LITTLE VILLAGE — Five years ago, they gathered in the cafeteria of their Goose Island window factory and decided to stage a sit-in. For six days, the world watched as they refused to leave the shuttered factory without getting their paychecks.
On Thursday, those same workers celebrated the grand opening of their own window factory, entirely worker-owned and operated, on the city's Southwest side.
"I never thought this day would come," said Ricky Maclin, one of the founders of the New Era Window Cooperative. "We have overcome so much.”
New Era Windows will manufacture energy-efficient commercial and residential windows inside the former Campbell's Soup factory at 2600 W. 35th St. The factory is jointly owned by 18 workers who formed a cooperative after a four-year struggle to keep their jobs.
In December 2008, 200 employees of the former Republic Windows and Doors organized a sit-down strike after the company suddenly closed down. The sit-in lasted for six days, culminating in a $1.75 million settlement for the workers. The factory was then purchased by Serious Materials, but that company ceased operations in February 2012.
After two shutdowns, the workers had enough, said Maclin. They decided to pursue the idea of buying the factory themselves.
"At some point, workers need to take back control," said Maclin. "We need to have some sense of say over our own lives."
Maclin and Armando Robles, another former Republic employee and president of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America Local 1110, which represents the workers, contacted Brendan Martin, head of The Working World, a nonprofit that's funded more than 150 worker cooperatives in Argentina.
Martin said a cooperative gives the workers the advantage of control over the product and their jobs.
"Rather than closing down a factory because the owner might see a small financial advantage in moving, they're not going to fire themselves and move overseas," said Martin.
The Working World gave New Era an initial credit line of $650,000, and the company used $450,000 to purchase the building and machinery. Significant work had to be done before the factory could be opened, which the workers did themselves, said Leah Fried, international representative for United Electrical Workers.
"In just a few short months, they've been fixing machinery, wiring the electricity, doing the lighting, the heating," said Fried. "They weren't getting paid. They did it because they want this cooperative to succeed."
Fried says the coop already has five customers lined up and is working on more.
They may find another customer just around the corner. Julio Rodriguez, president of the Little Village Chamber of Commerce, said he hopes community improvement funds could be used to buy new storefront windows for businesses along 26th Street.
"Windows really are the eyes of a community, and we're excited to have them made here in the community," said Rodriguez.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle attended the factory's grand opening and applauded the workers' efforts.
"Even after the plant closed for a second time, the workers didn't give up," said Preckwinkle. "I'm sure that others will try to employ the model that you've started."
The cooperative model offers a lot of benefits for the workers, said Emily Rosenberg, labor expert at DePaul University, but competing in a capitalist marketplace can sometimes be a challenge. Still, Rosenberg said she thinks New Era has a good chance of success.
"People like small businessess, and they like the David from the 'David and Goliath story,' " said Rosenberg.
It won't be easy, said Maclin, who guessed he'll be working eight to 10 hours a day in the factory, plus putting in more work after hours to run the business.
"In the union office, there's a sign that says, 'Without a struggle, nothing happens," said Maclin. "This has been a struggle, but nothing worth having comes without a struggle."