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.

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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.”

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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