A New Era for Workers: A Chicago Factory Goes Cooperative

Originally published in March 2015.

When the workers at Republic Windows and Doors were fired without notice and asked to walk away from their jobs without back pay, severance, or benefits, they said — No.

“They gave us like an hour, more or less,” explains Rocio Perez, a former worker at Republic’s Chicago plant. “They came and said, ‘okay, you have your papers, now go.’ That’s when we said, no, we’re not leaving, this is where we’re staying.”

In the climate of the 2008 recession, the 200 workers occupying their factory to fight for the wages owed to them captured the attention of the nation, and soon the Republic sit-in had garnered national media coverage and support from such high-profile figures as Chicago’s mayor and bishop, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and President Obama, who said of the group:

“When it comes to the situation here in Chicago, with the workers who are asking for the benefits and payments that they have earned — I think they’re absolutely right.”

After a six-day sit-in, the company and Bank of America — who had cut off Republic’s line of credit, leading to the factory’s closure — agreed to all of the workers’ demands. It was a story of victory of Main Street over Wall Street, and that’s where most of the national attention dropped off. But it’s the story that unfolded next that’s even more inspiring.

Business As Usual

Initially, a company called Serious Energy bought the factory, the workers returned to their jobs under new ownership, and it was back to business as usual — or so it seemed. But history repeated itself when Serious suddenly closed the factory just a few years later, and once again the workers had their livelihoods cut off without notice.

That’s when the workers started to get serious about an idea they had kicked around during the Republic sit-in: running the factory as a co-op.

Back then the idea had seemed like more of a fantasy than a legitimate possibility. Michael Moore’s short about the worker occupation shows Leah Fried, field organizer for the United Electrical workers union, seated in the Republic warehouse:

“We even had a conversation, well what if we just tried to run the factory as a cooperative?” she says, then laughs, “Well, we don’t have any money.”

That’s where The Working World comes in. The Working World is a non-profit that provides workers capital to create co-ops through a revolving loan fund. Founder Brendan Martin, a former Wall Street entrepreneur, was inspired by workers in Argentina who formed cooperatives out of their abandoned factories during the country’s 2004 financial crisis.

Founded in Argentina in 2005, The Working World soon brought its success to Nicaragua, and came to the United States in 2012. For those who ask if a co-op is really a viable business model, they’d be wise to check out The Working World’s numbers: 98% of the non-profit’s loans have been paid back in full, 100% with profits from the projects invested in.

Armando Robles, former Republic worker and president of the local union, had met Martin back in 2009; the two had talked about the possibility of transforming the Republic window factory into a cooperative, but at the time the business was being purchased by Serious Energy. When that company backed out in 2012, the workers were ready to get serious.

“We decided to make a co-op because we were tired of our lives being in someone else’s hand,” says Melvin Macklin, who had worked as a glass manufacturer at the plant for over a decade. “Republic had walked away from our jobs. Serious walked away from our jobs. But we hadn’t walked away.”

Martin explains, “[Robles] and some of the other workers called up and said, ‘Okay, remember that co-op idea? Can we really make that happen?’ And I said, ‘I’ve seen it happen before — why not?’”

A Co-Op is Born

On May 30th, 2012, twenty-two workers from the former Republic plant founded New Era Windows LLC as a worker-run cooperative with the help of a loan from The Working World.

The loan was by no means a free pass to success; it took the workers incredible determination and hard work to get their new factory up and running. First, they had to fight for a place at the bargaining table to buy their old factory’s equipment. Then when the new worker-owners had to move all the equipment across town to a new facility, they accomplished the job for one-fifth the cost and in half the time they had been quoted by a professional moving company. And then there was all the work to be done on the place:

“Opening up this plant, we have learned that we are so much more than what we thought we were,” says Macklin. “We’ve done our own electrical work, we’ve done the plumbing — and all we thought we were were just window makers!”

Says Martin of the workers’ resourcefulness, “That type of flowering of potential that’s just locked out of our normal system — to me it’s staggering.”

Worker-Ownership Unlocks Value

New Era is open for business, and you can hear the pride and confidence they have in their products on the company website: “We have built the highest quality windows ever made in Chicago, ones that are soundproof and extremely energy efficient, meaning they are both green and save money.”

So do consumers pay a premium for these high-quality, co-op-made windows? Not at all. New Era’s windows are competitively priced in the market — in part because not having to pay inflated CEO salaries helps keep their costs low.

In the hyper-competitive window industry, New Era is thriving: the company’s sales are increasing dramatically, exceeding production records on a weekly basis — in fact, revenues have more than doubled each year they’ve been in business.

In an interesting twist of fate, when the ex-Republic owner’s new window company went bankrupt, New Era deftly took advantage, capturing accounts valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual revenue.

“When [Serious] closed, we felt like it was the end of our lives, after 8 years working in one place,” says Robles. “We [want to] show the world that there is hope in this country and better alternatives. Being a worker-owned company, we have my co-workers working together, and creating jobs for this community, and I would like to spread that idea around the United States.”