Written by Heather Smith, Senior Program Officer, JusticePeople ringing doorbells, dropping off packages and moving on to the next block in unmarked vans is an everyday occurrence. I began to wonder more about who pays the delivery drivers? Who boxes up the products and puts them in the vans? How is Next-Day and Same-Day Delivery even possible? The short and simple answers are warehouses and temp workers. However, there is a hidden story behind our online orders and deliveries. It is a story that the Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ) strives to expose and harness for equitable social change. It is also a story of structural change and equity advocacy that aligns with the Field Foundation’s new Justice investment program.
I visited WWJ this past fall and quickly learned that warehouse and temp workers are one of the fastest growing sources of jobs in the Chicago region. Large warehouses have sprouted up across Chicago and along highways in the suburbs to solve the “last mile problem” of getting goods from the warehouse to your doorstep. Chicago is the largest rail, truck and water logistics hub in the Western Hemisphere. Workers move $1.3 trillion worth of goods through the region annually and logistics adds over $20 billion to the gross regional product.
Executive Director Mark Meinsteir of the WWJ believes that Chicago’s growing distribution and logistics industry can and should offer thousands of stable, living wage jobs to residents. Instead, we see this industry offering dangerous, low wage work.1 Warehouse and temp workers complete long hours moving goods and hauling pallets for 10-12 hours, often without daylight2. Many warehouse workers make poverty level wages and about twenty-five percent of workers need government assistance or a second job to provide for their family.3 They are also subject to rampant wage theft such as unpaid overtime, payroll withdrawal fees as well as sexual harassment and racial discrimination.4
Warehouse workers are predominantly low-wage workers of color that have disproportionately borne the brunt of trends toward precarious forms of gig economy employment such as temp or contractor positions with unstable schedules and no recourse for complaints. These low wages and difficult working conditions continue to widen the distribution of wealth between races and result in devastating effects on families and communities of color.5 WWJ, Chicago Workers Collaborative and several other organizations recently worked to pass a Temp Worker Bill of Rights in 2017. The new law increases direct hires, addresses gender pay gaps, and sets improvements in scheduling, pay and benefits and enforcement in areas of discrimination, wage theft and safety. This is one of the strongest laws in the country protecting workers.
There is tremendous opportunity and potential in ecommerce in Chicago. Meinster explains that there were no Amazon ecommerce jobs in Chicago in 2014; by 2017 there were over 10,000 jobs. This rising trend is expected to continue as consumers increasingly turn to two-day and even two-hour shipping. Amazon now has the same number of employees as the Walmart we remember 25 years ago and regardless of the upcoming headquarters decision,is poised for tremendous growth in the years ahead. WWJ sees the enforcement of the laws that we do have, informing workers of their rights, and holding firms accountable to their workforce through binding agreements as opportunity plays that could impact the behavior of large ecommerce firms before they grow too large to make those structural changes possible.
Worker centers like WWJ are aiming to bring justice to the ecommerce world which is changing the nature of work as we know it in a profound way. “By some estimates, one-third of US workers are no longer employed by their ‘real’ boss. And, with Right to Work laws that challenge unions, there is a new, often hidden side of work growing faster and faster,” explained Meinster.
Organizations working on systemic change like WWJ are the type of justice investments that the Field Foundation are identifying as it moves toward supporting upstream, root changes for justice and equity. WWJ’s work is uncovering structural inequities, building power of low-wage workers and creating systemic policy changes and practices. WWJ is in favor of ecommerce companies bringing jobs to Chicago so we can continue to build our city as a freight, rail, truck, water logistics center—historical assets of Chicago that put in on the map in the first place. The actions of WWJ benefit not just low-wage workers but all workers who need voice and dignity. WWJ’s work sets the path for low wage workers to enter and bolster the middle class which could begin a powerful ripple effect on small businesses and communities of color. We know that ecommerce is only going to increase, and WWJ is aiming to ensure that the future of work is sustainable and equitable for those who are the engine of Chicago’s ecommerce logistics.
1NESRI and National Staffing Workers Alliance. (2017). Temporary work, permanent abuse: How big business destroys good jobs. Retrieved from http://www.nesri.org/resources/
2LaVecchia, O. (2016). How Amazon’s tightening grip on the economy is stifling competition, eroding jobs, and threatening communities. Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Retrieved from https://ilsr.org/amazon-stranglehold/
3Warehouse Workers for Justice. (n.d.) Bad jobs in goods movement: Warehouse work in Will County [report] Retrieved from http://www.ww4j.org/uploads/7/0/0/6/70064813/badjobsgoodsmovement_1.pdf
4Warehouse Workers for Justice. (2017). Boxed in: Gender discrimination in Illinois warehouses. [report] Retrieved from http://www.ww4j.org/uploads/7/0/0/6/70064813/boxed_in_small.pdf
5Branch, E.H. & Hanley, C. (2017). A racial-gender lens on precarious nonstandard employment. Research in the Sociology of Work, 31, p 183-213.