Illinois Is Rising for Climate, Jobs, and Trade Justice

This weekend, the Peoples Climate Movement is rising for Climate, Jobs, and Justice from the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco to the prairies of Illinois, where people from across Chicagoland will converge on Elwood, a hub in the global supply chain to fight for environmental and worker justice in one of the largest rail and warehouse districts in the United States. It’s also a fight to transform trade.

Here in Elwood, the corporate trade model is on full display -- each imported shipment brings more backbreaking work, air pollution, and CEO profits.  

Elwood and nearby Joliet, Illinois, are now home to the largest container port in the United States. It’s the end of a long journey for manufactured goods, formerly made close to home, now arriving by shipping container from as far away as Southeast Asia. Trains owned by Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) Railroad, a Warren Buffett company, are on track to move more than 1 million shipping containers to Elwood, where they are placed on semis for delivery to big box stores and e-commerce fulfillment centers.  The semis needed to transport from rail to warehouse to store or fulfillment center are heavy polluters. Local activists testing for Diesel Particulate Matter 2.5 pollution near the warehouses have found high levels of diesel soot hanging in the air.

Some of the biggest corporations on the planet have built warehouses in Will County to be near the rail yards and the interstate highway network.  It is inside these giant warehouses -- some more than a million square feet -- that temporary workers are exploited  so that family-sustaining wages are becoming nonexistent. We are demanding permanent jobs with good benefits paying at least $15 an hour from all warehouse owners.  We are demanding a freight system -- both rail and semi -- that is fully electric and powered by clean, renewable energy.

Warehouses rely on a system of temporary workers, and the area is home to one of the largest concentrations of staffing agencies in the country, second only to the Long Beach region in California. Local newspapers and Facebook feature daily ads offering jobs lifting boxes of up to 50 pounds, with starting pay at $11-$13 an hour. The ads don’t mention the concrete floors and lack of union representation.

How did this fossil fuel-intensive process across borders become cheaper than buying local? A rigged system of trade deals where corporate CEOs gain all the benefits at the expense of the rest of us. For the past several decades, American politicians, of both parties, have done the bidding of powerful multinational companies seeking to cross borders to exploit the lowest environmental and labor standards -- offshoring pollution and good jobs in the process.

During the Peoples Climate Movement, locals and climate activists will call on Warren Buffett to engage in a long-term relationship with his neighbors in Illinois to discuss how his facility is harming local air quality and the local workforce. Communities hope to inspire all consumers to reflect on the environmental cost of clicking “buy” online and waiting for that package to arrive. Do the workers packing my box and moving it to the semi earn a living wage? Do they have a union? How many miles will my purchase travel? Whose air is sacrificed for quick shipment of online orders?

During this People’s Climate Movement, the people of Illinois call for a fundamentally new approach to trade -- one that treats workers’ backs and childrens’ lungs as if they were more important than filling the pockets of CEOs. We demand respect for human dignity. We demand trade justice.

If you live in the Chicagoland area, please consider attending this powerful community event tomorrow. Directions and other details here.

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