Activists to Watch: Leah Fried and Armando Robles

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United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America union members participate in the Sept. 2011 march for jobs and workers rights. (Flickr)

In December 2008, organizer Leah Fried and local union president Armando Robles led 240 workers to illegally occupy their Chicago workplace after their employer, Republic Windows and Doors, abruptly told them that it was shutting down the factory, denying employees severance and vacation pay they had earned.

Fried is a third-generation union organizer. A graduate of Earlham College, in 1997 she began working for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers union, a feisty union with a long radical tradition. Six years later she helped organize the Republic Windows workers into the union.

Robles, who was born in Mexico, came to the United States at 18 and worked as a maintenance mechanic at Republic Windows for eight years. He emerged as the catalyst among the employees, who soon elected him their union president.

The workers’ takeover was hardly spontaneous. Fried, now 41, and Robles, now 43, learned of the potential shutdown, informed the employees and developed a plan. When the official word came from the CEO that the company was not only closing the plant, the workers were ready to be mobilized. Their protest became front-page news after Barack Obama, still the president-elect, voiced support for the workers. Under Robles and Fried’s leadership, the union reached a $1.75 million settlement with the bank that had cancelled the firm’s credit. The company sold the factory to another owner, the plant remained open and the workers kept their jobs and their union contract.

In 2012, the new owner, Serious Energy, announced it was shutting the plant. Again, the workers occupied the factory — this time with the support of Occupy Chicago — and after only 12 hours won a commitment from the owner to keep the factory open for three more months and then sell it to the workers. At Robles’ initiative, and with the help of their union, the workers formed and incorporated New Era Windows, a worker-run cooperative, and began to raise the funds needed to buy the machinery from their former employer and keep producing windows under the new arrangement. It is now open for business.

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