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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.

The following is an excerpt from Revolt on Goose Islandby Kari Lydersen. Copyright Kari Lydersen 2009. Reprinted with permission from Melville 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.