Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis

When Chicago's Republic Windows & Doors suddenly closed, workers occupied the factory and fought for their labor rights.

The following is an excerpt fromRevolt on Goose Islandby Kari Lydersen. Copyright Kari Lydersen 2009. Reprinted with permission fromMelville House Publishing.

The Stakeout

“Turn out all the lights right now,” a supervisor at Republic Windows and Doors told Armando Robles as he was wrapping up the second shift at the factory on Goose Island, a small hive of industry sitting in the middle of the Chicago River. It was about 10 p.m. on November 5, 2008. Robles thought the order strange, as other employees were still finishing up. “Everyone has to leave right now,” the supervisor said. For a while Robles and other workers had been suspicious about goings-on at the factory. They knew business had been bad for the past two years; the housing crash meant not many people were in the market for new windows and doors. At monthly “town hall meetings” the company had started holding over the past year, managers were constantly bemoaning how much money they were losing. And the workforce had been nearly cut in half in the past few years, from almost 500 to 250. Something seemed to be up, and Robles felt sure it wasn’t good.

He and fellow worker Sergio Revuelta left the building as if nothing was amiss, then huddled in the shadows outside the plant. They watched as the plant manager and a former manager came out and looked around carefully. Five cars drove up. That was strange. Robles and Revuelta watched as the men began removing boxes and pieces of machinery from the low-slung, inconspicuous warehouse. They crept around to the back, where they saw a U-Haul waiting with its lights off. Over the next few hours, they shivered and squinted as they watched a parade of objects being loaded into the U-Haul. The only illumination came from the light on a forklift. By almost 5 a.m. they finally headed home to their families.

In the following days, Robles and other workers were being ordered to load heavy machinery from the factory onto semi-truck trailers. When they asked managers what was going, they got vague answers about the machinery being sold to raise money or being sent away for repairs. One day a whole team of workers arrived with no jobs to do, since the machines they usually worked on were gone.

The workers were represented by Local 1110 of the United Electrical, Machine and Radio Workers of America, or UE, a scrappy, progressive union with a storied activist history. Union representatives started filing written requests for information; under their collective bargaining agreement with the company, the union had the right to be advised of major operating decisions or changes. But they got no response. Workers got more and more suspicious and angry.

“I asked my supervisor, how can I work when I don’t even know if you can pay me?” said Rocio Perez, a single mother of five and union steward. She felt like managers were treating them as gullible and naïve since they expected them to keep working as the factory was obviously being dismantled under their noses. “It was like they were mocking us.”

The workers organized a surveillance team which would keep watch outside the factory after hours. One Saturday, Robles was lurking behind the factory near the loading dock with his wife Patricia and their young, lively son Oscar in tow. He got a call from another worker staking out the plant’s front entrance on Hickory Street, who was watching boxes being loaded onto two trailer trucks. They hopped in their cars, and the other worker drove out after the first trailer, Robles followed the second trailer.

They took note of the trucks’ license plates and followed them for about 15 miles to a truck yard on the southwest side of the city, an industrial, grimy swath of land next to the highway. They parked just outside the yard and, keeping their eyes on the trailers, Robles called international union representative Mark Meinster. By the time Meinster arrived it was dark and cold. They sat there for almost four hours mulling over what they should do. Robles was mad. He is a friendly, quick-to-laugh man with a bright smile, but he doesn’t take any crap. That’s one of the reasons his coworkers voted him president of the union Local.

“I have a friend who drives trailer trucks. We could steal the trailers, then they would have to negotiate with us,” Robles suggested to Meinster. “Or we could deflate the tires.” The union rep appreciated Robles’ fearlessness but talked him out of those schemes. They hit upon another idea, one with a long and glorious history in union lore: they could occupy the plant. Robles immediately liked the idea. In other countries including his native Mexico, factory occupations are fairly common. But in the U.S. they had not happened outside of a few scattered incidents since organized labor’s heyday in the 1930s, when auto workers brought the industry’s top companies to their knees with sit-down strikes. Occupying the factory would likely mean people would be arrested, and there was no guarantee it would work or even gain popular support. But these were economic times unlike any in the past 30 years, and drastic times call for drastic measures. Over the following days Meinster and Robles bounced the occupation idea off other workers, and quickly found at least six people ready and willing to risk arrest and occupy the plant in the case of a closing or mass lay-offs.

Meinster knew that unbeknownst to most Americans, the Canadian Auto Workers union had actually in recent years undertaken several dramatic factory occupations or blockades of the type the Republic Windows workers were envisioning.Meinster made a few calls to his Canadian counterparts to visualize the nuts and bolts of occupying a factory. This included logistics—how to get food into the plant, how to bail people out in case of arrests—and strategy. What would their demands be? Who would be their target?

Republic Windows was taken over by Richard Gillman, who had been a salesman at the company since 1974, in 2006. The company was struggling, and rather than paying for it, Gillman took majority ownership by agreeing to assume a substantial debt load. He brought in a new chief operating officer and secured new sources of credit, including a 40 percent equity stake from a subsidiary of JPMorgan Chase and a $5 million line of credit from Bank of America. He thought things were looking up.

Then in the summer of 2007, a mortgage crisis began to mushroom out of control, quickly infecting the whole housing market and the rest of the economy. The widespread practice of banks bundling mortgage-backed securities and selling them off to investors had exploded like a balloon. People defaulted on their mortgages, many of them sub-prime or fraudulently orchestrated mortgages the buyer could never really afford in the first place, and went into foreclosure. As it became clear the mortgages would not be paid, the mortgage-backed securities became nearly worthless and the house of cards began to fall. Banks panicked and clamped down on offering new credit, which of course put a big chill on consumer spending, housing rehabs and construction, new businesses and in a domino effect almost every market sector.

New home-buying ground to a near stand-still, even as housing prices plummeted. If new houses, office buildings and condos were not being built, new windows and doors were not being purchased to put in them. There was still some window and door demand for rehabs and repairs, but this market also slowed as families and developers put off plans for upgrades and delayed all but the most crucial repairs.

In this climate, it didn’t take long for Republic Windows to burn through its $5 million line of credit, according to Bank of America Midwest Government Relations Manager Pat Holden. In February 2008, Bank of America officials told Gillman they were concerned about his company’s situation and advised him to essentially get his act together. Among other things they noted he should seek other investors and lenders.

But by July 2008, the company’s financial situation didn’t look any better; the company had lost about $3 million in just six months, Holden said. Bank of America officials told Gillman that if he didn’t get another lender he should “start winding down their operations;” in other words, get ready to close the company and presumably sell off the assets to pay back the bank and other creditors. Holden said Gillman ignored their advice, and continued asking for more credit. The bank said no.

Mark Meinster and other union leaders were mulling all these factors over. Richard Gillman and other company officials were by all appearances up to something which would probably be soon costing the workers their jobs. But relatively few people really knew or cared about Richard Gillman or Republic Windows and Doors. Bank of America, on the other hand, had just received $25 billion in taxpayer money and yet was laying off its own workers, initiating foreclosures and scooping up other companies whose executives made more in annual bonuses than most people earned in a lifetime. If the workers were to occupy the factory, the union leaders knew they would need to have demands and they would need a target. Their demands would naturally be that workers be paid the severance pay and unused vacation wages due them, and going even further, that they keep their jobs. Considering the players involved, it looked like they also had a target.

The workers occupied the factory for six days, and gained international attention and support for their efforts. Ultimately Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase agreed to lend $.175 million to pay the severance and accrued vacation wages due. But that was only the beginning. The workers vowed to keep the plant open, and did a “road tour” visiting unions and laid off workers in the northeast, south and Midwest, raising money through the Window of Opportunity Trust Fund to try to keep the plant open. Then a Bay Area-based manufacturer of green building products, Serious Materials, offered to buy the company. On Feb. 25 the sale was finalized, with a union contract signed guaranteeing to respect the workers’ previous seniority. Serious Materials has promised to hire all workers back once production is ramped up, hopefully this spring. And even as the economy continues to suffer, they hope to benefit from millions in stimulus money allocated for energy efficiency. More importantly, the workers have already seen evidence that their struggle has inspired workers elsewhere to stand up for their rights. Stay tuned.

Click here to buy a copy ofRevolt on Goose Island

Kari Lydersen, a regular contributor to AlterNet, also writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago.