Workers: Republic Windows sale is labor victory

  • By Claire Bushey
  • Staff Writer
  • January 15, 2009 @ 12:00 PM

When Melvin Maclin first told his wife his union might occupy the Republic Windows & Doors plant, she wasn’t pleased.

Participating in the sit-in planned by the United Electrical Workers meant possible arrest. Maclin’s wife was scared he was not only losing his job but risking jail.

On Dec. 5, a Tuesday, Republic announced it would close the Goose Island plant at the end of the week. The Maclins argued on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and on Friday right up until the sit-in. Finally, Maclin asked his wife to trust he was making the right decision.

“If I do nothing, I know I lose,” he remembers telling her. “If I fight back, at least there’s a chance. If I fight back, at least I know I fought.”

Then came the sit-in, and the six days of sleeping among the machines, crashing on cardboard or donated pillows, whatever was available. The union’s action garnered national media attention, and President-elect Barack Obama announced his support for the workers.

“Once President-elect Obama agreed with us, then miraculously, she agreed with us,” says Maclin, who works on the glass line and is vice-president of United Electrical Local 1110.

The company went into bankruptcy, but the workers won their severance and vacation pay from Bank of America, one of the company’s creditors.

Moreover, a California-based company confirmed today it is seeking to buy Republic, and plans to rehire the approximately 300 workers who were laid off from Republic.

The prospective buyer, Serious Materials, makes energy efficient windows at plants in California, Colorado and Pennsylvania, and had planned to expand to the Midwest.

The company's chief executive officer, Kevin Surace, found out about the Republic sit-in through news accounts, and called Armando Robles, president of United Electrical Workers Local 1110.

The deal progressed from there.

“We hope we can turn a bad situation into some new, green-collar jobs,” Surace says.

Republic Windows already had a line of energy-efficient windows. Making Serious Materials' windows will require some retooling of the production line, but most of the necessary equipment is there, Surace says. The operation could be up and running shortly.

The decision on whether to sell Republic Windows to Serious rests with the judge hearing the bankruptcy case. Surace and the union are pushing for a quick decision, lest employees take new jobs or customers drift away.

"Every day something is closed the longer it's going to take to ramp any substantial work force," says Surace.

As the workers for Republic Windows sat around eating pizza yesterday afternoon, discussing the sit-in and their possible new employer, they traded thoughts on what their success might mean for other American workers.

So many people don’t stand up for their rights because they feel helpless. They’re “just used to getting screwed,” Maclin said.

But the sit-in was a reminder that civil disobedience works, said Ron Bender, a frame machine operator and steward in the local. Both he and Maclin were active in the civil rights movement, which taught them fighting is sometimes necessary.

The sit-in also put politicians on notice, reminding them they need to support workers as well as corporations, said Vicente Rangel, a maintenance technician and former steward at the local.

“It’s a victory for labor,” Maclin said.

“And we’re due one,” Bender replied.

Staff Writer Claire Bushey covers unions and labor issues for the Daily News. She can be reached at 773-362-5002, ext. 14.