Karen Lewis, shown speaking to reporters at an event earlier this month, told a group of supporters this week that city residents and workers should be included in important decisions about their communities "as opposed to waiting for years for some development from on high that may or may not be meaningful." [Photo by Grace Donnelly]

The New Era Windows Cooperative was the perfect setting for Karen Lewis to deliver her core message to an enthusiastic group of supporters: What Chicago needs is “a restoration of participatory democracy.”

“When you have participatory democracy, people can determine what’s best for their communities, as opposed to waiting for years for some development from on high that may or may not be meaningful” in addressing issues faced by residents, the teachers union president and prospective mayoral candidate told a gathering sponsored by the McKinley Park Progressive Association this week.

The cooperative — formed by workers displaced by the closing of Republic Windows — “is showing us an economic model where people come together and say, we can do this,” Lewis told a diverse audience of about 100, gathered in an open area of the factory floor.

It underscored a point made here a few weeks ago — that Lewis’ record running a union based on democratic rank-and-file activism contrasts sharply with Emanuel’s record of concentrating power in his own hands.

She returned to the point several times. On establishing priorities in city and school budgets — after noting the fear that as mayor, she was “just going to give the teachers whatever they want” — she said, “I am going to have you be part of the process. If the Board of Education and the city would involve people in the process of actually developing these budgets, you could see … what’s really available and what’s hidden in the budget.” If tradeoffs were required — filling potholes over funding for other services, for example — everyone might not be happy at the end, but their voices would be heard.

It sounds like she would restore something like the community hearings on the city budget that Mayor Harold Washington instituted in 1983. Mayor Richard M. Daley continued those hearings, though their number was reduced sharply and they became rather perfunctory. Mayor Rahm Emanuel canceled them after his first year in office.

On tax increment financing, Lewis said, “The first thing is a complete, transparent audit of every TIF district…. Open all the books on the TIFs, so every neighborhood knows what money is sitting there and available. And when [city officials] say that money is committed — let’s see the budget.”

Public audits of TIF districts were among several recommendations by Emanuel’s TIF Reform Task Force that he has failed to implement.

On bottom-up democracy in schools, Lewis didn’t directly answer a question about whether charter schools should be required to have local school councils. “The important thing is, are they open to the parents?” she said. “Do parents have a voice in the education of their children? Throughout this city, we see that when parents have strong voices, their children have strong schools.”

After Lewis answered questions, New Era Windows’ Arnoldo Robles recounted the history of struggle that led to creation of the cooperative. That included the six-day factory occupation when Republic Windows and Doors was abruptly shut down in 2008, and a second, shorter occupation four years later, which forced a new owner to sell the factory to the workers rather than shuttering it.

Today it’s a small concern — only 16 worker-owners — but it’s stable and growing. They ship two lines of energy-efficient insulated windows across the country, mainly for the residential replacement market but also for commercial projects. They’ve recently brought on two more former Republic workers and acquired additional machinery.

New Era is breaking even — workers are making a decent wage and the cooperative’s bills are being paid — and they’re close to achieving profitability.

“This is the road of the future,” said Bill Drew of the McKinley Park Progressive Association. “This is how we can rebuild our broken-down communities — using the buildings that are here, the workers that are here and their skills and determination.”

“This is a model for what a progressive administration could do with a worker-centered, community-based economic development strategy — as opposed to what we have now, which is basically just giving TIF money to any developer who asks for it, with no accountability or clawbacks,” said Leah Fried, an organizer for United Electrical Workers, the union of Republic and New Era workers.

She notes that New York City recently allocated $1.6 million to a cooperative development fund.

In her opinion, if Chicago is to revive its manufacturing base to any extent, “it’s got to be a community-based approach — family-owned or cooperative ownership — otherwise you have to deal with capital investment firms” with profit-maximization goals that tend to leave workers and communities behind.


Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.