Melvin ‘Ricky’ Maclin — labor activist who led Republic Windows sit-in, started factory co-op — dead at 61

SHARE Melvin ‘Ricky’ Maclin — labor activist who led Republic Windows sit-in, started factory co-op — dead at 61
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Ricky Maclin (right) and fellow union activist Armando Robles helped organize a 2008 sit-in at Republic Windows & Doors that drew the attention of the White House. | UE union photo

Ricky Maclin suspected something strange was going on when machinery started disappearing from the factory where he made windows.

He and the other union workers at Republic Windows & Doors became private eyes. Doing after-hours surveillance on the loading dock, they spotted box after box of hardware being stacked on trucks. “He used to come home and tell me, ‘There’s something going on. They’re moving equipment. I think they’re getting ready to pull something on us,’ ” said his wife, Cynthia Maclin.

The 250 staffers learned they were about to be laid off abruptly, without severance or vacation time owed.

Mr. Maclin, 61, who died of cancer May 5, helped make the Goose Island factory the epicenter of the U.S. labor movement in December 2008.

He and other union leaders organized a peaceful six-day sit-in that drew sympathetic politicians like filings to a magnet. President-elect Barack Obama backed the employees, saying, “When it comes to the situation here in Chicago with the workers who are asking for their benefits and payments they have earned, I think they are absolutely right.”

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson showed up with a truckload of food baskets.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich arrived and announced the state would suspend doing business with the Bank of America, which had cut off a line of credit to Republic. It was one of his last major public appearances before his indictment on corruption charges the following day.

The atmosphere at the plant — a cross between a carnival and a war room — was an early stirring of the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in 2011.

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Ricky Maclin (in hat), vice president of Local 1110, at the 2008 sit-in at Republic Windows & Doors in Goose Island. | UE union photo

Ultimately, factory owner Richard Gillman pleaded guilty to thievery from his own company and was sentenced to prison. The employees received a layoff package of $1.8 million from Bank of America and another lender. A startup company bought the factory and reopened it, but then moved to close it with what the union said was little notice.

Led by Mr. Maclin, vice president of Local 1110 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, the workers staged another sit-in. They negotiated to buy half of the equipment to open a staff-owned cooperative, New Era Windows, 2600 W. 35th St., that is beginning to thrive, said Carl Rosen, president of UE’s Western Region.

Filmmaker Michael Moore featured the Republic Windows story in his documentary, “Capitalism: A Love Story.” In the film, Mr. Maclin said of Republic, “We understand there were some bad business decisions, but we don’t make business decisions. We make windows and doors.”

He and the other workers in the audience received a standing ovation at the movie’s 2009 screening in Chicago.

At New Era, “In the beginning, they were working for free, because they were trying to get the company off the ground,” Cynthia Maclin said. “No vacation. He just worked worked, worked. He was very excited” about the co-op.

New Era has reached the point where “they can’t produce windows fast enough” to meet demand, said Brendan Martin, founder of The Working World, which helped fund the co-op.

“He was trying to get to this point,” his wife said. After his April 10 diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, “I knew all along he wasn’t ever going to come back to this plant.”

Mr. Maclin was born in Brownsville, Tennessee. “He picked cotton, he wrung chickens’ necks. He was a real country boy when I met him,” she said. His family moved north for a better life. Young Ricky attended Chicago Vocational Career Academy.

“What he and his fellow workers in Local 1110 did is unbelievable, and made a huge contribution to this union, the entire labor movement, and the working people of this country,” UE General President Bruce Klipple said.

“Ricky was one of the most inspirational rank-and-file leaders I have ever met,” said Carl Rosen, UE Western Region president.

Mr. Maclin is also survived by a daughter, Lynn Wilkins; two stepdaughters, Tara Walker and Michelle Henderson; 14 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Visitation is from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at Taylor Funeral Home at 63 E. 79th St. A wake is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Friday at Carter Temple CME Church, 7841 S. Wabash, with a funeral to follow at 11 a.m. at the church.

On his lapel, his wife said, “I’m going to have his UE button.”

Contributing: Becky Schlikerman

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