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Republic Windows comes back as worker-owned venture

By: Claire Bushey
CRAIN’S CHICAGO BUSINESS

May 7, 2013

CHICAGO — Some of the workers who occupied Republic Windows & Doors Inc. on Goose Island five years ago have bought the business and this week are starting operations, union organizers said today.

The business, rechristened New Era Windows Cooperative, was purchased for about $450,000 in August and now has five customers, said a spokeswoman for United Electrical Workers, the union that represented the workers in their 2008 fight to win wages and benefits after an abrupt shutdown.

New Era, now on the Southwest Side, has just 18 worker-owners, compared to 300 employees who worked at Republic nearly five years ago.

The transaction marks another chapter in a saga that began in December 2008, when the workers attracted national attention when they sat down in the Goose Island plant after Republic's owners announced they would close it without making required severance payments.

The workers bought the business from a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based manufacturer now called Serious Energy, which was seen as a savior when it bought Republic in 2009, rehiring many former Republic employees.

But that relationship soured in February 2012 when the company told workers they would shutter the factory at the end of the day. In response, the workers reoccupied the plant, calling it off a day later after Serious agreed to maintain operations for three months while the union sought a new buyer.

Serious eventually shut down operations in about May 2012.

After the sale closed, the workers moved the manufacturing machinery from Goose Island to a less expensive location at 2600 W. 35th St., a former Campbell's soup factory, the spokeswoman said. Unlike employee stock ownership plans, the workers will not only own the company, they will run it, ultimately serving as the board of directors.

All but one of the 18 owners was involved in the Republic Windows occupation, the spokeswoman said. They paid $1,000 each to purchase an ownership stake. Another 20 workers are on a waiting list to buy in after the company begins operations.

The rest of the purchase price came from a nonprofit that finances worker-controlled companies.

Serious Energy also has sold a vinyl window and door plant in Vandergrift, Pa., about 35 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, according to a report last month in Plastics News.

The buyers were a group that included plant executives and Boulder, Colo.-based Alpen High Performance Products, which makes glass-fiber reinforced windows.

Serious Energy will focus on aluminum windows and doors and drywall, a spokesman told Plastics News.

In the fight with the original owners of Republic, the workers eventually won health benefits and $1.75 million in back wages.