• Transportation
  • Will County's warehousing boom comes at a price

    Lower-wage distribution jobs fill the gap left by factory closures.

    Todd Winters

    Ronald Jackson earns $13 per hour at a warehouse for an education company.

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    79彩票注册网址Caterpillar officially shuttered its Joliet plant this summer. Perched on a hill 2 miles down the road, a brand-new warehouse soon to be occupied by retailer Target typifies the industry that now dominates Will County.

    Today more people in the county move goods around than make them. Deindustrialization hammered Joliet in the 1980s, sending unemployment . The town looked for ways to replace those jobs and found the distribution and logistics industry.

    79彩票注册网址The focus has been staggeringly successful for adding jobs, hooking Will County into the rise of a consumer-based economy and surging e-commerce. Private-sector employers have added 92,000 jobs in Will County since 2001, for a total of 215,000 in 2018. More than 10 percent of those jobs are in transportation and warehousing, the fastest-growing employment market in the county.

    79彩票注册网址At its height in the 1970s, some 7,000 factory workers made engine parts and other vehicle components at Cat's Joliet plant. Now roughly the same number fill Amazon's six Will County warehouses.

    79彩票注册网址Like manufacturing jobs of the past, today's warehouse work is open to people with a high school education or less. But the new warehouse jobs are less likely to be unionized. Companies often hire temporary agencies to staff warehouses, making workers harder to organize, and despite the industry's growth, traditional labor unions largely have ignored it.

    There's another key difference: The new jobs pay less. To be sure, low unemployment is pushing wages higher right now. Walmart advertised warehouse jobs in March paying $17.45 an hour. Still, federal labor statistics show that in 2018, the average transportation and warehousing employee in Will County earned $43,000. That's the same as the average annual wage for a manufacturing employee . . . in 1998.

    79彩票注册网址Robert Nixon's career straddles the change. The 65-year-old Joliet native hadn't graduated from high school when he started as a welder at Caterpillar in 1979 earning up to $15 per hour. (He later earned his GED.) He moved to California, then returned a few years later and found work cutting down oil tanks on land along Arsenal Road, earning up to $14 an hour. When the land was cleared, companies built warehouses there, warehouses where Nixon later worked. In 2015, he worked at Amazon's first Will County warehouse, setting up the internal infrastructure before it opened. He earned $11 an hour.

    79彩票注册网址Now retired, Nixon recalls how the irony of his situation sometimes struck him during warehouse shifts.

    "I'm working in this area where I cut these tanks down, and I'm making a substantial amount less," he says. "Can you imagine how this made me feel? This is not progress to me."

    In 1978, manufacturers employed about 22,600 in Will County. That included workers at U.S. Steel, at Caterpillar's plant along U.S. Route 6 and at roof-maker GAF, known locally by its former name, Ruberoid.

    "Back then, you could roll out of bed after high school graduation, or even not finish high school, and get a job at Ruberoid," says Illinois state Sen. Pat McGuire, whose district includes Joliet.

    Between 1978 and 1982, each of those companies closed plants or laid off workers, following the lead of the U.S. Army, which threw 7,000 out of work the arsenal making TNT in 1975. Cat's presence faded gradually; about 770 worked there in 2015 when the company said it would move most production to Mexico79彩票注册网址. The signs at the site came down this summer.

    Last year manufacturing employed about 22,900 in Will County. The industry has rebounded since the Great 79彩票注册网址, and the average annual manufacturing wage in the county is $71,000. But transportation and warehousing has grown faster. Employment mushroomed from 5,600 four decades ago to 24,100 in 2018, with a 68 percent surge in the past three years alone.

    QUALITIES IN DEMAND

    The same qualities that made the area a manufacturing hub—transportation, access to workers and markets—attract Amazon, Walmart and other high-volume shippers, says John Greuling, CEO of Will County Center for Economic Development. Consumer spending as a percentage of gross domestic product has been , fueled by imports and the sophisticated supply chains that evolved to bring them to stores, or customers' doorsteps. Cranes now move 3.5 million containers from trains onto trucks each year at Will County's sprawling transportation yards, making it the country's fifth-largest container port.

    79彩票注册网址"It just so happens that the world has changed," Greuling says.

    Workers are making the shift. A from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute found nearly 280,000 Illinois workers left manufacturing between 2010 and 2015. About 40 percent of them found new jobs. Of that group, 21 percent went into transportation and warehousing, the most of any sector. According to the report, "the vast majority . . . suffered a pay cut."

    79彩票注册网址While nearly 32 percent of the transportation and warehousing industry was unionized in Illinois in 2017, almost all union members in the sector drive trains, trucks or buses, says Robert Bruno, director of labor studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Bruno says warehouse jobs are in "that pre-social contract stage," with low pay and little job security.

    That springs from changes in the legal structure of employment. Companies like Amazon employ some workers directly. More often, they outsource warehouse operations to logistics companies that engage temporary agencies that hire workers. Although many advertise direct hiring after 90 days, workers and worker advocates say that often doesn't happen.

    Ronald Jackson, 56, earns $13 per hour at a warehouse for an education company. He says it's easy for agencies to dismiss temporary workers just before they've accumulated enough workdays to be considered for direct hiring.

    "The company should offer you a position instead of going through the cracks," he says.

    The fissured employment structure makes organizing risky and expensive. Any union attempting to organize a warehouse can see its work undone if a company hires a new staffing agency. Unions also balk at spending members' dues to organize outside their own industry.

    "Any large, growing industry should be a target for organization," Bruno says. But "it's not as if the entire labor movement is really pouring lots of money into organizing these minimum-wage workers. And what union claims them? No union really claims them."

    79彩票注册网址The International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers did in June, but most of the organizing in Will County hasn't come from traditional unions. Warehouse Workers for Justice, for example, has improved wages and working conditions through lawsuits and support for policies like a $15 minimum wage, rather than aiming for collective bargaining and a contract.

    79彩票注册网址Still, warehouses are an attractive long-term organizing target for unions, says Roberto Clack, associate director of Warehouse Workers for Justice. Unlike manufacturing, where employers can threaten to move work overseas if a union drive picks up steam, shippers need to be in Will County because of its transportation assets and proximity to markets. They can't just move.

    "IAM and other unions are realizing they really have to get on top of it, get Will County organized, along with the rest of the Chicagoland warehouses," Clack says. "This could be a real strategic place for labor unions to be if they want to have a say in the overall economy."

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