Around 9 a.m. on a gray, dreary Saturday in September, people from all different kinds of backgrounds began to gather at Federal Plaza in the heart of downtown Chicago. On this Saturday, there were 800 events held worldwide in the name of The People’s Climate Movement. Not only were these events centered around the changing climate, but they included concerns around worker and social justice that are intertwined within the environmental justice movement.
I traveled alongside Loyola University Chicago’s Student Environmental Alliance, in which I am an officer, to Elwood to march for justice.
Local news stations and reporters began appearing at Federal Plaza, taking note of the large presence that seemed to appear out of thin air. Speakers began explaining how important this September Saturday was as we all took action for environmental and social justice happening worldwide.
Immediately after the press gathering, buses arrived to pick up the crowd, which drove for an hour to our destination.
Elwood is home to an array of warehouses for major companies, such as Walmart and Target, that depend upon these expansive distribution sites to get goods across the country.
We were dropped off at O’Connor Park, a quaint little green space that lies just on the outskirts of the warehouse sector within the village of Elwood. People from all over Illinois and the Chicagoland area came out to show their support.
Roberto Clark with Warehouse Workers for Justice spoke about the worker injustice happening within these warehouses. The workers are paid below minimum wage and the jobs themselves are non-unionized making these individuals exploited by and disposable to the corporation they work for.
Other speakers mentioned the health risks involved with these warehouses being stationed so close to residential areas. Elwood sits at the crossroads of major interstate connecting points, such as I-80 and I-55, or the Historic Route 66, which connects more than half of the country to Elwood. Semi-trucks enter and leave the warehouse sites all day long. Additionally, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, usually just known as the BNSF Railway, makes Elwood a major drop-off point for trains with their goods. The combination of constant trucks and trains creates air quality issues, amounting to eight times more air pollution than EPA standards — a concern for residents, especially for those who may already be more vulnerable to poor air quality.
Clark then introduced Kim Wasserman-Nieto, the Executive Director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO). She spoke of the importance of environmental justice particularly within her own community, Little Village, a mostly Latino neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago. Two of the largest and dirtiest coal-fired plants in the entire country sat in Little Village’s neighboring community, South Lawndale, until 2012. For decades, the residents of Little Village had to deal with the toxic fumes that poisoned their lungs.
LVEJO campaigned for more than a decade to have these coal plants shut down. While having won this battle, the now-vacant lots in this community are up for grabs. Similar warehouses, like the ones in Elwood, could be moving into these large plots of land, only moving the health hazards into other areas rather than ending them altogether.
At about 2 p.m., the march began. The goal was to march together to one of the many entrances of the BNSF Railway where a letter would be hand-delivered, listing demands for change, such as $15 wages for the workers.
As we walked, the nearby Exxonmobil Oil refinery stood out in the distance.
It was a long march, roughly two miles worth, and yet spirits remained high throughout.
We inched closer and closer to our destination. The flags, which included an American flag and flags of the corporations on-site, could be seen even from far away.
After two hours of marching, the entrance to BNSF Railway was in reach. Policemen stood watch in the distance, ensuring a peaceful transaction.
The letter was delivered and September 8th is looked upon as an important day for citizens of the world who are experiencing many types of inequality and injustice. This march was a perfect example of how action can lead to change and marching at Elwood was one step closer to justice for all.