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New Era Windows: Symbol of a New Workers Movement

By Geminijen

The New Era Workers Who Made It Work:
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This past year, numerous newspaper articles heralded the opening of a brand-new worker-owned cooperative, New Era Windows. In a jobless recovery, the opening of any job creating business is a cause for celebration, but why all the national attention to a new cooperative in Chicago with only 20 employees? The reason lies in the historic struggle that brought New Era into being and what it represents for labor today.

People Power: The Republic Plant Occupation. It was during the big financial meltdown of 2008. As the relentless outsourcing of manufacturing jobs and the financial collapse brought layoffs in the USA to 500,000 a month, people around the country were increasingly aware of how the 1% was ripping off the 99% while the big banks were being bailed out.

It was just days after receiving a $25 billion federal bailout, that Bank of America cut off credit to Republic Windows and Doors, a small manufacturing company in Chicago, causing Republic’s management to fire all 250 workers with just three days notice and without paying workers the wages and accrued vacation pay required under federal law.

But instead of simply filing for unemployment insurance, setting up a picket line and filing a law suit for back pay, Republic’s workers and their union, UE Local 1110 (United Electrical Workers), did the unthinkable. They took over and occupied the plant and stayed, winning the hearts of downcast Americans everywhere. Of course there had been factory takeovers in other countries –progressives often recall with longing the factory takeovers in Argentina in the 1990s- but not since the 1930s had the US labor movement embraced sit-ins.

The workers’ action drew extensive media coverage and attracted wide support. Protest demonstrations at Bank of America branches took place in dozens of U.S. cities during the sit-in forcing U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to express support for the workers, and Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich to ban state business with Bank of America because the bank’s cancellation of the company’s line of credit had prompted the shutdown.

On December 10, the union members voted to end the occupation after Republic, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, and the union negotiated a settlement of $1.75 million used to pay each worker eight weeks wages, plus all accumulated vacation pay, and give the workers more time to find a buyer for their company.

In the next five years, the company was owned by two different employers who also decamped when they felt they couldn’t make sufficient profit. The second time, when workers heard that once again the plant was to close with no notice and no severance, allies from the earlier struggle, started arriving immediately. Former Republic employees, Occupy Chicago, ARISE, the Chicago Worker’s Collaborative, Jobs with Justice and Stand Up Chicago showed up with pizzas and tents and created a supportive environment as workers negotiated with police; a live stream fed video to the world from the start. As Fried, one of the New Era workers noted, “In the last few years, there’s been a real shift in our movements towards direct-action tactics.”

Once again, the company, this time Serious Energy, backed down, announcing a ninety-day stay. By occupying a second time (in February 2012), workers won a chance to form a cooperative and make a bid on equipment But the struggle was (and still is) not over. Last year Serious Energy reneged on its agreement the New Era team had to go through a petition fight for several months even to be allowed to bid on the factory.

With encouragement from their union, the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE), and The Working World, a progressive investment group that helps cooperative start-ups internationally, the remaining 20 workers formed a company, “New Era Windows LLC.” New Era,100 percent owned and managed by workers, finally opened for business this May. [cont’d.]

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