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Republic Windows workers form co-op

Former Republic Windows workers, who came to national prominence when they occupied their factory in December 2008, have formed a worker-run cooperative with the goal of taking the plant over on a permanent basis.

Members of UE Local 1110 have incorporated New Era Windows LLC and are negotiating with Serious Energy to purchase the plant’s machinery and materials.  Serious announced it was closing the plant in February.

At that time workers briefly occupied the factory, demanding that Serious work with them to find a buyer to continue operations.  In 2008, Republic workers occupied the factory for six days after it was closed without notice; they won severance and vacation pay that was owed them (see Workers Win at Republic).  Serious Energy bought the plant in 2009.

Of 270 workers at Republic at the time of its closing, Serious only hired back about 75, said Leah Fried of UE.  She said 20 workers have invested $1,000 each to form the cooperative, and another 20 are interesting in joining.

Workers felt Serious Energy “never really tried” and “didn’t do enough to be successful” at its Chicago plant, Fried said.  The company cited “ongoing economic challenges in construction and building materials” in announcing the closing this winter, but according to reports, Serious is shifting from green building materials to energy efficiency services.

New Era “is going to be able to make high-quality windows at lower costs because it won’t have to pay the high salaries of bosses,” Fried said.  “The overhead is going to be significantly lower than the competition’s.”

And profits will go back into “growing the business and creating more jobs,” she said.

The Goose Island facility is owned by the Wrigley Corporation, which purchased it from Republic for $8 million.  It was built with a $10 million TIF subsidy, which was never recovered.  Serious Energy’s lease runs through August.

Community moves on an abandoned building

Southwest Side residents will paint a mural on an abandoned building and plant a community garden in the backyard tomorrow, celebrating the success of a community drive to secure the property —  and promoting plans to reclaim the building as affordable housing.

A press conference is scheduled for 3 p.m. tomorrow (Thursday, May 19) at 6212 S. Fairfield, a foreclosed property which has been a source of trouble for years, and whose owners the city has been unable to identify.

Festivities will take place on the block through the afternoon, and leaders of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network,  Southwest Organizing Project, and Jewish Council on Urban Affairs will hold an interfaith prayer service honoring the community’s commitment and unity.

The two-family building, just across the street from Fairfield Elementary School, has been repeatedly broken into and often wide open over recent years, said Mark Crain of IMAN.  “We know that there has been sexual abuse taking place there and that there’s been rampant drug use,” he said.

It seemed “nothing was ever able to be done about it,” said Mike Reardon of Neighborhood House Service of Chicago Lawn.  “It’s what I’d call a classic bank walkaway.”

First the building’s owner walked away, and after foreclosure, the title was awarded to Deutsche Bank; but the bank never took title, he said.  Other banks and financial services are listed as having interests, and a tax sale also clouds the title.

“We’ve tried meeting with Deutsche Bank, but the talks never went anywhere,” Crain said.

IMAN pressed to have the building taken to Housing Court – an unusual step following foreclosure — but no owners have responded.  Housing Court opens the possibility of taking the building over under the city’s Troubled Buildings Initiative.  In the meantime, NHS was appointed receiver and boarded up the building.

On May 12, with 20 neighbors — along with SWOP and JCUA – in court to show support for IMAN’s effort, a judge issued a final summons to any possible owners.  IMAN is preparing a proposal to rehab the building as affordable housing, Crain said.

If that process is unsuccessful, the group will explore acting under a new state law, the Abandoned Housing Rehabilitation Act, he said.

IMAN hopes it will be the second building in its Green Reentry Project, which trains ex-offenders to retrofit abandoned homes with energy efficient systems.  The project’s first building is scheduled to be completed at the end of this month.

With over 5,000 foreclosures since 2006, Chicago Lawn is among the neighborhoods hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis.  Crain said IMAN hopes to scale up reclamation efforts to address abandoned properties in a six block area of the neighborhood.

The Cleveland Model

If there’s a “Chicago model” (or “Daley model”) of urban development, it’s this: use public TIF subsidies to attract corporate headquarters and big-box retailers that sometimes pay poverty-level wages and send employees to public health programs, and to subsidize high-end real estate development that gentrifies and displaces; and privatize public services from schools to parking to airports, in a mad scramble for revenue.

Meanwhile, in the search for ever-elusive “bipartisanship,” federal jobs and economic stimulus policies are sapped by tax cuts while shortchanging direct stimulus like unemployment assistance and aid to states, and a “green” energy and jobs policy spends billions of dollars to subsidize nuclear power and “clean coal.”

Cleveland offers a better way.  As detailed in the Nation this week (and Yes magazine last year), Evergreen Cooperatives of Cleveland are creating large-scale employee-owned green businesses aimed at serving “anchor institutions,” particularly hospitals and universities, which purchase billions of dollars of goods and services every year.

Backed by the Cleveland Foundation and Shorebank Enterprise Cleveland among others, Evergreen Cooperative has launched  the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry to provide green services to hospitals and Ohio Cooperative Solar, which is weatherizing residences and installing solar panels on nonprofit and municipal buildings.  Also in the works is Green City Growers, a massive year-round hydroponic greenhouse which will be the largest urban food-production operation in the nation, and Neighborhood Voice, a community-based newspaper.

Based in low-income communities, all the businesses will pay living wages and provide health coverage.  And unlike multinational chains, where profits are whisked back to Wall Street, they will build assets for low-income families:  employee-owners are projected to build a $65,000 equity stake within eight years.  On top of that, 10 percent of profits from each enterprise will go back to the Evergreen Cooperative Development Fund to develop more jobs.

Here’s the video.  It’s pretty inspiring.

The project is modeled on the Mondragon Cooperatives, begun by a priest and five workers in Spain in 1953 and now comprising 200 enterprises in 40 countries with 100,000 employee-owners and annual sales of 16 billion Euros.  As Carl Davidson explains, Mondragon workers build buses and appliances and high-tech machine tools and operate a chain of supermarkets—and they run their own banks, health clinics, schools, and Mondragon University, all worker-owned co-ops.

Last year the United Steelworkers announced a partnership with Mondragon to develop manufacturing cooperatives here.  According to Davidson, the partnership is now looking for viable small enterprises where owners are interested in cashing out.

“Too often we have seen Wall Street hollow out companies by draining their cash and assets and hollowing out communities by shedding jobs and shuttering plants,” said USW President Leo Gerard.  “We need a new business model that invests in workers and invests in communities.”

Republic windows to supply CEDA

More former Republic Windows workers expect to be hired back after the factory’s new owners announced that they will be supplying windows for the Community Economic Development Association of Cook County, the largest home weatherization agency in the nation, Kari Lydersen reports.

Workers launch green cleaning service

A new workers cooperative offers homeowners, nonprofits and businesses with an alternative to cleaning services that exploit employees and use toxic chemicals.

A project of the Chicago Workers Collaborative, Workers United for General Maintenance was launched earlier this year, and already has ten contracts, said Tim Bell of CWC. They aim for 300 new contracts by the end of the year — enough to provide 23 worker-owners with full-time employment.

They offer residential and commercial cleaning services, aimed at people and organizations that care about labor and environmental standards.

Cooperative members have years of cleaning industry experience; many had moved on to factory jobs which were subsequently shut down, Bell said. “People were getting laid off; there were no options except to create work themselves,” he said.

Initial members each paid $5,500 to cover startup costs — incorporation, licenses, insurance, and OSHA certification classes, as well as materials, equipment, and initial marketing. New workers can become full voting members after working 4,000 hours.

The democratically-run cooperative chose members to get training as front-line supervisors, bookkeepers, marketers, material handlers and personnel managers.

They’ll get a living wage, and neither they nor their customers will be exposed to toxic chemicals — a sharp departure from industry standards, Bell said.

“The cleaning industry is one of the worst for wage theft,” he said. CWC’s legal clinic has filed over 50 lawsuits for wage and hour violations over the past several years. Beyond wage theft — checks that bounce, nonpayment of overtime — many companies pay substandard wages, he said.

And standard cleaning products can cause cancer, birth defects, asthma, and eye and skin irritation. While they pollute the indoor atmosphere for anyone who uses the space, exposure for workers is far more direct. Discharged into the water system the chemicals are toxic for aquatic species.

Workers United offers residential and commercial services, and they’re reaching out to larger nonprofits including schools and hospitals. One goal is to grow to the point where they can compete with temporary staffing agencies that provide cleaning for public facilities, Bell said

New Deal at Republic Windows?

A leading green building material manufacturer is close to a deal to reopen Republic Windows, according to the union representing workers who lost their jobs there — and occupied the plant for six days — last month.

Serious Materials of Sunnyvale, California, is close to finalizing an agreement with creditors to purchase Republic assets, said Mark Meinster of United Electrical Workers.

The company hopes to hire back the entire Republic workforce within a few months, he said.

“We are all hopeful about the possibility of Serious reopening our plant,” said former Republic worker Melvin Maclin in a release. “This would be a very happy ending to our struggle.”

Republic workers occupied the plant for six days in early December, winning support from President-elect Barack Obama as well as an agreement from Bank of America and JPMorgan-Chase to provide financing for vacation and severance pay. Bank of America also agreed to consider proposals to reopen the plant.

UE filed an unfair labor practices complaint on January 5 charging Republic Windows owners with bad-faith bargaining over the plant closing. The owners formed a new corporate entity and moved equipment and business to an Iowa plant, while claiming that economic hardship forced the Republic shutdown, according to the complaint.

About 20 percent of the plant’s equipment was removed, Meinster said, and the union hopes to force its return during a ramp-up period.

A purchase agreement with creditors, principally Bank of America, is in the final stages, Meinster said. Once reached it must be approved by a bankruptcy court. The union is urging speedy consideration by the court, before business evaporates and the workforce is scattered.

Serious Materials manufactures highly insulated windows which reduce heating and cooling costs by up to 40 percent, as well as a green alternative to drywall and other products at plants in California and Colorado.

“They are telling us there is a market for insulated windows, they have a lot of customers in the Midwest and they want a manufacturing facility near those customers,” said Meinster. He said the company contacted the union after the settlement was announced in December.

The company has won awards for innovation in energy conservation from the Aspen Institute and for Top Green Product from Popular Science. They have a company goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by one billion tons a year.

“These are the green-collar jobs we need for the future of our community,” said former Republic worker Armando Robles. “We hope that the creditors, [bankruptcy] trustee and judge will allow Serious to purchase the assets soon, so I and my co-workers can start making windows again.”

Getting the stimulus right

Local groups have lots of ideas on what’s needed to get the economy going.

Education and community leaders testified for federal and local officials at a hearing at the Chicago Urban League on January 9, calling for spending on youth employment and education in the economic stimulus package.

Andrea Kovack of the Shriver Center on Poverty Law backs a stimulus proposal that would boost federal Medicaid funds to Illinois by as much as $640 million a year for two years. She argues the temporary increase should be applied to the state’s nearly $5-billion backlog in reimbursements to health care providers, which is threatening their capacity to serve Medicaid patients (recently covered by Carol Marin).

]Illinois PIRG has called on the Illinois Department of Transportation to release the project list it has submitted in response to Congress’s call for ready-to-go transportation proposals for the stimulus bill.

The group released a report from its national affiliate analyzing the transportation stimulus “wish lists” that 19 states have made public, which finds that more than half of funding requests are for new or wider highways, with only 17 percent going to public transit or intercity rail projets.

Read the rest of this entry »

Workers win at Republic Windows

Last Friday, the day Republic Windows workers occupied their factory, the Department of Labor announced 533,000 jobs lost in November, the largest loss in over 30 years.

The news on unemployment gave national resonance to the window makers’ plight. It also meant that for Republic workers, “it was riskier to leave the plant and go into this labor market” than to stay inside and face possible arrest, said Mark Meinster of United Electrical Workers.

It was one a number of extraordinary factors that strengthened their hand. There was the bank bailout initiated in October, which had generated widespread outrage — and now had failed to stem cascading job loss. There was the presence of President-elect Obama’s transition team, and the national press, in Chicago — and Obama’s remarkable statement of support for the workers’ demands on Sunday.

“We never expected this,” Republic worker Melvin Maclin, vice president of UE Local 1110, commented on the support of major public officials. “We expected to go to jail.”

Then there was Governor Balogjevich. On Monday, the day before his arrest, he appeared at Republic and promised the state would stop doing business with Bank of America, Republic’s main creditor, which had cancelled the company’s credit and put the kabosh on paying workers what they were owed.

Blagojevich’s statement was taken as a threat, but in the chaos of the next day, when he was taken off in handcuffs by the FBI, the state did indeed shut off business with the bank. BoA provides financial services for tollways and other state operations. It was “a big hit” for the bank, Meinster said. And the city and county were considering similar actions.

On the ground, support for the workers swelled. There were daily demonstrations on LaSalle Street. In Little Village, community supporters protested at a BoA branch. The union reported demonstrations at BoA offices in New York, San Francisco, Buffalo, and Florida. Dave Lindorff reported a similar action in Philadelphia.

Jobs With Justice, which held rallies around the country for a “People’s Bailout” this week, began talking about a boycott of Bank of America.

On Wednesday, the day negotiations were concluded, there were hundreds on a picketline that stretched two blocks outside BoA’s LaSalle Street office. And in Charlotte, N.C., local labor groups picketed the banks national headquarters and tried to deliver a letter to bank executives. (As in Little Village, they were prevented from entering.)


Under pressure from many directions, BoA sidestepped its statements claiming no responsibility for compensation due Republic workers and ponied up $1.35 million to meet their demands. JPMorgan Chase, recently revealed to be a 40 percent owner of Republic — where midwest chairman Bill Daley must have been concerned about political fallout — came up with another $400,000.

Workers got the eight weeks of pay and health coverage they were entitled to under plant closing laws, as well as the vacation pay they had accrued.

The victory demonstrates the value of militant action by labor in addressing the economic crisis, Meinster said. He notes the rejuvenating effect on the movement — particularly the outpouring of support from unions that might not have taken this action themselves, at least before the example of Republic workers.

Recalling Rosa Parks, Rev. Jesse Jackson called the factory takeover “the beginning of a larger movement for mass action to resist economic violence.” Chitown Daily News quoted UE regional president Carl Rosen calling the victory “a wakeup call to corporate America that the rules have changed in this country.” AP quoted Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce president Jerry Roper saying, “I’d be the first to say to companies that what you saw with workers at Republic will be repeated over and over across the country.”

Green Jobs

The union announced the creation of a foundation dedicated to reopening the plant, seeded with thousands of dollars donated to support the workers along with money from the national union. It will probably fund some initial planning efforts, in the hope that federal support may be forthcoming next year in connection with further bailout efforts or from economic stimulus focusing on green jobs.

It may not be an unreasonable hope, given strong support from local congressional leadership — and given the surge in demand for Republic’s energy-efficient windows that an anticipated national energy conservation program would create.

Phil Mattera of Good Jobs First pointed out that in the web of issues raised by the confrontation — including unemployment and the loss of manufacturing jobs; fairness for workers in plant closings; and accountability for the federal bank bailout — the issue of green jobs was overlooked in media accounts. (Indeed the connection with the bailout was largely elided in earlier accounts — presented in photos of picketers’ signs but left out of accompanying articles — before politicians began raising it.)

The union kept raising the issue of green jobs even as it focused on immediate demands for fairness. The issue is now the basis of any hopes of reopening Republic.

“The workers want Bank of America to keep the plant open and the workers employed,” Carl Rosen said after the settlement. “With Barack Obama’s stimulus proposal, there will be even greater demand for the products made by Republic’s workers. It doesn’t make sense to close this plant when the need is so obvious.”

There is also the question of how labor addresses longterm disinvestment and deindustrialization. Dan Swinney of the Center for Labor and Community Research argues for a proactive role for unions, monitoring their companies for signs of problems and seeking alternatives to shutdowns by working with community groups and public agencies and seeking business allies.

He points to a remarkable parallel: In 1993 Steelworkers Union members at Sharpsville Quality Products, a decades-old foundry in western Pennsylvania, were told (like Republic workers) that their plant was closing in three days. Like Republic workers, they occupied the plant. They occupied it for 42 days, sought out community allies and worked with the regional industrial retention agency (as well as salaried employees) to take over the business. (See chapter five of Swinney’s Building a Bridge to the High Road.)

Employee ownership is only one possible alternative (and it doesn’t always benefit employees, as the Tribune Company is demonstrating). In the mid-1980s CLCR worked with UE and community groups in an unsuccessful effort to support a local investor’s bid to acquire electronics manufacturer Stewart Warner and keep 2,500 jobs in Chicago. Swinney points to a number of models, including large-scale community-labor cooperative enterprises in Canada and Europe. In any case, he says, unions need to be proactive and creative — and move beyond their focus on wages, benefits and working conditions.


In another coincidence, while Republic workers were protesting Bank of America’s credit cutoff to Republic, the failure of banks receiving bailout funds to use them for their intended purpose came under new scrutiny in Washington.

When the Treasury Department started handing out funds under the Troubled Assets Relief Program in October, the Federal Reserve and three regulatory agencies issued a statement: “The agencies expect all banking organizations to fulfill their fundamental role in the economy as intermediaries of credit to businesses, consumers, and other creditworthy borrowers.”

But as the New York Times pointed out in November, “that admonition wasn’t accompanied by any real requirements to lend.” Instead, “nervous lenders are demanding that even healthy loans be paid back. Banks and other financial institutions, meanwhile, are reducing exposures to borrowers and doing whatever they can to discourage the assumption of further debt.”

Last week the Government Accountability Office issued its first report on the bailout, noting that Treasury has no way of knowing how bailout funds are being used by financial institutions. This week a congressional oversight panel issued a report with similar conclusions, and the House and Senate passed measures requiring banks receiving bailout money to report on their lending. After first rejecting the GAO’s recommendation that bank regulators track the spending of bailout funds, Treasury subsequently agreed to carry it out.

As Talking Points Memo points out, oversight of the bailout is getting underway two months after the program was initiated — and after virtually all of the first batch of multiple billions has been allocated. It may be “too little, too late.” Under one legislative proposal, we would find out next July whether bailout recipients are extending credit or just acquiring weaker institutions — and trimming their loan portfolios.

The Project on Government Oversight points out that a similar bailout program in the United Kingdom (instituted at the same time as ours) had far more stringent requirements on financial institutions, including banning executive bonuses and dividend payments until the government is paid back — and requiring recipients of bailout funds to maintain lending to businesses and consumers at last year’s levels.

Yesterday the Sun Times reported on another local company that, like Republic, went out of business after Bank of America shut off a credit line it had inherited when it acquired LaSalle Bank last year. Senator Durbin and Representative Gutierrez might push regulators to examine what’s happened to LaSalle’s business customers since the BoA acquisition. More generally, are big banks issuing blanket orders to shut down credit for businesses below a certain threshold — including businesses that were served by smaller banks that have been acquired, in some cases with bailout money?

Ultimately, as Rosen and Jobs With Justice have argued, the Republic workers dramatized the basic problem of the bailout, which has accelerated the concentration of wealth at the top that is squeezing the living standards and spending power of working families and dragging the economy into deeper crisis.


Finally, Mayor Daley has said he’ll try to recoup TIF money awarded by the city to Republic on the basis of promises of job creation. But he knows that TIF agreements contain projections of job creation or retention figures but no real requirements or clawback provisions.

Jeff McCourt of Good Jobs First-Illinois points out that Chicago and other municipalities successfully opposed efforts to include TIFs in the Corporate Accountability Act that was passed in 2003, which contained extensive reporting requirements and clawbacks if promises for job creation or retention weren’t met.

The Republic saga makes a good case for upgrading TIF accountability, McCourt said. As it is, the public can’t even examine the Republic TIF deal without filing a freedom of information request, he said.

He adds that “the people who run Republic apparently had enough funds to buy a similar operation in Iowa” where workers may be paid even less than in Chicago, which he called “disturbingly reminscent” of the kind of runaway shops that have plagued workers and communities for three decades.

Perhaps we need “some kind of data base of corporate bad actors who would not be considered suitable for government incentives in the future,” he said.

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