Thursday, November 26, 2009
The Quiet Giant
Chicago's Distribution Industry
by Quincy Saul
this article was first published in AREA Chicago:
and is also available at: www.warehouseworker.org
A metropolis of many worlds, Chicago in the summer is at the height of its glory. The Daley empire presides over a diverse equilibrium of populism and plutocracy. While the city enchants politicians and business people with Olympian dreams, its center enthralls no less the leftists and revolutionaries who gather for demonstrations and conferences. A mecca of irreconcilable interests in the middle of North America, Chicago holds together even its most antagonistic ingredients. It is a city built in its own image.
Meanwhile, this same summer, an hour outside Chicago in the town of Joliet, Maria (name changed), a “temp” working as a packer in a warehouse, has another story to tell. Bent over a line packaging frozen pizza destined for Walmart, Sam’s Club, 7-Eleven, and Trader Joe’s, she works alongside many others who are employed in the fastest growing industry in Will County, one of the Chicago’s southern “collar” counties. The company she works for employs only Latino/a temporary workers. All are paid minimum wage, receive no benefits and are offered no opportunities for advancement. Many have been working in these “temporary” positions for years.
Concerned about her pregnancy, Maria asked her supervisor to move her to a different job with less physical stress. Her supervisor refused. If she didn’t want to work, she was free to leave, something Maria could not afford to do. In late July, six months into her pregnancy, she was rushed to the hospital, bleeding. The doctors had to induce the birth and performed a Caesarean section. Two days later, her baby died.
It is no coincidence that Chicagoans don’t hear her story, or that of other workers like Judy (name changed) who, untrained, fell off a piece of equipment and hurt her back. The company refused to compensate her, disciplined her, and leaves her no choice but to continue to work at a job that now barely covers the cost of rehabilitation.
Why haven’t we heard of the countless stories like this that wash up every day against the invisible blast walls of the center? In order to break through these walls, it is necessary to reverse this perspective, to tear our eyes away from the center, and toforce ourselves to learn from the periphery.
Our story begins a few decades ago with a dramatic shift in the United States economy. In Chicago and other cities across the continent, factories, once located in city centers, were gradually pushed out into the suburbs, the South and eventually overseas. The jobs followed them. As manufacturing has moved, retail has grown to fill the vacuum of power and profits. GM Nation has become Walmart Nation.
While retailing replaces manufacturing as the core of the U.S. economy, very significant changes are taking place in the global and local peripheries. We have moved from a “push” economy, where manufacturers dictate the markets through sales of their products to retailers, to a “pull” economy, where retailers dictate the markets through purchases of products from manufacturers.  Thus, the major retailers in the economic centers are able to effectively control the peripheries because, just like with the pizzas that Maria packages, they are the only buyers.
The magnetic north of commercial capital pulls not only commodities towards the world economic centers, but labor as well. We are experiencing global migration of truly biblical proportions: a record 1,046,539 people were naturalized into the U.S. in 2008. People from the global peripheries are moving en masse to the centers, in search of a piece of the wealth that was “pulled” out of their native countries. These migrants are increasingly channeled into the relatively new logistics and distribution industry.
The logistics and distribution industry is a complicated network of warehouses, ports, and transportation hubs that links big box stores across the continent with factories overseas. This new industry is the circulatory system of the global economy, providing not only jobs but delivering everything from food to furniture to workers and consumers. People from the global peripheries migrate to the suburban peripheries of the major cities, where they work at distributing goods to every nook and cranny that can pay for them.
The Chicago area is quickly becoming one of the logistics centers of the world. Because all six major railways in North America meet there, almost all the products produced overseas pass through warehouses and distribution centers just outside Chicago. The construction of the BNSF intermodal container facility in Elwood makes the Chicago area as a whole the third largest container port in the world by capacity, according to the Will County Center for Economic Development. 
An estimated 100,000 people work in this industry in the Chicago area alone, facilitating not only the U.S. but the world economy through shipping and receiving, packing and repacking, loading and unloading.  Largely workers of color, many of them not fluent in English, they routinely suffer from discrimination, underpay, and in cases like Maria’s or Judy’s, extreme abuses.
For labor organizers, the logistics industry is mostly unmapped terrain. Several factors converge to make the logistics industry a hard place to organize. Firstly, workplaces are almost all multi-employer sites where temp agency employees work alongside people directly hired by the retailer, and also third party logistics firms that are contracted to run the warehouses. All this makes the traditional union strategy of collective bargaining to win contracts difficult. Secondly, workers are mostly immigrants who speak different languages and come from diverse cultures. Thirdly, they live and work in a place with few community allies and little or no history of labor organizing.
In recent years, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), whose members won international fame in December of last year with their victory at Republic Windows and Doors, have taken up the challenge. UE is using the momentum from Republic to launch their new campaign. This summer, a team of staff, interns, and union members mapped out the logistics industry in Joliet, Romeoville, and Bolingbrook.
This work has brought them in touch with people like Maria and many others, who, ignored by their city and country, nonetheless do much of the essential and pivotal work in the United States today. Without workers like Maria there is no frozen pizza at Trader Joe’s. Everything stops. The UE has started a community organization called Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ), with a toll-free workers’ rights hotline.
WWJ has been facilitating legal workshops and working with different community organizations and churches to bring attention to the situation of these workers. The UE and WWJ are some of the first organizations to attempt to organize these workers, upon whom the world, in a very material and immediate sense, depends.
The secretive industry that employs Maria thrives on her isolation and our ignorance about where our goods come from. Maria and her coworkers are counting on organizations like WWJ to build unity among groups that this industry has been systematically dividing. Only these alliances are capable of humanizing an industry where their pain is a way to increase profit margins.
In an era of economic crisis, people look to the center for answers. We bail out the largest economic centers first. Chicago is no exception. Nevertheless, its concerned citizens must learn to look out, to the peripheries, where the life of the center is made possible. The celebrity of Chicago is a villainous one if people like Maria must lose their children in order for its citizens to buy frozen pizza.
The UE and WWJ are working to build nothing less than another kind of relationship between center and periphery. But they will need all the help they can get. Will we cast off our legacy of urban myopia, and join the movement to give these people on the peripheries the very central respect they deserve? Maria, Judy, and a hundred thousand other workers are waiting for an answer.
To speak out on the rights of warehouse workers, join the movement. Tell your friends and help us build solidarity in Chicago with warehouse workers in Will County. Sign up to receive updates and to pledge your support, make a donation, or volunteer your time and skills to WWJ. ◊
1. E. Bonacich and J. Wilson, Getting the Goods: Ports, Labor and the Logistics Revolution (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007).
2. Will County Center for Economic Development, http://www.willcountyced.com/content/Global_trans_center_284.aspx
3. Derived from the method developed by Bonacich, ibid.