Chicago factory occupiers form worker cooperative

Chicago factory occupiers form worker cooperative

First, they occupied the factory to get their wages from the bosses that owned the machinery. Then, they occupied their factory to keep the second bosses from shutting down their machinery. And, now, they are on their way to owning and running the machinery.

The group of workers who occupied their Chicago factory in 2008 and again in 2012 incorporated a worker-run cooperative on May 30, 2012. The factory window makers will take over was formerly owned by Republic Windows and Doors and then Serious Energy, and will now be run by New Era Windows, LLC.

Their battle to win wages and back pay from Republic Windows and Doors by occupying the factory is often mentioned in the same breath as the occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol to protest Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union bill as a flash point of progressive struggle since the recession took hold.
Armando Robles, president of the United Electrical Workers Local 1110, said that the school of struggle the workers went through with both factory occupations helped them win the confidence to take over their factory.

"We learned how to fight against the bosses and now to negotiate contracts with the owners of Republic and Serious Energy, how to negotiate in contract negotiations and how to make escalating actions before going on strike."

The story began in 2008, when the Republic Windows and Doors Factory shut its doors without paying workers their severance pay or accrued vacation time in "a perfect parable of all that was wrong with the financial crisis."

"Just a few days after receiving $25 billion in bailout funds from the federal government, Bank of America cut off the company's credit line, leading Republic's management to immediately and unceremoniously fire all 250 workers without providing the 60 days' notice or 60 days' pay required of them by the federal WARN Act," reported Salon.

In response, they called for an occupation. The workers spent six days barricaded inside the factory before Bank of America was pressured into agreeing to reopen the company's line of credit, and the workers were paid their due.

"Here the banks like Bank of America get a bailout, but workers cannot be paid?" asked Leah Fried, an organizer with the union workers, in 2008. "The taxpayers would like to see that bailout go toward saving jobs, not saving C.E.O.'s."

When Serious Materials (now Serious Energy) bought they company, it promised to hire all of the fired workers. But in February 2012, it also fell victim to a continuing economic downturn, and announced it would be closing immediately.

In response, the workers occupied again. In the rain and cold, and with the support of Occupy Chicago, they won a temporary reprieve after only 12 hours. Serious Energy promised to sell the business and keep the factory open for 90 more days.

"When we found out nobody is going to buy the company we started this idea [to form a cooperative] and brought it in proactive," said Robles. "We started having meetings about it."

The next step for the workers, whose business in now incorporated with the State of Illinois, is to raise the investment money to start the cooperative and buy the machinery from their former employer.

Robles says they are working on getting the money together - about $2 million to purchase the machinery - and have already started building the structure of the cooperative:

"we already have a steering committee, we have two treasurers. We will keep doing forward."

They expect to start producing windows in two or three months, said Robles, and running their unionized cooperative.

reproduced via -

Posted By

working class s...
Jan 15 2013 23:31


  • First, they occupied the factory to get their wages from the bosses that owned the machinery. Then, they occupied their factory to keep the second bosses from shutting down their machinery. And, now, they are on their way to owning and running the machinery.

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Chilli Sauce
Jan 16 2013 08:51

Yeah, I don't know how I feel about this. It's great to save jobs and it's good to show that workers are capable of self-management. But I also think that if two different sets of capitalists have struggled to keep the factory open, I don't think the workers themselves will be able to do much better without having recourse to the same options which were open to previous owners--lay-offs and pay cuts.

Second, the activities of what's very clearly a dedicated and militant group of workers will move away from confrontation with the boss class towards management of an LLC. I'm sure they'll be asked to give talks around the country and I'm sure they'll try to help the movement financially, but that's not a substitution for the inspirational capacity of such militant struggles. And I remember the first 2008 occupation. It was fucking inspirational and did change the contours of struggle in American over the past half decade.

In any case, do we anything about their proposed management structure or remuneration scheme?

Also, how is this being recieved in the liberal press? I could image the Nation magazine wetting their collective pants over such a development.

Jan 16 2013 18:53

If everyone shares in the profits and losses like a true collective, then it will work. It works in South America. After that, it's just up to us to buy their windows.

Chilli Sauce
Jan 16 2013 22:28

Hmm....I'm not totally sure that's true.

Take Argentina, for example. In 2000/2001 there were the widespread occupations of factories which were subsequently taken over by their workers. The majority of those factories are no longer operational.

While, of course we should support workers who expropriate* their workplaces, outside of a larger revolutionary movement, they still have to operate within capitalist markets. This means facing all the pressures of profit and loss experienced by traditional capitalist firms. Case and point: of the still functioning Argentine co-ops, most of them have adapted graded pay structure.

Anyway, here's the three articles I always recommend when the co-op debate comes up:

*Worth noting here that, even in Argentina, many of the co-ops--just like the New Era Windows in Chicago--went down the 'proper channels' route, securing clearance and raising the capital to legally purchase the company.

Jason Cortez
Jan 16 2013 22:35

So sorry Chilli that these workers are interested in their next pay cheque and not seeing themselves as militant union salts building the one big union. Trade union consciousness and all that.

Chilli Sauce
Jan 16 2013 22:57

Yeah, that was sort of the point I was making. That and that revolutionaries shouldn't uncritically cheerlead these sorts of developments.

That said, there does seem to be some cross-fertilisation between the Republic workers and subsequent social movements. Call it trade union consciousness if you will, but any sort of class conciousness is going to be contradictory and, often, actions are far ahead of the beliefs which are vocally expressed.

Jan 16 2013 23:18

While I agree with the general criticims of trying to miantian a "self-managed" worplace under capitalist conditions, there's prolly an unsaid element here. I'm not real sure, but my hunch is
that some of the workers may be influenced by ideas of the Mexican Frente Auténtico del Trabajo To which the United Electrical Workers have an on-going and working alliance. And
in which there are prolly Mex-Ams as shopworkers.

I wish them luck and hope they come out of with "rice and beans" on their tables. But I am under no illusions that there will be "socialism in one company", to paraphrase an old expression.

kevin s.
Jan 17 2013 02:11

I gotta agree with syndicalist above. About the trade union consciousness, hard to say ''how far advanced" or whatever this is... I'm under the impression at least the leadership within this crew are some kind of socialists as syndicalist is hinting, but, either way clearly both the occupation and the move to a co-op are perfectly compatible with revolutionary and reformist politics alike. Also I read Jason Cortez's post as sarcasm - and agree with that to some extent (correct me if I'm wrong in inferring the sarcasm though). Workers gotta make a living (pay cheque as you fancy anglos spell it) and while some folks are a little overly idealistic about co-ops, there's lots to be said for it too. Although in my opinion this point is very important and speaks directly to why worker co-ops are still "self-managed exploitation" (even if preferable to boss-managed, class enemy-profiting exploitation).

if two different sets of capitalists have struggled to keep the factory open, I don't think the workers themselves will be able to do much better without having recourse to the same options which were open to previous owners--lay-offs and pay cuts.

Jan 17 2013 10:11

but they will democratically decide their pay cuts and layoffs!

Jason Cortez
Jan 17 2013 10:15

Yes Kevin you are correct. Indeed co-ops can be seen as self managed exploitation, it is sometimes preferable to straight forward exploitation and certainly better than unemployment for most.

Jason Cortez
Jan 17 2013 10:22

fnbrill goes to workers and tells them that being made redundant is better than self managed exploitation, which will sully their pure worker hands. The workers listen and then tell fnbrill to f*ck off. fnbrill leaves knowing they have done their bit for revolutionary socialism. We all talk about it on LibCom. wall

Jan 17 2013 18:07

Touche Juan! and douchey as well. One would think that LibCom would be the place where you could talk about Revolutionary socialist goals. I was simply taking the piss out of those who see "socialism in one factory" as a victory for socialism.

I've been pretty consistent both here and inside the IWW on collectives. Go ahead and do them if they better your workplace. But have no illusions, you might be voting your wages down. Collectives don't prefigure the revolution but can serve as a staging ground - a safe space - for revolutionaries to function, the blacklisted to support themselves, etc. But you will have to focus on running a business.

I've worked for 10 years in collectives and would do so again if a good opportunity arose.

And since we can use emoticons, here's one for you: hand

Jason Cortez
Jan 17 2013 18:48

Err... it is Jason not Juan. I am glad that we mostly agreed, but saying revolutionary socialist goals when talking about every dispute makes you sound lik e the ICC .

Jan 17 2013 19:06

Jason: Sorry for the mis-ID. responding just after waking.

Regarding "sounding like the ICC" - isn't that what libcom is for? I don't spew out political goals when active in an organizing campaign, I approach it different. But it's places like libcom where you can work those concepts out.

Jason Cortez
Jan 17 2013 22:27

Fair enough I guess, but rather ruins imy mage of you sprouting socialism to striking workers whilst looking like your avatar .

Jan 17 2013 23:48

I'm no where near as handsome as my avatar

Jan 18 2013 13:19

Such worker co-operative ventures borne out of defensive sectional campaigns during periods of economic crisis are better viewed as just one option open to the remaining workers in a situation of defeat rather than as any kind of stepping stone towards a movement of generalised resistance, (they have historically been short lived as solutions outside of a very few niche areas supported by 'movement' consumers). As such any kind of moral criticism is out of order but still requires a hard-headed analysis of the realities of the situation - so Chilli's comments are not out of place here.

Jan 18 2013 16:35

Maybe they can use the machinery to make other things if the windows and doors don't sell. Maybe they could make raised garden beds or greenhouses and exchange them for fresh produce from local urban gardeners. Maybe they could build a henhouse and raise chickens. Maybe the coop idea in general makes more sense when what's being produced is for immediate use and not for the larger market. Not a revolution but definitely a movement toward autonomy. And autonomy helps a lot when you wanna make a revolution.

Jan 18 2013 17:16

Well yes there are lots of things these workers could do as a means of survival if they are desperate enough, but this 'autonomy' Winstanley refers to seems more akin to an attempted escape from the class struggle into the isolation of life in the small marketplace or barter economy.

Jan 18 2013 23:19
fnbrill wrote:
but they will democratically decide their pay cuts and layoffs!

This will always be a problem under the cirrcumstances they are entering.

Brill is young enough to remember all of the "cooperatives" and "employee owned" factories coming out of the de-industralization period of the 1970s. These really didn't work. Weren't reall worker owned. And no doubt included pay cut and layoffs.

It will be curious, at least, to see what past lessons learned, how the new plant is structured, how the managing workers committees are developed and so forth. So, I guess this aspect may be of some new interest, legit criticisms not withstanding.

Jan 19 2013 19:32

@Spikymike: no escapes are possible, obviously. What have revolutionaries had to rely on for survival historically? Appropriated food and shelter, the sympathy and solidarity of the people. And the people with their own means of survival are the most important support - networks of people who value their autonomy from the larger capitalist market. I never said this autonomy was itself a revolution. The only "escape" from class struggle is to win it.

Steven Argue
Jan 19 2013 20:00

If they raise the $2 million, the cooperative will still be forced to function in the same capitalist economy where the original owners abandoned the enterprise. They will also be beholden to their creditors.

We need to organize for the day when it is possible to nationalize all capitalist holdings without compensation and finish off the days when production is for profit. This may or may not save a few jobs, but it doesn't look like a big solution for the working class.

Steven Argue, for the Revolutionary Tendency

Check out the following:
Court Rules Against Workers in Wisconsin!
Statement of the Revolutionary Tendency (RT)

Chilli Sauce
Jan 19 2013 21:47
nationalize all capitalist holdings without compensation

Nationalize??? confused confused confused

(and I'm not quibbling with the "zee", either wink )

Jan 26 2013 01:49

Given that workplace self-management has to be an essential part of a libertarian communist society -- the building block really -- I reckon any opportunity to learn lessons about workplace democracy, participation, how power works in this context etc., is valid and important. Also an opportunity to push for radical interpretations of how a democratic, egalitarian, self-managing workplace can/should function. Also just an opportunity to put the idea in people's heads that there's no inherent, natural right to top-down authority in a workplace.

Of course there are endless valid criticisms of the way co-ops are forced to function in a capitalist market/society, but these don't necessarily include the way decisions are made -- only what decisions have to be made and why.

Rejecting co-ops out of hand plays into the hands of those happy to dismiss the radical left as a bit cultish: in the sense of absurdly confident in the power of moral and ideological abstractions, and absolutist, purist ones at that, to mystically provide a workable framework for human freedom. By definition, a libertarian socialist society will be more ad hoc, make-it-up-as-you-go than any other, with everyone involved in making it up. Good to have the practice, even if it all goes wrong.

Jan 31 2013 06:59

Alot of these workers are volunteering to help with the Warehouse workers for justice campaign, which is really interesting in how it is using solidarity unionism to organize temporary agency workers in Wal-Mart and big box distribution centers south of Chicago. I dont think its revolutionary to start a large manufacturing co-op but I would say some of these workers could well be blacklisted. I wouldn't hesitate to make their move if they knew the market well enough to sell windows and doors.