Biden Hails Stimulus Bill at Chicago Window Plant
By Kari Lydersen
CHICAGO -- Almost five months after Chicago's Republic Windows and Doors factory closed abruptly just weeks before Christmas, leaving about 260 people unemployed, those workers are preparing to start jobs again in what Vice President Biden today said was a prime example of the economic stimulus at work.
After the factory closed Dec. 5, the union workers refused to leave the plant until they were paid $1.75 million owed them in severance and accrued vacation pay. After a six-day factory occupation that was lauded by politicians, including then-President Elect Barack Obama and Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase lent the company the money to pay the workers.
Kevin Surace, the CEO of a California company called Serious Materials that makes energy efficient windows and ecologically friendly drywall, read about the struggle and offered to reopen the plant in hopes of taking advantage of weatherization funds in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) then being hammered out. He bought the equipment and negotiated a contract with the union, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), promising to respect previous seniority and pay rates.
On Monday, Biden visited the plant and called the $8 billion weatherization and energy efficiency component of the ARRA "the immediate biggest bang for the buck." The program, administered through the Department of Energy, includes $5 billion for the Weatherization Assistance Program and $3 billion for the State Energy Program.
"It has the advantage of creating jobs, jobs rights here in America," said Biden, who was joined by Sens. Dick Durbin and Roland Burris, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and a variety of state politicians. "Good jobs, union jobs, jobs people can raise a middle class family on. This in a nutshell is what the Recovery and Reinvestment Act is about," Biden said.
Production has not actually started at the factory, though during Biden's visit workers wearing union ball caps and Serious Materials T-shirts ran one assembly line turning out small windows. Surace said he has hired "a handful" of workers to do maintenance on the machines and hopes to hire everyone back within a year.
The union had originally hoped to raise money to reopen and run the factory as a worker-owned cooperative, but were glad to see Serious Materials step in, according to UE Local 1110 president Armando Robles and other members.
"We would have liked to run the factory ourselves, but things don't really work that way in this country," said Vicente Rangel, 35, who worked at the factory for 15 years. Since the factory closing he looked for work with little luck and took classes in computer skills. "There are not too many jobs out there," he said. "I'm a little bit surprised and glad to be back here. The workers stayed united and we were able to do this."
In March, Serious Materials also reopened a Pittsburgh area window factory. Surace said he expects the ARRA to create vastly increased demand for their windows, from government buildings and homeowners. He said he is working with city officials in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Pittsburgh to design requests for stimulus dollars for replacing windows in government buildings."We hope other people look at the Recovery Act and have the confidence to begin buying plants," said Surace. "We happen to have had the right technology, the cash, the ability to do it at the right time. We hope there will be hundreds of companies out there doing it."
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