Chicago workers occupy factory, win temporary reprieve

<!–[if gte mso 9]> Normal 0 MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 <![endif]–>CHICAGO—Over three years after they inspired workers across the nation by successfully occupying the Republic Windows and Door factory, on Feb. 23 members of UE Local 1110 once again occupied their workplace, now run by Serious Energy. The occupation was in response to management’s surprise announcement the same day that the factory would close immediately.

 

After 12 hours of occupation and an outpouring of support from the labor movement, Occupy Chicago, and other allies, Serious management caved in and agreed to keep the factory open for three months while the union seeks a buyer and investigates turning the plant into a workers’ co-op.
Serious Energy took control of the plant after UE’s successful plant occupation in December 2008. The factories’ then owners, Republic, had shut down production and were preparing to send equipment to Iowa to start up a new non-union window and door factory. The UE occupation of Republic won widespread support and became a symbol of workers’ anger toward the bosses as banks got billions in bailouts while workers saw their jobs disappear.
Republic’s largest creditor, Bank of America, agreed to pay $1.75 million in unpaid wages and severance to Republic’s union workers after UE launched a campaign tying the bank bailouts to the plight of the Republic workers. 
Serious Energy, a California-based company, later agreed to buy the Republic Windows factory to produce energy-saving windows. Vice President Joe Biden and a laundry list of politicians visited the plant.  Biden cited the plant as an example of stimulus money helping the economy, creating “green” jobs.  In the end, the stimulus money never materialized for Serious, and business never recovered. Only 75 of the over 200-member original workforce was ever recalled, and at the time of the announced closing only 38 workers remained employed at the plant. 
Workers and UE reps were informed on the morning of Feb. 23 that the plant would close immediately. They were told by Serious management and their lawyers that the workers would receive severance in accordance with the WARN Act—two months’ pay and benefits. This had been one of the major battles with Republic management, who refused to pay the workers their WARN Act severance. The WARN Act requires companies to give 60 days’ notice of a plant shutdown, or pay workers the two months in wages and benefits.
UE local 110 President Armando Robles called a meeting of the plants’ workers that afternoon. The workers decided they would not accept the closing of their plant, and occupied the factory. The workers demanded that Serious continue operations at the plant while searching for a buyer. Initially, management took a hard line, saying there was no way the factory could remain open. Police were called, and when they arrived they gave an order to the workers to vacate the plant within five minutes or be arrested. When the workers refused, the police backed off.
Supporters in the labor movement, Occupy Chicago, and other social justice movements mobilized to go to the factory on short notice. All the major local media outlets soon arrived as well. Police would not allow anyone to enter the plant, even to deliver food to the workers. After religious leaders intervened, the police again backed off, as supporters outside the factory chanted, “Let the workers eat!’ 
As the occupation continued through the evening, Serious management, seeing the determination of the workers, decided it did not want a major confrontation, and began negotiations. A little after 1 a.m., the workers agreed to an offer to keep the plant open for three months as the union and the company look for a buyer. Workers will be paid full wages and benefits during this time, even if Serious has no work for them. The union is also exploring options to turn the factory into a workers-owned co-op.
While the battle to save these workers’ jobs is far from over, the Serious Energy workers proved once again that the only way anything can be won is through struggle. Twice these workers were told their jobs were lost and there was no hope, and twice the workers refused to let that happen. The workers’ use of the old labor tactic of factory occupations, or sit-down strikes, is another example for other workers to draw on. As most unions accept more and more concessions, the Serious energy workers show that there is an alternative—fight back! 
> The article above was written by David Bernt, and first appeared in the March 2012 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.