As One Window Closes in Chicago, Another One Opens

Kari Lydersen

Alberto Ocegueda is one of the 17 workers who helped open the New Era Windows Cooperative after nearly five years of struggle. (Kari Lydersen)

On Dec. 5, 2008, Richard Gill­man abrupt­ly closed the Repub­lic Win­dows and Doors fac­to­ry on Goose Island in the Chica­go Riv­er, putting almost 300 work­ers out of a job dur­ing the hol­i­day sea­son in the midst of the eco­nom­ic cri­sis, deny­ing them their legal­ly due sev­er­ance pay and cut­ting off their health insurance.

Exact­ly five years lat­er, Gill­man was sen­tenced to four years in prison and a $100,000 fine on felony theft and fraud charges. When the judge asked if there was any­thing he’d like to say, Gill­man turned toward Arman­do Rob­les and Melvin Ricky” Maclin, two of his for­mer work­ers, and apologized.

Need­less to say, things have changed in the last five years. Now Gill­man is head­ed to prison, while Rob­les, Maclin and oth­er for­mer work­ers from Repub­lic Win­dows and Doors are respect­ed fig­ures in the world­wide move­ment for work­er-owned coop­er­a­tives as the own­ers of New Era Win­dows Coop­er­a­tive. They made inter­na­tion­al news for occu­py­ing the Repub­lic Win­dows fac­to­ry that day in Decem­ber 2008, begin­ning a saga that includ­ed forc­ing Bank of Amer­i­ca and JPMor­gan Chase to pay them $1.75 mil­lion that Gill­man had short­ed them; being bought by a Cal­i­for­nia com­pa­ny mak­ing cut­ting-edge ener­gy-effi­cient win­dows; occu­py­ing the fac­to­ry again when that com­pa­ny, Seri­ous Ener­gy, threat­ened to close up shop; and final­ly buy­ing the busi­ness them­selves, mov­ing the equip­ment and reopen­ing as New Era Win­dows in a cav­ernous for­mer soup fac­to­ry on the city’s south­west side.

Help keep this report­ing pos­si­ble by mak­ing a dona­tion today.

New Era cel­e­brat­ed its grand open­ing in May this year. Now 17 men and women own and work at the fac­to­ry, along with a staffer with Work­ing World, the New York-based orga­ni­za­tion that helped them start the coop­er­a­tive with tech­ni­cal assis­tance and a $665,000 invest­ment. Most of the for­mer Repub­lic Win­dows work­ers moved on to oth­er jobs or strug­gled with long-term unem­ploy­ment. Depend­ing how things go at New Era, oth­ers could also join the coop­er­a­tive in the future.

Almost no one else has done this, it’s unprece­dent­ed,” said Alber­to Ocegue­da, who worked at Repub­lic Win­dows for 15 years before its shut­down. A dream became a reality.”

On a Mon­day morn­ing about a week after Gillman’s sen­tenc­ing, the fac­to­ry was hum­ming – lit­er­al­ly – with the whir of machines pro­vid­ing back­ground noise to the friend­ly con­ver­sa­tions of work­ers who have spent years entrenched in the bat­tle to save the fac­to­ry. Rob­les and Maclin not­ed that while Gillman’s sen­tenc­ing gave them a sense of clo­sure and jus­tice, they har­bor no ani­mos­i­ty toward him.

I’m a Chris­t­ian, I had already for­giv­en him even if he had not apol­o­gized to us,” said Maclin with a warm smile as he pored over finan­cial records in the New Era main office below a bright­ly dec­o­rat­ed Christ­mas tree. You can’t hold on to neg­a­tiv­i­ty if you want to move in a pos­i­tive direction.”

I don’t feel good about it, because he’s a human being,” added Rob­les. But I’m pret­ty sure he didn’t feel sor­ry for the 270 peo­ple he hurt in 2008.”

Gillman’s sen­tence came four years after the State’s Attorney’s office lodged a list of seri­ous felony theft and fraud-relat­ed charges against him and set his bail at $10 mil­lion. The state essen­tial­ly alleged that Gill­man had loot­ed Repub­lic Win­dows and ripped off cred­i­tors and sup­pli­ers through the cre­ation of shell com­pa­nies and by mov­ing equip­ment clan­des­tine­ly to an Iowa win­dow fac­to­ry owned by his wife, which also sub­se­quent­ly shut down.

Labor advo­cates and experts agreed that Gill­man and his asso­ciates would like­ly not have been brought to jus­tice as thor­ough­ly with­out the activism of the Repub­lic work­ers and their union, the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UE) Local 1110. The work­ers and their allies not only attract­ed inter­na­tion­al atten­tion to the issue — the occu­pa­tion also pre­vent­ed com­pa­ny offi­cials from destroy­ing or hid­ing evidence.

In the whole Unit­ed States we almost nev­er see some­thing like this, always the own­ers run away, and noth­ing hap­pens to them,” Rob­les told In These Times. In this case it was the courage and the orga­ni­za­tion we had that made the difference.”

Too often finan­cial crimes go unpun­ished, but when union work­ers fight back and have the sup­port of a team like this, we can win jus­tice,” agreed UE West­ern Region Pres­i­dent Carl Rosen, in a state­ment fol­low­ing Gillman’s sentencing.

The strug­gles that Repub­lic Win­dows work­ers faced in the years fol­low­ing the clos­ing have pro­vid­ed them an edu­ca­tion in labor orga­niz­ing and move­ments. They toured the coun­try speak­ing about the Repub­lic Win­dows occu­pa­tion and shared expe­ri­ences with work­ers from Europe and Latin Amer­i­ca about their var­i­ous expe­ri­ences open­ing work­ers coop­er­a­tives. Short­ly after Gill­man was sen­tenced, Rob­les trav­eled to a con­fer­ence for coop­er­a­tive own­ers in Cleve­land, speak­ing with work­ers from across the Unit­ed States in addi­tion to those from the famous Mon­drag­on coop­er­a­tive in the Basque region of Spain. Rob­les has also been heav­i­ly involved in oth­er UE cam­paigns, includ­ing the strug­gle for rights for non-union ware­house work­ers. And he spent days in Madi­son, Wis. protest­ing against the vir­u­lent­ly anti-union poli­cies of Gov­er­nor Scott Walker.

The work­ers have also learned how to run a busi­ness, from the logis­tics of book-keep­ing and main­te­nance to mar­ket­ing, strate­giz­ing and advertising.

At Repub­lic Win­dows, we weren’t involved in mak­ing deci­sions in the office or buy­ing mate­ri­als,” said Anna Mar­quez, 44, who worked at Repub­lic for eight years. Now the change is dras­tic, and dif­fi­cult but not impos­si­ble. Now we have to know how to make win­dows and to run the process in the office. It’s a respon­si­bil­i­ty. Now we’re not doing it for some­one else, but for us.”

Since open­ing, New Era has got­ten plen­ty of orders for their res­i­den­tial replace­ment win­dows — ener­gy-effi­cient win­dows many home­own­ers buy to replace old drafty ones. The win­ter is typ­i­cal­ly a slow peri­od for the win­dow indus­try, so the New Era work­er-own­ers will take the chance to get machin­ery ready for sum­mer, step up their mar­ket­ing and move toward their goal of sell­ing com­mer­cial win­dows. Because the Chica­go gov­ern­ment has pledged to make and facil­i­tate mas­sive invest­ments in over­hauls of pub­lic and pri­vate build­ings, includ­ing replac­ing old win­dows with ener­gy-effi­cient ones, Rob­les hopes that New Era can also get sub­stan­tial busi­ness from the city retrofits.

All plan­ning and deci­sion-mak­ing for things like the move into com­mer­cial win­dows is done with a col­lec­tive, demo­c­ra­t­ic process involv­ing all the work­er-own­ers. That’s a big dif­fer­ence from the days of Repub­lic Win­dows and even Seri­ous Ener­gy, the Cal­i­for­nia com­pa­ny that bought Repub­lic after the CEO was impressed by the work­er occupation.

We have some argu­ments, but we always come to an agree­ment,” said Rob­les. We like the process. Before we just heard from the super­vi­sors, This is how you do it.’ Now we’re the ones mak­ing the decisions.”

Maria Roman, 52, described the dif­fer­ence between her 12 years at Repub­lic Win­dows and the present sit­u­a­tion in even stark­er terms.

Before we were like slaves, with so many demands on us,” said Roman, who, like all the oth­er work­ers, does every­thing involved in mak­ing a win­dow” — includ­ing cut­ting, weld­ing and oth­er steps. She admit­ted that so far the work­er-own­ers are not mak­ing great mon­ey, but it’s a hope­ful­ly tem­po­rary sac­ri­fice toward big­ger goals.

We have to invest our time and effort to be more pros­per­ous, and then we’ll have a bet­ter salary,” she said. That’s what it means to be own­ers … I feel very proud to be part of this organization.”

Maclin agreed that start­ing the coop­er­a­tive was and con­tin­ues to be a finan­cial strug­gle. He wish­es the gov­ern­ment would do more to sup­port and sub­si­dize coop­er­a­tives. It’s a great alter­na­tive for the Unit­ed States: It’s what we need to get back on track and be a coun­try that builds things,” he said. 

Maclin said that at Repub­lic Win­dows and Seri­ous Ener­gy, he nev­er took my work home with me.” Now he does. He works week­ends, and cus­tomers have his per­son­al phone num­ber and use it often. But, he said, it’s all worth it.

It’s excit­ing,” he said. I’m excit­ed every day to come here.”

Kari Lyder­sen is a Chica­go-based reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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