Machine operator John Austin was back to work at the Serious Materials plant today after a brief interruption that included a press conference with Vice President Joe Biden.
The visit was an effort to stimulate business for the former Republic Windows and Doors plant, which is now operated by the Sunnyvale, California-based company. Austin is among about a dozen workers cleaning and repairing machines, as well as drumming up orders for windows.
Flanked by Mayor Richard M. Daley and U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Roland Burris as well as Armando Robles, a Serious Materials workers and union representative, Biden called weatherization "the biggest bang for the buck" in the administration's $787 billion stimulus package.
Wearing a "Get Serious" black T-shirt and UE Local 1110 ball cap, Austin said the workers were still repairing the damage done when the former plant operators removed machines and other equipment in a failed attempt to establish another company in Red Oak, Iowa. Republic Windows and Doors declared bankruptcy last December leaving more than 200 people out of work. A six-day sit in by the workers garnered national attention.
The factory was expected to reopen earlier this month, but according to Kevin Surace, CEO of Serious, hiring back all of the workers and going into full production could take longer. Some of the long shelves in the cavernous plant still had shrink-wrapped windows, now without customers.
Surace said local efforts to replace windows should start here, citing efforts to improve efficiency in private commercial buildings as well as homes.
"They should call us," Surace says. The Chicago plant is the largest in their company, Surace said, and he expects that more orders will come as more people try to take advantage of the stimulus.
Austin, a machine operator who had worked at Republic for 11 years, said his wife was excited that he might be on TV today. "We were scared to death," Austin recalls when Republic announced it would close, "Now I get to keep my house."
Austin hopes the attention and the new product will mean he can greet his co-workers like he used to every morning.
"There are people out there waiting to get back," Austin says.
Staff Writer Fernando Diaz covers labor and unions for the Daily News. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 14, or fernando [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.