Workers in Chicago, at the nation’s most famous tortilla factory recently staged a one day walk-out, only to find themselves locked out when they tried to return to their workplace.

They wanted to work, employees of El Milagro Tortilla told reporters after the lock-out. They simply want to be treated more humanely.  The workers are back at work now, but the company’s paying only 40 cents above minimum wage. Instead of raising wages so as to attract more employees, managers simply crank up the speed of production and when the Covid 19 pandemic hit, they banned workers from wearing masks. Eighty-five workers got sick. Five died. They are men and women, not machines, workers told reporters.

It’s a very different story at New Era windows. Also in Chicago, those workers were once in their own  dispute with management. There, instead of getting locked out, the workers locked out the owners, and years later, after much toil and strife, those workers, at what was then called Republic Windows and Doors, formed their own company, a worker-owned cooperative called New Era.

Founded in 2013, New Era is doing great. When I checked in with them recently, I was told they have more orders than they can fill, wages are up. The workforce has doubled. The worker-owners look set to make a healthy profit at the end of this year, and they never lost anyone to COVID.

That’s the difference, Armando Robles told me. Robles has been with the project from the start. At a worker-owned cooperative,  those who sow seeds, get to harvest the fruits of their labor.

New Era’s success is not unique. Celebrated by cooperatives nationwide during the month of October, National Co-op Month is a natural time for worker-owners to take stock and by and large, they’re finding that their businesses survived, even thrived, in spite of the pandemic.

Worker co-ops like New Era demonstrate that it’s certainly possible to run a successful business while prioritizing safety and treating workers like fellow humans.

This National Co-op Month, one can’t help wondering what might happen if El Milagro’s workers paid a visit to New Era.

You can see our special report on Co-ops coping with Covid, at Laura, or catch the show on a public television or community radio station near you. And please consider making a donation.

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