Laid-off workers open their own factory

May 10, 2013

WBEZ/Shannon Heffernan
Melvin “Ricky” Maclin is one of 17 worker-owners of New Era Windows Cooperative. He says being a worker-owner makes him feel in control of his life for the first time.

A few hours before the grand opening of New Era Windows Cooperative, Melvin "Ricky" Maclin is standing  in the middle of the factory, beaming.

"All of this is ours," he said. "We have our own trucks, our own forklifts. It’s a whole new world."

Maclin’s title is the same as the 17 other people who work here: worker-owner. Together, they vote on decisions about the factory. He proudly shows the place where they jackhammered the floor to install water pipes. He says the workers didn’t know how to complete some of the steps to set up the factory, but they learned. They also took classes on business management.

"At first we thought we were just lowly factory workers," Maclin said. "But now we see we have so much more in us."

Maclin says that being a worker-owner means that for the first time in his life he has control over what happens to him. Back in 2008, when the factory was closed for the first time, he was devastated.

"This was right before Christmas," he said. "I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to buy my grandkids a doll for Christmas. It was a dark time, it was like we were in a free fall."

Maclin and the other workers of Republic Window occupied the closed factory. They were later paid the severance wages that they were legally entitled to receive. A California- based company called Serious Materials bought the factory and hired back the workers. But not long after, they also closed down.

The workers decided to do things differently that time and buy the factory themselves.

Working World, the organization that provided them with a credit line to help open the cooperative, says it would cost most companies $5 million to open. It cost New Era less than $650,000.

The first windows made by the factory will be titled the “1110 Series” after their union, United Electric 1110.

Shannon Heffernan is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @shannon_h