Workers vs. Investors: Famous Windows Factory in Danger of Liquidation

A workers' cooperative in the Goose Island area of Chicago is desperately trying to stop the liquidation of a windows and doors factory the sale of which will scuttle their plans but benefit some well-connected investors.

Union members who put their bodies on the line not once but twice to save their windows and doors factory in Chicago found out Sunday that their former employer has broken a pledge to give workers a fair chance to buy factory equipment and plans instead to sell off machines as soon as Friday rather than let a Black and Latino-led workers' cooperative buy and keep the plant in operation.

The workers, members of the United Electrical and Machine Workers of America Local 1110, sat in and briefly occupied their plant this February after owner, Serious Energy of California, announced a shut-down and a plan to move jobs out of state. Many of the same workers occupied the same factory in December 2008, becoming a cause-celebre at the height of the unemployment crisis.

After the sit-down, Serious agreed to delay liquidation and to give workers a fair chance to bid on the plant's equipment. About two dozen long time employees then formed a co-operative -- New Era Windows - kicking in $1,000 each (wth the help of family and friends.) For months, several workers have been attending weekly co-op management classes.

The news of a next chapter for the famous Chicago windows workers was beginning to spread. (America Beyond Capitalism author Gar Alperovitz, wrote about them this week.) Prospects for a worker take-over were looking good when, three days before the July 4th holiday, Serious Energy announced on a conference call that bids were due at once and told New Era that their offer of $1.2 million ($500,000 in cash), was insufficient.

"No one else is going to save the factory. Every other bidder is going to chop the place up and sell the machines for scrap," said Brendan Martin who was on the call. Martin's nonprofit, the Working World, has been helping New Era. "It seems Serious never intended to give the workers a chance to buy."

Calls to Serious Energy executives have so far not been returned.

Now the workers have launched a petition drive, calling on Serious to play fair. On Thursday July 5, at noon, they are planning a march that could turn up the heat on local politicians.

One of the investors most likely to profit from Serious's shady sell-off is Mesirow Financial, a financial firm with close ties to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Mesirow made a $15 million investment in Serious in 2009. Thomas E. Galuhn, a Senior Managing Director at Mesirow Financial, sits on the board of directors at Serious.

When Mayor Emanuel graced the cover of Michigan Avenue Magazine this May, the party for the issue was hosted at Mesirow's swanky Chicago headquarters. In December 2011, Emanuel appointed Olga Camargo, still senior VP of Mesirow, to the City of Chicago Plan Commission, which, among other things, reviews city development plans and long term "community projects."

Mesirow Chairman, Howard Rossman, is a major contributor to Democratic party campaigns. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Rossman gave $30,800 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2012, along with $5,000 to the DNC and another $2,500 to Barack Obama's re-election effort.

"Rahm could do the right thing, or he could watch this become his Bain Capital," said Brendan Martin Tuesday.

New Era workers had been hoping that Emanuel's "Refit Chicago" plan to retrofit city buildings could be a source of good contracts for their conveniently-located, energy efficient window business.

Instead, quite possibly with supporters Van Jones and Michael Moore at their side, New Era workers and their friends will be marching on the Mayor's pals at Mesirow at noon today, Thursday, July 5, asking why the well-off firm would rather make a quick mean buck than keep viable jobs in a low-income, high unemployment community.

(My thanks to Zoe Schlanger for research help on this article - LF)

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