UE Occupies Chicago Window Plant Again, and Wins Reprieve
Members of the United Electrical Workers won another reprieve for a Chicago window factory, re-occupying the plant they famously held in 2008.
UE Local 1110 members took over the Serious Materials plant yesterday after being told by local management that the factory would close immediately.
When they were confronted with the same news in 2008, workers voted unanimously to occupy their workplace, guarding the machines at the former Republic Windows and Doors for six days until the major creditor, Bank of America, released $1.75 million in wages and benefits owed the workers.
Republic sold the plant to Serious and workers celebrated as the first sit-down strike in years won a favorable settlement in the teeth of the great recession.
This week’s plant closing came with no warning. The union got a call from the boss that he wanted a meeting, but he wouldn’t say why. Officers and UE staff were summoned to the offices of the notorious union-busting law firm Seyfarth and Shaw at 9 a.m. yesterday.
There executives said they would close the plant, effective immediately. Workers would be put on leave while management dismantled the window-making machinery and shipped it to the company’s other plants in Pennsylvania and Colorado.
Workers would be paid what they were owed under the WARN Act, which requires employers to provide notice 60 days ahead of plant closings and mass layoffs. (The penalty for violations is up to two months of pay and benefits.)
But the provisions typically only apply to businesses that would lay off 50 or more.
Illinois has a stronger law, which requires notice when 25 or more full-time employees will lose their jobs, and gives the director of the state labor department the right to investigate the company’s books.
Management provided nothing in writing to back up its promises.
Union officers—Armando Robles, Ricky Maclin, and Vicente Rangel—and staffers spent three hours arguing with management that the closure was unacceptable. Serious had a legal and moral obligation to do more to try to save the jobs, they said.
“We wanted to find a buyer,” said UE rep Leah Fried, “but they were not interested. They said it was not an option.”
Meanwhile, the Serious workers were building windows inside the plant.
February is not a big time for demand for windows, and their numbers were down to 38 after a recent layoff. Only 75 of the original 240 workers had ever been called back after Serious bought the plant from Republic.
President Robles and Fried left the meeting with management Thursday and began calling laid-off workers, asking them to come to the plant. At 2 p.m., the end of the shift, 50 workers met to discuss their options.
Robles presented them soberly: Do nothing, or fight—stay and occupy the plant again. Without much hullabaloo, matter-of-factly, the members voted unanimously to occupy.
They had no food, no sleeping bags. Workers and leaders immediately started to phone fellow workers, allies, and the media. They called the local alderman and asked others to alert the mayor’s office. Occupy Chicago came with tacos. Stand Up Chicago arrived.
Workers from other UE locals, including recently organized railroad van drivers, were there. Republic workers who’d never been called back to Serious but who still came to union meetings were there. The crowd inside grew to 65 and outside to 100.
UE regional president Carl Rosen called Serious’s CEO Kevin Surace at headquarters in California and asked, “Do you really want to go this route? If it comes to it, we’ll be dragged out and arrested.”
Fried wondered if Serious understood who they were dealing with. “These are people who won’t take this lightly,” she said. “They take this personally. They need jobs. And the political climate has changed. Now there’s a whole Occupy movement that was inspired by us. We’re sort of ground zero of Occupy.”
Meanwhile, local management called the police. A half dozen cops informed the workers that they had five minutes to decide whether to leave peacefully or get arrested.
They didn’t make good on the threat, but they refused to let the pizzas provided by Stand Up Chicago inside until a local pastor intervened, as local TV news cameras whirred. “Let the workers eat!” chanted the crowd.
The cops backed off but wouldn’t let anyone leave and then go back inside.
By 5 p.m. a crowd had gathered outside. Occupy Chicago started to raise tents, showing how a culture to prepare and stick it out has developed since the last occupation, Fried said. The cold rain started to freeze.
Inside, workers played dominoes and tried to watch the coverage on an old, snowy TV. They had plenty of donated food—enough to share with their supporters outside.
Negotiations shifted when corporate decision makers got on the phone. Management in California took over, apparently deciding they didn’t want a big showdown.
At 1 a.m., a tentative agreement was reached that met all of the workers’ concerns. The plant will remain open, making windows, for 90 days. That’s in writing.
Serious is committed to finding new ownership. Local union leaders are also interested in the possibility of a worker-run enterprise and are talking with consultants who specialize in converting factories to co-ops.
Serious said it had never been able to get a foothold in Chicago and Midwest markets. Workers for years had offered help and suggestions, to no avail.
“We started the morning with the plant closing and ended the day with work and a chance to save our jobs,” said Robles. “We are committed to finding a new buyer for the plant or if we can, buy the place ourselves and run it. Either way, we are hopeful.”