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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.

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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.