Crunch Time for the Serious Energy Workers
by Eric Ebel
The UE members at the Goose Island plant of Serious Energy, formerly Republic Windows, in Chicago are trying to keep alive their dream of taking over the ailing factory and running it as a cooperative. They have formed a company, New Era Windows, LLC, and secured funding, but the present owner is threatening to sell the factory’s equipment out from under them. Accordingly, the union has invoked the arbitration clause in its shutdown agreement with the employer.
The factory first drew attention in December of 2008, when Republic Windows announced that it was abruptly shutting down production it would not be paying employees for accrued sick leave and vacation pay, and it would be canceling their health insurance. The company claimed its hand was forced by loss of its credit line at Bank of America, though it was revealed that the owners had bought a non-union plant in Iowa and were trying to move equipment there.
Citing violations of the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN), the UE members responded with a six-day sit-down that won an agreement for payment of the wages and benefits owed and a chance to find a buyer. California-based Serious Energy stepped up.
Serious Energy was devoted to creating environmentally friendly products — it got the contract to refit the Empire State Building and was at one point lauded by both President Obama and Vice-President Biden — but it now appears to have hit hard times. (Whether this has to do with the failure of the Congress, in the face of Republican obstruction, to pass any legislation that might have confronted the economic crisis with a program of infrastructure refitting — who can say?) At present, all public comment seems to be coming from Mesirow Financial Holdings, a principal investor. Mesirow is a 75-year-old Chicago-based investment company which, interestingly, describes itself as “employee-owned.” It apparently has ties to the Emmanuel administration and the Democratic Party generally.
In February of 2012, the new owner announced an immediate shutdown, and once again the workers had to sit in. This time the employer caved after only eleven hours, agreeing to keep the plant going at least 90 days while a new buyer was sought. And this agreement had an arbitration clause. Twenty employees banded together to form New Era Windows, to take over the factory. New Era is working with The Working World, a microfinance and consulting firm for workers’ cooperatives, which cut its teeth helping the “recovered factories” of Argentina, and later groups in Nicaragua, before opening a third “base” in the States.
Then, just before the July 4th holiday, the employer announced plans to liquidate the factory equipment immediately, demanding bids. New Era Windows offered $1.2 million ($500,000 up front), but the employer — Serious or Mesirow — wanted more, and apparently all cash. By some accounts, the workers’ offer is roughly what the machinery cost three years ago — leading to the question how Serious expects to make a profit on depreciated equipment, especially since no one except the workers seems interested in buying the factory as a going concern. Tellingly, the union protesters who took to the streets directed their petitions to Mesirow, and beyond them to the Emmanuel administration.
As things stand now, it looks like it’s in the hands of the arbitrators. This is one to watch for the interplay of job actions, political pressure, and innovative financing methods. Let’s hope not only that the workers prevail, but that this sort of thing spreads.
Eric Ebel is a member of DSA’s Solidarity Economy Network and say that it blog at http://redkincaid.
For background on the workers coop, see this article.