One Year After: Republic Workers Face Hard Times With High Hopes

Kari Lydersen

Workers stand inside the Republic Windows and Doors factory in December 2008 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even after their historic victory, it has been a lean year for most workers from Republic Windows and Doors. Though the factory occupation a year ago won them the severance and vacation pay they were due, only about 20 have been rehired at Serious Materials Chicago (the California company that took over the plant) and most have been unable to find other work.

They have applied for scores of other jobs and taken training courses to develop new skills, but they all say there just aren’t jobs to be had. The jobs they have found are mostly minimum wage with no benefits. Some have been collecting unemployment, but others have not applied because of their documentation status.

Even as the workers have scrimped on holiday gifts and meal fixings, however, they are hopeful that next year will be a prosperous one as Serious Materials gears up to hire back a larger workforce.

Last week, Serious Materials CEO Kevin Surace visited the Chicago plant for a meeting with the entire former union workforce, to update them on the company’s progress and distribute $50 gift cards and holiday food. Surace said the winter months are typically slow for the window business, but he expects things to pick up by the second quarter.

Melvin Ricky” Maclin, a leader of the factory occupation, has spent the year looking for work with no luck.

I’m looking for anything I can get at this point,” said Maclin, 55, who worked at Republic for seven years. I’m following any and all leads – cooking, warehouses, department stores.”

Based on the union contract signed with Serious Materials, he will be one of the next workers rehired in the new year.

It’s been very financially stressful for me and my wife, all the grandkids,” he said. This Christmas will be a lot different than past years. We’re just struggling to keep our heads above water. I’m chomping at the bit to get back to work.”

Maclin has kept busy supporting workers in other struggles, including the UE’s campaign to organize workers in Chicago-area warehouses. He was also active in the successful battle to prevent closure of the Hartmarx suit factory in Des Plaines, Ill., last summer and the UE’s attempt to prevent closure of the Quad City Die Casting factory on the Illinois-Iowa border.

Being pretty active and involved keeps me up and going,” Maclin said. I think we inspired people. They need to feel like they have a voice, like people are listening. When we educate people we give them power. ”

Workers including Maclin and UE Local 1110 president Armando Robles, who is now working at Serious Materials Chicago, have also toured the country speaking about the factory occupation.

Meanwhile Rocio Perez, 37, has been struggling to make ends meet for her five kids, especially without unemployment benefits. She worked for two months at a credit hotline but was laid off. She has looked for work at factories, restaurants and other places, with no luck. But after the meeting with Surace, she is hopeful she will be back at work soon.

That gave us confidence, and giving us gifts was a very beautiful thing for him to do,” she said.

Likewise Raul Flores has been trying in vain to find a new job. He took computer training classes at Instituto Latinos Progresando, a nonprofit organization, and applied for a score of jobs including at window factories and a tube manufacturer.

I’m just looking for whatever I can get,” he said. And taking computer classes, trying to improve myself, so I can do something different in the future. These are difficult times.”

While workers and supporters nationwide have lauded the Republic Windows workers for occupying the factory, Flores said it’s not the thing many prospective employers want to hear.

When they see I was at Republic Windows, they’re like, Okay…’ and I don’t hear back from them,” he said. They think we’re troublemakers or something.”

Flores, 27, has been making the best of his unemployment, learning to cook and helping out around the house especially since his wife recently got a child care job. I’m like the mommy now,” he said. I wash the dishes and take kids to school. You have to cut back on a lot of things. Going out on weekends, doing things as a family. But as long as we’re together that’s what matters.”

He also plays soccer twice a week on a team including six other former Republic Windows workers. But he can’t wait to get back to work making windows for Serious Materials.

That’s what we fought for, to get our jobs back. We haven’t won anything until we’re all back at work.”

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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