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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.

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.”

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.

Credibility crisis at Republic Windows

The resolute action of Republic Windows workers, with the attention they’ve commanded and the widespread support they’ve won, has brought to the fore serious questions of credibility for the company, for Bank of America, and for the federal bank bailout program — questions that would have otherwise been swept under the rug.

Read the rest of this entry »

Rally at Republic

It was the workers who made these windows,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez at Republic Windows and Doors yesterday. “These windows belong to the workers until they are paid for.”

He spoke during a rally of Republic workers and supporters in the cold and snow outside the occupied factory Saturday afternoon. Supporters included members of Teamsters, SEIU, UAW, AFSCME, United Steelworkers, and the Chicago Teachers Union. Republic workers are represented by United Electrical Workers Local 1110.

Federal law requires 60 days of pay — and state law requires 75 — when a plant is shut down without notice, Gutierrez said. It also mandates continued health coverage for that period, he emphasized.

Workers’ anger was fueled by the announcement that vacation and legally-mandated severance pay would not be forthcoming — according to union, the company’s bank, Bank of America, refused to allow the payments. (Bank officials have denied the charge.) Earlier the union had denounced Bank of America for failing to use $25 billion in federal bailout funds to maintain credit for businesses. There is widespread consensus supporting that charge.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sit-down at Republic Windows

Workers have refused to leave the Republic Windows and Doors plant on Goose Island, which shut down at 10 a.m. this morning.  They are demanding that Bank of America agree to stop blocking payment of vacation pay and compensation owed under federal and state plant closing notification laws.

United Electrical Workers, the union representing over 200 Republic workers, has charged that the company was forced to close because Bank of America has refused to use billions of dollars in federal bailout funds to maintain credit lines to longtime customers.

The sit-down comes a little more than 72 years after the first sit-down strike by Bendix workers in South Bend, Indiana, and three weeks before the 72nd anniversary of the ephochal 44-day Flint sit-down strike, which forced General Motors to recognize the United Auto Workers.

Republic workers have vowed to stay in their old factory until Bank of America negotiates a settlement.  Congressman Luis Gutierrez’s office is working to bring the parties together for a meeting this afternoon, according to UE.

See recent Newstips — Credit Crunch Threatens Local Plant and Update: Republic Windows to Close — also the Newstips blog on why banks aren’t using bailout funds to lend.

Update: Republic Windows to close

“Just weeks before Christmas, we are told that our factory will close — in three days,” said Armando Robles, an employee of Republic Windows and Doors and president of the United Electrical Workers local there.

As Newstips reported last week, the issue for the union is Bank of America’s refusal to extend Republic’s credit line — despite receiving $25 billion in government bailout funds intended to free up lending.

Now workers are being told Bank of America is blocking payment of vacation pay and the 60 days of pay required by federal law when 60-day notice of a plant closing isn’t given.

Republic workers, joined by concerned clergy and community members, will picket Bank of America to demand payments required by the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act. A press conference is scheduled for 3 p.m. outside the bank at 231 S. LaSalle.

The company informed the union on Tuesday that it would discontinue all of its operations, with employees terminated as of Friday, December 5, according to Mark Meinster of UE.

According to Meinster, Republic had a $5 million line of credit with Bank of America which he believes originated at LaSalle Bank, which BOA bought out last year.

Hurt by the housing depression, Republic had shifted to making replacement windows, Meinster said.

Illinois manufacturers that would have struggled through tough times are being forced to close because their credit is being cut off, said Glenn Johnson, former chairman of the Illinois Manufacturers Association.

“I’m hearing horror stories about banks coming in and saying, it’s been a great relationship and we’ll miss you, but we just don’t like your numbers, and we’re just not going to renew your line of credit,” Johnson said. Sales are down, hurting cash flow, but “absolutely, any company is going to try to make it through.”

“It irritates a lot of people in manufacturing” that banks received bailout money “that was supposed to ease up credit” and continue to refuse to make loans, Johnson said.

Credit crunch threatens local plant

The credit crunch — and the failure of big banks to use federal bailout funds to free up credit — could hit a local manufacturer, where workers were told denial of routine credit by Bank of America could force them to close down.

Clergy and community supporters joined workers from Republic Windows and Doors, 1333 N. Hickory, who picketed Bank of America on LaSalle Street yesterday, demanding that bailout money be used to keep Republic’s credit line open.

On Monday morning Republic managers told the plant’s union committee that they would be unable to continue operations unless they could get credit needed to buy materials and make payroll, said Mark Meinster of United Electrical Workers, which represents most of the plant’s 300 workers.

“This is really what the bailout money should be going to,” Meinster said. “If the bailout was to free up the credit market, Republic should be getting financing.”

Bank of America received $15 billion in bailout funds, and a few weeks later invested $7 billion in the China Construction Bank. Federal agencies gave banks $125 billion last month, saying they “expect all banking organizations to fulfill their fundamental role in the economy as intermediaries of credit to businesses, consumers, and other creditworthy borrowers” — but setting no actual requirements, according to the New York Times.

Republic Windows, in existence since 1965 and a longtime Bank of America customer, “is a company that under normal circumstances would be able to continue their operation,” Meinster said.

He said workers were concerned because the company moved some equipment out of the plant last weekend — they were told it was being returned to leasing companies — and managers were removing computers and files.

“They told us everything hinges on financing from Bank of America,” Meinster said. “They said they hope to keep operating but it’s day-to-day.”

He said the union got “no firm commitment” that legal requirements for 60-day notice or 60 days of pay, along with all owed benefits, would be met.

Republic told union officials a meeting with the bank is scheduled for next Tuesday, Meinster said.


See also: Re. Republic – more on the ‘credit crunch’

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