover workers’ severance and vacation pay, and two more months of health insurance. At the factory that evening the workers, thrilled at their victory, voted to accept the offer--and yet were disappointed that it appeared the plant wasn’t going to be kept open. How would their families survive the next year? What kind of jobs could they get in this dismal economy? They decided right away to start a new trust fund, the “Window of Opportunity Fund,” to raise money to buy the plant themselves or find another buyer. In the meantime, they accepted their partial victory and celebrated with their supporters, both in the immediate community and, in spirit, all over the world.
What had made their victory possible, then, was an unusual confluence of factors. First, they were lucky enough to be represented by a union as militant and democratic as UE. Leah Fried says it well:
Here’s what made it possible for UE to do this [sit-in]. Number one, we had spent the time building the leadership in that local. The leadership had gained a lot of skill and knowledge. People had been through fights before.... We had built relationships with other unions, with community groups, with the immigrant-rights movement, with important coalitions in the city like Jobs with Justice and Interfaith Worker Justice.... We had built relationships over time, and we called on those relationships when the moment was right. And folks rallied, because they saw this as their fight, not just a UE fight. So, I think anybody could do it; you just gotta practice fighting, and you gotta build relationships with the rest of the movement. And start acting like a movement when the moment comes.
If the labor movement as a whole acted more like UE--or like the Chicago Teachers Union when it organized its internationally celebrated strike in September 2012--things might improve for workers. Unfortunately, the momentum and direction of entrenched bureaucracies, such as exist in mainstream trade unions, are not easily set on a new course. Timid, conservative, and establishment traditions cannot be reversed unless circumstances force them to be--that is, unless a context of prolonged crisis for the bureaucracies themselves finally necessitates their radical change. The labor movement seems to be undergoing this change now, at long last. It does have a ways to go before it catches up to UE, though.
The very fact of having a union at all, or at least having a nearby worker center that can lend its support and resources, is virtually a prerequisite for the sort of action that Republic’s employees undertook. Certainly if the action is to have some success, organizational resources--and the confidence that comes with them--are a necessity. This may help explain why the Republic occupation didn’t cause a slew of similar acts around the country. The unionization rate in the U.S.’s private sector is less than seven percent, which doesn’t translate into a lot of organizational resources for workers.
Similar incidents did happen, though. The most notable was after the Colibri Group in Rhode Island, a jewelry maker, laid off its 280 employees (mostly immigrants) without giving advance notice; some actually arrived at work the day the plant closed only to see a sign informing them of the fact. And that was it, even for those who had worked there twenty or thirty years. “I gave them so much, my whole life,” one worker said later, “and then they just closed the doors on us like we were animals. I felt like my heart was on the floor.” Since no notice had been given, the employees were entitled (under the WARN Act) to sixty days of severance pay and health insurance. They had no union, but some of them got in touch with a local immigrant- and labor-rights group called Fuerza Laboral--which had just two staff members--and organized a protest rally a couple weeks later, on February 3, 2009. Three days later, coincidentally, Armando Robles and other Republic workers and UE officials came to Providence on a tour they were taking around the country--called the Resistance and Recovery Tour--to spread word of their story and raise money for their trust fund mentioned above. The fifty Colibri workers they met with were inspired by what they heard, all the details of how a couple hundred Latino workers had shamed Bank of America before the world. So they decided to enact a similar campaign to shame the majority owner of Colibri (Founders Equity) and two banks that were creditors. In the following months they and Fuerza Laboral took many actions, including marching on the state capitol, protesting in front of Founders’ Manhattan headquarters, initiating a national letter-writing drive, and filing a lawsuit to get the money they were owed. But the act most reminiscent of the Republic sit-in happened at an auction of Colibri’s assets on March 19: fourteen people, including ten workers, were arrested for sitting on the street to block traffic to the auction.
While the campaign got attention from the media and sympathy from politicians, it didn’t have the success of the Republic sit-in. The workers were never paid, because creditors got everything left over from the business. Why this failure? One obvious reason is that the factory had already been closed, so it couldn’t be occupied. As Occupy Wall Street showed in 2011, occupying an area can be a uniquely effective tactic if it draws media attention and/or prevents members of the elite from using facilities valuable to them. It forces the authorities either to give in to protesters’ demands or deploy the police to violently disperse them, which never makes the elite look good. Thus, none of the actions of the Colibri workers quite “packed the punch” of a factory sit-in. Nor did the workers have the resources of a battle-hardened union, powerful coalition partners, or extensive ties to power-brokers.
The Republic workers also benefited, of course, from perfect timing (although Colibri workers’ timing wasn’t much worse). It was soon after the TARP bailouts had been announced, jobs were hemorrhaging--awful employment numbers came out on the very day the sit-in began--and people worldwide were enraged at the corporate sector. Hopes for comparable or greater victories in the future should be raised by the knowledge that for a very long time to come, economic stagnation and crisis will be the norm. Crises will continue recurring, and as they do so the public will grow more angry at big business and more sympathetic toward factory occupations. While it won’t always be possible for workers to invoke unpopular “bailouts,” they will still be able to attack corporations for destroying jobs and not paying employees what they’re owed--two compelling soundbites, as Bank of America learned to its cost. If unions and their allies have the will, the “way” will present itself.
I’ve spent so much time discussing the 2008 sit-in because I think this tactic is the most radical and effective of all, and I suspect it will grow more common in the next decade or two. As seen in Argentina after the 2001 crash, it can even lead straight into the formation of a worker cooperative. In the case of the Republic workers, the route was a little more circuitous. Let’s consider that route briefly now, after which we can focus on the co-op itself.
A company called Serious Materials, which manufactures energy-efficient building materials, bought Republic’s factory and equipment in February 2009. With the help of Obama’s 2009 stimulus package, it hoped to hire back all of Republic’s former employees by the summer. Things didn’t work out as planned, though: by September 2009, only twenty employees had been rehired, for reasons having to do with bureaucratic delays and insufficient stimulus funds. Over the next couple years, in fact, only about 75 workers were hired back. Then, on February 23, 2012, UE was notified in a meeting with local executives that the plant would be closed that very day, because of “ongoing economic challenges in construction and building products, collapse in demand for window products, difficulty in obtaining favorable lease terms, high leasing and utility costs and taxes, and a range of other factors.” This time, at least, management said it would pay workers what they were owed under the WARN Act; union officers and staff, however, wanted time to find a buyer for the factory, so they could save the jobs. Management refused.
Because of a recent layoff, only 38 workers were employed at the moment. After the meeting with Serious, therefore, Robles and Fried called laid-off employees, asking them to come to the plant. Fifty workers met at 2 p.m., the end of the shift, to discuss the situation. Journalist Jane Slaughter describes what happened next:
Robles presented [their options] soberly: Do nothing, or fight—stay and occupy the plant again. Without much hullabaloo, matter-of-factly, the members voted unanimously to occupy.
They had no food, no sleeping bags. Workers and leaders immediately started to phone fellow workers, allies, and the media. They called the local alderman and asked others to alert the mayor’s office. Occupy Chicago came with tacos. Stand Up Chicago arrived.
Workers from other UE locals, including recently organized railroad van drivers, were there. Republic workers who’d never been called back to Serious but who still came to union meetings were there. The crowd inside grew to 65 and outside to 100.
UE regional president Carl Rosen got in touch with Serious CEO Kevin Surace to tell him the workers were prepared to be dragged out and arrested. The police showed up after being summoned by management and warned the workers that in five minutes they would be arrested if they didn’t leave the plant. And maybe they would have been, if not for the many supporters outside with cellphones and cameras, including local TV news cameras. So the police thought better of their threat and let the workers stay. By 5 p.m., Occupy Chicago was raising tents as workers inside played dominoes and ate donated food.
Soon, corporate headquarters in California took over negotiations, having decided they didn’t want a big confrontation with the union. By 1 a.m. they had, incredibly, agreed to all their employees’ demands: in addition to severance pay for all the workers—even the ex-employees of Republic whom Serious had promised to hire but never had—the plant would stay open for ninety days, giving time for the workers and their union either to find a new buyer or arrange to run the factory themselves. The latter is the course they chose, thanks largely to Robles’ advocacy.
The co-op idea had been in the air for a while. In 2006 Robles had attended the World Social Forum in Venezuela and heard a group of electricians discuss the cooperative they had formed, but at the time he wasn’t able to pursue the idea. During their “victory tour” around the U.S. in early 2009, however, he and his coworkers got a step closer to starting a co-op. In an interview on Democracy Now! in New York they met Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis, who had made the documentary The Take about factory occupations in Argentina and, since then, have been deeply committed to the cause of worker cooperativism. They introduced Robles to Brendan Martin, founder (in 2004) of a nonprofit called The Working World, which would provide crucial assistance to the New Era Windows cooperative formed later. As stated on TWW’s website, it helps design, fund, and carry out cooperative projects—hundreds of them in the last ten years, in Argentina, Nicaragua, and the U.S. While its business model might seem risky, in that it gives low-interest loans to relatively poor people who don’t have to pay them back until their businesses make a profit, its loans have a 98 percent repayment rate.
Martin pitched the idea of a co-op to Robles, but at the moment it was too late: Serious Materials had already stepped in. Robles was hopeful, though. As he recalls, “my answer [to Martin] was: you know what? Things happen. Owners are owners, they close. Sooner or later we could be in that spot, and then we’ll give you a call.” Almost exactly three years later, his prediction was borne out.
As he says,
when [Serious] announced the close of the factory [in 2012], I keep mention [sic] all during the whole occupation—twelve hours—every single minute talk to the people, we should buy the factory, we could make a co-op. ’Cause I already have the idea. I see the movie The Take and it inspired me a lot. I have the opportunity from Brendan Martin who offered to us the financial support, and he has the dream to start the movement in the United States. So I see it as a big opportunity.
At Robles’ request, Leah Fried called Brendan Martin, who was in Argentina but flew to Chicago a couple days later. He met with Robles, Ricky Maclin, and a steward to start planning the co-op, for instance by choosing which workers they wanted to invite into the business. Initially it would have to be a small group of people who could be expected to get along well; later, the co-op could expand. They got in touch, therefore, with a few dozen former employees of Republic, not all of whom were interested. After all, the equipment hadn’t even been purchased yet, and the whole idea of starting a coop struck some people as crazy. Many saw themselves exclusively as workers, not bosses, and they couldn’t break out of that mindset.
Nevertheless, progress was being made that spring of 2012. At an event showcasing the achievements of the Evergreen cooperatives in Ohio, the small group of planners fortuitously met Dennis Kelleher, executive director of the Center for Workplace Democracy. This institution assists cooperatives and community-based organizations in Chicago through advocacy, technical support, and financing. After hearing about the project that would soon come to fruition as New Era Windows, Kelleher organized classes in cooperative business administration for the workers who had agreed to join the co-op. In the spring and summer of 2012, therefore, when the status of the future business was still very uncertain, workers attended weekly classes run by Kelleher at the UE hall. The content of these classes was useful, but perhaps most important was the fact
that—in these doubt-full early months—they brought people together every week and so fostered a group cohesion that, in retrospect, was “absolutely necessary,” as Fried says.
One reason cohesion was so necessary is that there were still unforeseen battles ahead. Serious had agreed on February 24 to sell the factory—or rather, its equipment—instead of liquidating it, thus giving workers the opportunity to buy it. Negotiations between the company and its ex-employees began soon after: the workers painstakingly selected which equipment they wanted to buy and negotiated the prices with Serious, Brendan Martin serving as an intermediary. Things were looking so positive that the 17 future worker-owners took steps to incorporate New Era Windows on May 30, 2012, though they didn’t yet have equipment or a place of business. Negotiations continued for weeks until suddenly, at the beginning of July, Serious informed them it wasn’t going to sell its equipment after all—thus reneging on the contract it had signed at the end of February.
Immediately the workers launched a petition on Change.org to pressure Serious to comply with its own prior agreement; within 24 hours, the petition had received 3000 signatures. (Seventy-five thousand more would follow in the next two weeks.) Meanwhile, the UE filed for arbitration over Serious’s violation of the February 24th agreement. The next day, July 5, the union organized a rally in which workers and supporters, armed with stacks of their signed petition, marched on one of the chief financial backers and board members of Serious Energy, Mesirow Financial. In less than thirty minutes, the march grew from twenty people to about eighty. Evidently this frightened Serious and its investors, for, in a conciliatory mood now, they promptly got in touch with the workers. “Stop,” Robles paraphrases them, “don’t go to the media, we’re going to work with you guys.”
This incident shows, once again, that Glenn Greenwald’s characterization of bureaucrats in the National Security Agency applies to functionaries of power everywhere: they’re like cockroaches, happy to operate in the dark but extraordinarily skittish once light is shined on them. In most cases they’d rather concede defeat in some battle than have their dark machinations be exposed. Doing so, or threatening to do so, is one of the most powerful weapons in the arsenal of democracy.
So negotiations resumed, continuing through the summer. Meanwhile the search for a new factory continued, since the old one on Goose Island was too expensive and much too large. Even Serious hadn’t needed all the space or used all the equipment it had bought. The cooperative, in contrast, would start out small and without a large surplus of cash, a fact that encouraged its members to be much more efficient and sparing in their purchase and use of machinery and facilities than large corporations tend to be. They looked at over ten possible buildings, eventually deciding on one in southwest Chicago that was significantly cheaper than the property on Goose Island.
To pay for the equipment they were buying, each member contributed the $1000 that was his or her buy-in to the co-op, and The Working World provided the rest—in fact, more than the rest. It raised over $600,000, though in the end the equipment cost only about $400,000. The rest of the money it raised has served as a line of credit for New Era. However, the whole cooperative venture almost fell apart again in September, when Serious dropped another bombshell. After months of negotiations over individual pieces of equipment, its executives changed their mind and declared that New Era had to buy everything or nothing. Since it didn’t have the money to buy everything, the business could have ended just then, before it even began. Luckily Brendan Martin came to the rescue: he found a company that liquidates factories and arranged for it to buy 60 percent of the equipment while New Era bought 40 percent (which included much it didn’t need, such as extra computers, tables, pallets, and lots of odds and ends the workers sold later). The deal was signed, and New Era had its equipment, finally.
The task now was to transport everything from the factory on Goose Island to the new one in south Chicago. Aside from four heavy machines that they hired someone else to transport, the workers moved all the equipment themselves—almost seventy trailers’ worth. They hired a driver, but the loading and unloading they did themselves. Robles recalls with pride how effectively they organized this operation. They had bought four trailers from Serious; after filling them up they called the driver, who drove them one by one to the new factory, where another team of workers unloaded them. The efficiency with which they carried this out defied everyone’s expectations, as Robles says:
Against all the predictions from the Wrigley people, who’s been the owner of the Goose Island building, and against the predictions of the liquidators—they assumed like how the workers gonna move, we don’t have experience to do nothing like that. Well, with experienced people [who transported the equipment the liquidators had bought] they moved like four trailers, at most they moved four trailers a day. We reached, in three consecutive days, moving ten trailers a day. So we moved around seventy trailers to this facility.
That was in October 2012. In the following months they fixed up the plant, which was not in good shape. Old mattresses were piled high, the ceiling was an ugly brownish color, there were no lights and no heaters. With help from the building owners they cleaned it all out, painted the ceiling white, installed heaters and lights, ran pipes to each machine, and eventually built a break room and a large office on the factory floor. They didn’t have fancy architectural drawings to guide them regarding the layout of the plant; instead, they just put the machines where they thought they should be, based on memory. “I was working here, I need this amount of space, this is the next machine, I could put this other one here… We make straight lines better than Republic or Serious,” Robles says, “because we tried to do step by step.”
Finally, late in the spring of 2013, they were almost ready to open—except for the required fire inspection, which they were worried about. Any little irregularity, whether with the sprinkler system, the fire extinguishers, the proximity of electrical panels to machines, or “all the chemical stuff,” could pose a serious problem. It turned out they had no cause for concern, though: they passed the inspection without a hitch, and so were able to open their business on May 9.
Businesses rarely start making a profit very quickly; New Era has not differed much in this regard (though it has been successful more quickly than most businesses). The first summer was spent building up a base of customers, and not much production was done until the fall, which is in any case a more active season for the windows business than summer. In fact, the workers didn’t give themselves their first paycheck until the fall. Their pay, which they calculate themselves, is based on a combination of sales and how many hours each person has worked, with everyone receiving the same rate. Nine months after opening, their individual earnings have fluctuated as the number of windows manufactured each week changes.
As the cooperative has expanded its business, the UE has been an invaluable resource. New Era’s worker-owners are still unionized, but the role of the union has of course changed: it now serves to represent the co-op, giving it support with advertising, legal work, promotion among other unions and social justice groups, conflict mediation if that’s necessary, and other issues that might arise. For example, if there’s a protest or some kind of mass event, the union will get in touch with New Era to send people who can pass out flyers (while wearing their New Era t-shirts) and talk to the media. Also, the UE has connections that help it find customers who otherwise wouldn’t even have heard of New Era. Suppose, for instance, that the city or state government wants to weatherize some buildings. If a small co-op offers to supply the windows, the government will just laugh at it. If, on the other hand, a union backed by 35,000 people pressures the government with petitions coming from all over the country and other such tactics, officials will listen. And there’s also the influence that the UE can bring to bear on contractors as opposed to end users. All this can add up to the difference between a failed business and a successful one.
The union can perform other services too. At this writing, Leah Fried is arranging to get health insurance for the members of New Era. She’s also facilitating the adoption of a “collective bargaining” agreement—not in the traditional sense, as between a boss and employees, but merely in the sense of a set of rules that the members commit themselves to obey. It isn’t a particularly urgent issue at the moment, when the business is small and personal conflicts are infrequent, but if and when the cooperative brings in new members it could prove useful to have such a statement of principles and rules.
Brendan Martin has remained just as involved with the co-op as Fried. Amidst his continent-hopping he regularly comes to Chicago to work on behalf of New Era, primarily in sales, meeting with government representatives, construction companies, and other potential customers. Meanwhile, another member of The Working World, Steve Wong, works at New Era in sales, purchasing, technical support, and other areas. In addition, the worker-owners energetically advertise themselves, seeking out clients in person around the city.
As a result, business is steadily growing. Robles recalls that his first paycheck in the fall of 2013 was only $20—and yet even that was satisfying, because it was symbolic. “It was money from our own work, from our own factory, from our own product. That was a big thing, to make me successful, to make me feel comfortable and happy, ’cause in the end it was the fruit of all our work we put in this.” In less than ten weeks after their first check, everyone’s biweekly pay had shot up to $580. Winter is an off season in the industry, but they expect sales to increase dramatically in the spring.
When talking to the members, it’s striking how positive and optimistic they are about the cooperative. Joel Cruz, a middle-aged man with six children, thinks his future is much more secure now, just as the present is much more satisfying. “My life is different. Maybe next year, with more customers, I forgot everything, my problems [in 2008 and 2012]… You know, when you’re in the company, you have a supervisor; the supervisor say, ‘Why you come in late? Hey, what happen? You talk too much, you go to line! Back to line, back to work!’ Now, nothing like that.” As one would expect, he’s motivated to work harder now that he partly owns his business; at the same time, he’s able to relax occasionally without worrying he’ll be punished. For some of the members, indeed, the co-op also serves as a kind of social club, and they enjoy coming to work to see
their friends. The only complaint Cruz has—which is shared by the others—is that, for now, the pay is too little. To provide for his family he has to work a second job on the weekends, as a saxophonist with a Mexican band. Other members, such as Robles, have had to be supported by their spouses.
William Swanson is, if anything, even more enthusiastic than Cruz, about everything except the pay (so far). He worked at Republic for 26 years, then at Serious for two years, and now it seems that for the first time he actually enjoys his job. He views it as a kind of adventure, an adventure in freedom-from-a-boss. For him, that’s by far the best part. But he also enjoys the learning process, learning how to do purchasing (which is his main responsibility now) and the other duties they all share. “It’s fun! It’s knowledge, we’re learning. That’s the good part about it. We’re learning something, and we can always have this, you know? We’ll always have this under our belt. And we ain’t got no bosses standing over us telling ‘C’mere, ya gotta do this!,’ ’cause we know what we gotta do. If we don’t do it, we don’t make money.” Ricky Maclin has the same attitude as Swanson—something like exhilaration—and is absolutely confident about the future.
The co-op has five female members, whose attitudes toward their business do not differ much from their male coworkers’. Arizona Stingley worked at Republic for twenty years, then Serious, and now is loving her new role as a worker-owner. The small size of the business and its cooperative nature make it feel like a “family,” very different from the impersonal environment of her two previous employers. Neither she nor Victoria Amaya, another long-term employee of Republic, has noticed any sexism at New Era; in fact, Victoria is one of the more dominant voices in the business and at their weekly meetings. These meetings, at which important business decisions are made (such as what materials to buy or how to address some problem that’s arisen), are structured fairly informally, typically with a 75 percent supermajority being required on any given decision.
In short, things are going smoothly at New Era. The members hope to start a second shift and bring in new people in 2014, though they haven’t yet decided on the specifics of that process. New members will probably have to pay a larger buy-in than the current members did, since the latter did all the hard, unpaid work of getting the business started. For now, though, they’re just looking forward to enjoying the economic fruits of their intensive two-years-long labor.
Several lessons can be drawn from the history outlined in this chapter. First, militancy works. Or rather, it can work, if it has institutional support such as the UE and The Working World provided in this case. At each step of the way, it was by acting “impolitely,” even illegally, that the workers were heard and got justice. The whole of labor history, of course, confirms this conclusion. For example, it was the sit-down strikes of 1936 and 1937 that led to the unionization of the automobile and other industries, whereas the concessionary bargaining of the 1980s and later did nothing to stop the decline of the union movement. It’s time that mainstream American unions took the UE as their model.
The other obvious lesson is that media savvy is an invaluable tool for activists and workers. The slogan Leah Fried came up with in 2008, “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out,” perfectly captured the public’s mood and justified the workers’ struggle. It was a catchy soundbite that simultaneously directed ire at banks and highlighted the injustice of what had happened to millions of people in the country. It’s necessary to spin stories in such a way that the media will cover them, and then to conduct visible protest actions. Especially if one has already built relationships among the liberal elite, it’s quite possible that militant tactics will force authorities to come to the bargaining table, or even to concede all demands so that the issue goes away.
Regarding the cooperative itself, the history of New Era is vivid confirmation that starting a sizable co-op is extremely difficult and labor-intensive, and requires institutional guidance and support. Without Brendan Martin and The Working World, or the UE and its skilled organizers, New Era Windows never would have happened. If the U.S. had anything like a sensible industrial policy, government at all levels would provide much of the support needed to start co-ops and so give employment to some of the millions who desperately need it. For now, though, it seems that activists and visionaries will have to fill in the gap left by the government’s inaction, while simultaneously pressing for policy changes.
A more encouraging lesson comes out of New Era’s capital-intensiveness: it reminds us that worker co-ops need not be limited to labor-intensive industries. The record of Mondragon already demonstrates this, as does the cooperative sector in Emilia-Romagna and the success of other high-tech co-ops such as the long-running Isthmus Engineering & Manufacturing. Still, to have a successful high-tech cooperative run by a working-class membership of Hispanics and African-Americans is yet another nail in the coffin of conservative conventional wisdom. Indeed, the diversity of the workforce demonstrates that, despite the scholarly stereotypes summarized in chapter two, homogeneity of cultural background is by no means a prerequisite of successful worker co-ops (however much it may conduce to success). What matter, rather, are commitment to the business and some degree of flexibility and amiability in relations with coworkers.
The broadest implication of the New Era Windows story is that one doesn’t need a sophisticated formal education or a middle-class background or millions of dollars to stand up to corporate titans and win, or to start an ambitious manufacturing cooperative that is poised for indefinite expansion a few months after its inception. Such qualities as creativity, intelligence, ambition, and initiative are not limited to any one class of people but spread evenly throughout the population. It so happens that current social structures are designed to stultify these qualities in people who don’t belong to the elite, but with determination, capitalist resistance can be overcome. If working people, with assistance from activists, tap into their enormous collective reserves of energy and defiance, there are no limits to what they can accomplish.