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Uprising

Friday, May 10, 2013, 2:04 pm

How Chicago Workers Went From Occupation to Cooperative

By Rebecca Burns

“Today, you’re going to see 18 people cutting a ribbon together—should be interesting,” joked Leah Fried, a spokesperson for the United Electrical Workers (UE), at yesterday’s launch of the New Era Windows Cooperative.

Given the occasion, nothing less than a collaborative ribbon-cutting would do. The group of 18 African-American and Latino men and women who crowded around the pair of ceremonial scissors were embarking on a trailblazing experiment in collective ownership. 

The grand opening of the worker-owned window factory marked the latest step in a five-year journey the group has undertaken together, beginning with their famous occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory in 2008. After the workers, all members of UE Local 1100, were forced to occupy once again in February 2012—this time to save their jobs from new owner Serious Energy—they won time to search for a buyer for the factory and began to consider running the business as a cooperative.

A year and half later later, they've signed a lease, bought their own factory equipment, and are officially open for business. Their numbers have dwindled over time—at one point, nearly 300 worked at the Republic Windows factory. But the tight-knit group of 18 workers is excited to begin making eco-friendly, custom windows—without bosses or managers.

The name New Era isn’t an overstatement—as a worker-owned manufacturing cooperative, the business is breaking new ground. “This is a new era for us and our families, and also for the working class,” Armando Robles, president of UE Local 1110, told a crowd of a several dozen supporters that included family members, local politicians and allies from other Chicago unions and worker centers.

Many of the New Era Windows workers have spent nearly a decade in the industry, but their new factory looks and feels different. They designed the shop floor collectively according to their years of experience and opted to move in and set up the equipment themselves rather than pay movers or logistics experts.

The result, they say, is a safer and more efficient factory, as well as a more equitable one. “What you're going to see is the extraordinary quality of these windows when workers are invested in the process, and are treated not as costs but as protagonists in the business,” said Brendan Martin, president of the cooperative development fund The Working World and now the 18th member of the cooperative.

After the ribbon was cut, the group led a tour through the factory space. One New Era member, clad in a light blue T-shirt emblazoned with the company's logo emblazoned, showed guests a machine that cuts windows to the exact size specified by customers. Two other worker-owners in colorful hard hats unloaded materials for some of the first windows the company will manufacture—its 1110 series, named after the United Electrical local to which it belongs.

New Era will continue to affiliate with UE as Local 1110, making it one of a handful of unionized worker-owned cooperatives in the United States. Though the exact shape of New Era's relationship with the the union is still being determined, Fried says UE will provide organizational support, help mediate any disagreements and promote the co-op. The group is operating according to a “one member, one vote” principle, but plans to elect a board of directors. Worker wages have not yet been set.

As part of a UE division of nine union co-ops across the country, New Era Windows will also help establish best practices and advise other workers considering ownership. Robles plans to pay back the $665,000 in start-up money lent to New Era Windows by the Working World so that it can be reinvested in new worker-owned businesses.

“When workers lose their jobs, a lot of unions don't do anything,” he told In These Times. “But UE fought [alongside] us. I think more workers could take this road.” 

Indeed, the New Era experiment will be watched closely across the country by those hoping that labor-cooperative partnerships could provide a new path for workers contending with lay-offs or worsening employment conditions. As In These Times has reported previously, worker-owned cooperatives are more common in the service sector, where start-up capital is lower. But given the freefall in the U.S. manufacturing sector, the United Steelworkers and several other manufacturing unions have launched initiatives to explore unionized co-ops.

Though the tone of the afternoon was celebratory, New Era members also emphasized the sacrifices they had made to get there. Melvin “Ricky” Macklin, vice president of the local, borrowed from friends and family to come up with the $1,000 required from each of the 18 worker-owners as start-up capital. In addition to putting forward this money in good faith and attending business classes and regular planning meetings to prepare for the launch, most New Era Windows members have had to continue fulfilling the requirements of unemployment insurance, since so far they have been “working towards a job, rather than working a job,” Macklin noted.

Because of the risk entailed, some workers from the old Serious Materials factory declined Macklin and Robles’ offer to become part of New Era Windows. “Many people are afraid to step up,” he told In These Times. “But nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

After the celebration is over, the group will begin the “hard-nosed planning” of figuring out pricing for the windows, tweaking the machines to run as smoothly as possible and beginning to fill sales orders, says Martin. They have a handful of orders and are hoping that other unions and housing cooperatives, in particular, will come forward as customers.

When asked if Friday, the factory’s first day in operation, would be just another 9–5 workday, Macklin answered, “Actually, I’m getting here at 7 a.m.”

Once the worker-owners begin breaking even, they hope to hire back more of the laid-off Serious Materials workers who did not initially join the cooperative but have begun showing more interest in the project now that it's up and running. Eventually, they'd like to create more good, green jobs that will stay in Chicago.

Despite all the obstacles they've already overcome, the group knows they still face an uphill battle to make the business viable. “As a movement, we have to be prepared for failure as well,” says Martin. ”We're trying to create a movement that's not just based on excitement—we're also trying to build real alternatives.”

In order to do that, they'll need continued support from the community. In cities such as New York and Oakland, local governments and chambers of commerce have offered modest tax incentives to cooperatives. Martin would like to see Chicago do the same for New Era Windows, particularly given the nearly $10 million in taxpayer subsidies given to Republic Windows and Doors, the workers’ former employer, for the construction of its Goose Island plant as part of the city's Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program. The plant's owners allegedly pocketed $8 million from the building's sale after keeping the factory open just long enough to avoid TIF penalties. (One of the factory's former owners moved Republic assets to his new company, Sound Solutions, in what a federal bankruptcy trustee termed a “fraudulent transfer.” Sound Solutions will now be one of New Era Windows' chief competitors).

Rather than continuing to funnel money to developers who pull this kind of bait-and-switch, Martin argues, city officials could choose instead to invest in worker-owned businesses. 

But will they? Several local politicians, including Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, were present at the opening to show their support, but it's not yet clear how that support will manifest. Seventh District Cook County Commissioner Jesus G. Garcia said that he's thrilled to see the business open in his district, particularly since the factory previously sat vacant. “I'm eager to see if there are any incentives that can be provided them,” he told In These Times. “Seeing the model that they've provided, I think there's lots of potential for cooperatives to take off in the region.” 

That's not the only thing that brought him to the opening. “Part of the reason that I'm here today,” he said, “Is that my wife and I are in the market for some new windows.”  

Rebecca Burns is an In These Times staff writer and assistant editor based in Chicago, covering labor, housing and higher education. Her writing has also appeared in Jacobin, Truthout, AlterNet and Waging Nonviolence. She can be reached at rebecca[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns

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