The sit-in at Chicago’s Republic Windows & Doors brings together a host of issues such as labor rights in a plant closing, the refusal of a major bank receiving billions in federal bailout funds to invest in a struggling company, and the fragility of blue-collar employment in the weakening economy. Let me add another to the mix: the fate of green jobs.
Coverage of the labor dispute tends to treat Republic as an old-line manufacturer desperately trying to survive in a new economy. On the contrary, Republic’s business - the production of replacement windows - is a key component of the clean energy revolution being so widely touted these days. Installing those windows lowers the amount of energy used by homes and commercial buildings, thereby reducing the need for new fossil-fuel-burning power plants. The Apollo Alliance is calling for a national energy efficiency commitment to reduce energy use in new and existing buildings at least 30 percent by 2025.
Before it fell on hard times, Republic was promoting green principles not just in terms of the uses of its windows but also in the way its products were made. In December 2003 the company issued a press release announcing that it was developing a “cradle to cradle” design system that would allow the materials in its windows to be fully recycled, thus avoiding the generation of waste. The project received funding from the Chicago Department of the Environment. In a follow-up interview with Industry Week, company executive Les Teichner said Republic was also looking into ways to expand the life span of window frames so they could remain in place longer while the company would replace and recycle window sashes more frequently.
It’s not clear to what extent Republic was able to follow through on its ambitious environmental plans and what role they played in the company’s competitive and financial circumstances. It is also not yet known whether the announced closing of the company last week was more the result of a shutoff of credit by Bank of America or a decision by the company’s owners to move the operations out of state.
In any event, the situation serves as a cautionary tale for proponents of green jobs. We cannot assume that the clean-energy revolution will happen spontaneously nor that the kinds of jobs it creates will necessarily meet the highest standards. Aggressive government enforcement of labor laws and strong union advocacy of the sort being demonstrated by the UE at Republic will be necessary to fulfill the promises of the green-collar economy.
Rank-and-file activism like that being employed by the Republic workers will also be a key part of the equation. The Republic sit-in harkens back to the labor militancy of the 1930s but it also looks forward to the coming struggle to create a future of secure, well-paying and environmentally-friendly jobs.