Workers who staged second plant takeover face new challenge

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CHICAGO - A group of determined Chicago workers who captured the attention of a nation three years ago when they took over their plant, disempowered its runaway owner, shamed a huge national bank and, in the process, won the battle to keep their jobs, are at it again.

Last Thursday, when the owners of Serious Energy, the company that took over from the runaway Republic Windows and Doors, announced they were shutting the place down and that all employees had to leave immediately, the workers went into action again. In defense of their jobs as makers of energy-efficient windows, for the second time in three years, they took over the plant and locked themselves in.

The occupation ended in the early hours of the next morning with the company's top management backing down and agreeing to keep the plant open for 90 days, giving the workers time to come up with a permanent solution.

The occupation of the plant back in 2008 was triggered by the financing giant Bank of America, when it suddenly pulled the plug on funds for the plant's previous owner. His response was to announce a plant shutdown with workers getting none of the back pay to which they were entitled, no health insurance continuations and no severance pay.

The workers, led by the United Electrical Workers Local 1110, met the dual challenge from their boss and his bank by organizing the first plant takeover in the U.S. since the 1930's. Their action, exciting and inspiring workers across the country, drew support from all over, including from then President-elect Barack Obama.

They appeared with famed filmmaker Michael Moore at the Chicago opening of his film "Capitalism" where they were cheered by thousands.

The plant takeover, the publicity, the support from unions throughout America, the backing of the President-Elect, pressure from Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and mass demonstrations at Bank of America forced the bank to reverse itself and provide bridge financing.

The former owners later sold the plant to Serious Energy.

Serious managers called in Armando Robles, president of the union local, on Feb. 23, springing on him their decision to shut down the plant.

Determined to meet the new challenge, Robles went to make the announcement to the workers, with the union, all the while mobilizing to use social media and anything else it could muster to spread the word.

After Robles broke the bad news, workers voted unanimously to immediately take over the plant, with the resulting sit-in lasting until 2:30 a.m. on Feb. 24.

As the workers sat in on the inside, supporters from other unions, community groups and Occupy Chicago massed outside the North Side plant in a show of solidarity and support.

The union urged the plant managers to give the workers time to find an alternate buyer for the facility but the managers said they weren't interested.

Robles said that he and other union officials made phone calls to Serious Energy's top management in California, warning them about the negative publicity the plant occupation would generate.

Leah Fried, a UE spokesperson, said the local plant mangers continued to say they weren't interested in the union's offer to find a new buyer and that the plant wasn't in the company's long-range plans. The plan, they told the union, was to shift production to other U.S. plants.

The top California management then surprised everyone, including the plant managers, by intervening and reversing the company's position. The final decision is to keep the plant open for another 90 days while the union searches for a new buyer.

Workers know the task they face is a challenging one. They have only three months to come up with a permanent solution but seem undaunted in their determination to fight for their jobs.

As Robles sees it, their task, essentially, is to build upon a victory already won.

"We began the day with the plant closing and ended the day with work and a chance to save our jobs," he said. "We are committed to finding a new buyer for the plant or if we can, buy the place ourselves and run it. Either way, we are hopeful."

Photo: "Signs held by workers who picket during the 2008 plant takeover at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago."    M. Spencer Green/AP

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