The Shipping Point

From In These Times…

Between China and big box stores, minimum wage ‘temp’ workers take a stand.


Chicago has long been an important center for both manufacturing and shipping goods. But now that the City of Big Shoulders has been stripped of much of its industrial base, state and local officials—along with corporate developers—hope to capitalize on its evermore important role as a transportation hub in the global supply chain.

Chicago is a critical juncture for distribution of goods throughout the nation, and by locating just outside the city, the “goods movement industry” can shave two days off of distribution time by avoiding the congestion that plagues the city’s railways according to Mark Meinster, international representative for the United Electrical Workers of America (UE).

More than ever, corporations need a complex distribution network to get the goods they produce in Mexico and China to market. Stepping into this role have been intermodal transportation complexes like the gigantic Centerpoint hub built in 2002 in Elwood, Ill., 75 minutes south of Chicago. Meinster said that the warehouses employ about 1,500 to 2,000 workers at warehouses owned by dozens of major firms, and helps make Chicago the third largest container port after Hong Kong and Singapore, and the largest intermodal facility in the U.S.

The company has received $160 million in state and local subsidies from public officials desperate to find a substitute for the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs. And Centerpoint claims that, when at full capacity, the hub in Elwood will have cost $1 billion total and will provide 8,000 jobs in the area.

However, the public subsidies have failed to produce a harvest of quality jobs at Centerpoint, as well as three other Chicago-area hubs already built or under construction. Most of the warehouse work is done by temporary workers paid minimum-wage, which is currently $8 per hour in Illinois.

The lack of public awareness about the warehouse workers’ plight began to change when 70 workers were fired at a warehouse owned by Michigan-based Bissell Corp.—best known for its vacuum cleaners, now all produced overseas—and managed by Danish logistics firm Maersk. The Maersk/Bissell workers’ mistake: seeking help from the UE, the union behind the Republic Windows and Doors sit-down strike one year ago.

Read the rest at In These Times…

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