Last December, Republic Windows, maker of energy-efficient windows, gained worldwide attention when members of United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE) Local 1110 occupied the plant after their company refused to provide them with severance pay. After a six-day occupation, in which President Obama declared his support for the occupying workers, the UE members won their struggle for severance pay and established a committee to look for buyers to reopen the Chicago plant.
Serious Materials CEO Kevin Surace, at the urging of the Sierra Club, became interested in buying the plant to produce energy-efficient windows. The Sierra Club had a long relationship of working with the UE on economic and environmental issues, and they facilitated the initial conversations about reopening the plant between UE Local 1110 President Armando Robles and Serious Materials CEO Kevin Surace. As a result, the union was able to work out a contract with Serious Materials and helped the company purchase the factory in bankruptcy court.
On Monday, Republic Windows and Doors reopened and started producing energy-efficient windows. Vice President Joe Biden attended the opening ceremony and praised the CEO of the company for bringing back the workers and their union:
"Instead of doing what has too often been the case in the last, I would argue, 10 to 15 years, you reached out for the most qualified workers in the world. Instead of saying, if you want to come back I'm going to break your union, you said, come back, union and all. That's a big deal."
I would not be so quick to highly praise Serious Material's CEO. This window manufacturer recently reopened a less famous factory in Vandergrift, Pa., without recognizing the union. The Pennsylvania facility had been unionized under its previous employer. When Serious reopened the facility, the workers were without the protection of their union and, unlike the workers at the reopened Chicago plant, were hired back without the seniority rights established under their previous contract.
Yesterday, I asked Surace why he brought back the union in Chicago and not in Vandergrift. Mr. Surace said it was because the union in Chicago had been very active and had he not brought the union back the "workers would have been outside protesting." In the Pennsylvania factory, Surace said the union had not been as "active" as the UE workers in Chicago and hence he saw no reason to bring the union back.
Surace's statement implies that had the workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago not occupied their plant and demonstrated their resolve, they would not have been able to restore their union contract and employee rights. As Carl Rosen, President of UE Western Region correctly noted: "The former Republic Windows and Doors workers showed that simply relying on market forces and unregulated banks and corporations cannot provide an economy that works for the American people,"
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In rebuilding our economy, it is important the we rebuild unions. Unions play a crucial role in creating an economy that works for everybody on a wide range of issues. That's demonstrated by the relationship that the UE had with the Sierra Club that facilitated the initial conversations between the union and the company.
Indeed, according to a recent news article, the Sierra Club has identified the Employee Free Choice Act as one of its top two priorities. At first glance, it might seem odd that an environmental organization would launch an aggressive ad campaign advocating for labor law reform. Yet one of the the biggest barriers facing companies that desire to invest in green technologies today is the decline in consumer spending power. In order to create a green economy that can endure, it is critical that we create green jobs that pay a living wage, allowing workers to purchase the products they produce. As noted economist Dean Baker noted, an economy which values workers is not prone to bubbles and crashes:
"A balanced economy, in which workers share in the gains of growth, is not conducive to financial bubbles. We didn't have any major bubbles in the three decades following World War II. During this period, productivity gains were passed on in wage gains, which in turn fed consumption, which led firms to invest in expanded capacity. The basis for the bubble economy was created in the 80s when this virtuous circle broke down and workers could no longer count on seeing their wages rise in step with productivity."
Weakened laws and enforcement have contributed to a decline in union membership from 20 percent of the private sector workforce in 1980 to just over 7 percent in 2006. In that same period, CEO pay has increased from 42 times what the average worker made in 1980 to 364 times employee salaries in 2006. Due to declining union membership, workers' wages remained stagnant as they were unable to reap the benefits of productivity increases.
To provide the capital needed for investments in the green technology, we must increase the ability of workers to purchase these products. Workers in unions make on average 30 percent more than non-union workers. When workers make more, they are more likely to buy green products like the windows produced by Serious Materials, providing such companies with needed capital for investment.
However, without higher wages for workers, we will only create another speculative, bubble economy. If we want to build a sustainable green economy, we must allow workers to have a seat at the table through active unions such as the one workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago have been able to achieve.