Illinois’ 11th Congressional District-- Crossroads Of America, And The Ground Zero Fight For The Green New Deal.

Rachel Ventura plants a Green New Deal sign in East Aurora

-by Rachel Ventura

I have worn many hats in my life. As a 38-year old single mother of two beautiful and gifted twin girls, I have traveled America and the world when I was a military spouse. I have worked as an actuary for both a health and a life insurance company and then changed jobs purposely because the industry didn’t mesh with my moral compass. I became a naturalist, and have worked as a substitute teacher and pet nurse. Today, I work as the business director for Legendary Games and serve as a representative to the residents of District 9 on the Will County Board. I am running for U.S. Congress because the residents of Illinois’ 11th district deserve a stronger voice. The world needs environmental leaders to step up and share a bigger vision for a Green New Deal.

Illinois’ 11th congressional district is a microcosm of the United States, where urban sprawl and rural strongholds compete for land. The latest trend of exploiting the land and workers demonstrates how easily corporate expansion is winning out and tearing up our precious farmland.

Soil is one of our best resources in Illinois, and Will County has some of the best soil in the world for growing crops; currently ranked number 3, worldwide. When we are not losing soil due to erosion by the Mississippi River or field flooding, we are quickly covering it up with concrete parking lots and sprawling warehouses. Never mind that the native tallgrassprairie here in Illinois can sequester more carbon than trees.

In 2002, CenterPoint Intermodal developed in Joliet, IL. Joliet/Elwood is the largest warehousing and distribution center in the world; not just the United States, but the world. Lured by the Chicagoland consumer marketplace and enabled by the intersections of several key highways (I-55, I-80 and Rt. 53), and railways (BNSF and Union Pacific), the warehousing district seemingly popped up overnight.

Over 300 warehouses call Will County home. A region once known for its soybeans and cornfields is now "boxed up with gray facilities, some as large as a million square feet. From the sky it looks like an enormous, horizontal game of Tetris." Companies like Amazon, IKEA, Walmart, Target, Home Depot, and Samsung have taken up residence at Joliet’s largest inland port in the America. Will’s County’s Community Friendly Freight Mobility Study showed in 2017 that “More freight was shipped through Will County than inbound, outbound, and intra-county freight movements combined, illustrating the role Will County plays in regional and national freight movement.” In fact, 63% of all shipped goods travel through Will County, totaling 380 million tons valued at over $623 billion dollars of freight which equates to 3.5 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product ($17.9 trillion).

Economic Impact-- The Struggle for Low Income Families:

​Sixty percent of Will County’s warehouse workers make $9-$15 an hour. The warehouses create jobs, but they are not living wage jobs. According to the Will’s County’s Community Friendly Freight Mobility Study, “the greatest job growth by percentage is projected to occur in long-distance trucking-- But, the greatest increase in the number of jobs is projected to occur in the warehousing and storage occupation, which already comprises the largest occupation in the Transportation Distribution and Logistics (TDL) industry in Will County. By 2026, there may be an additional 3,236 warehouse and storage jobs added in this sector-- increasing 55 percent from 5,900 in 2016 to 9,136 in 2026.” But it isn’t the warehouse expansion and loss of soil alone that is intrusive. The county is home to 99 temp agencies-- one of the highest concentrations of staffing agencies in the country. According to Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ) some local staffing agencies resort to wage theft, paying piece rates, skimping on hours, or having workers’ pay for their own drug tests.

Warehouses use temporary workers as a means of breaking labor laws and driving down labor costs. I will never forget hearing my high school friend and union organizer, Roberto Clack reading the results of a worker survey during his presentation to the Will County Board, “74% of workers reported illegal wage theft, 10% reported having access to paid sick days and 3% had access to paid vacation days. Zero percentage of workers surveyed said they preferred temporary work.” Clack said that while many workers wanted full-time employment, many of them worked as long as three years for the same temp agency. I ask, wouldn’t our community be stronger if workers were paid a living wage? Warehouse workers go on strike, Sept. 2012.

Workers have organized and fought back. In September 2012, workers from the Wal-Mart distribution center went on strike, generating an enormous amount of community support-- over 600 people temporarily shut down the Elwood Warehouse as the retail giant was ramping up for their Black Friday sales push. In 2018, the city of Joliet denied for the first time a new temp agency opening its doors.

The strike wasn’t enough to shut down Black Friday, but it inspired workers to keep fighting. The struggle for better working conditions has been ongoing and the movement is growing. Organizers realized that in addition to the higher levels of poverty that the warehouses caused, that there was a significant environmental impact. A partnership with Sierra Club and other environmental groups shed light on the environmental damage that goes far beyond the destruction of carbon sequestering prairie grass. In 2017, the Sierra Club asked Will County to place a moratorium on warehouse building until the infrastructure could support it. The Republican controlled board at that time refused to call for the vote on a moratorium.

Environmental Impact:

While WWJ was organizing workers in Elwood, IL, Amazon Tech workers in Seattle started organizing internally to make Amazon more environmentally transparent. The question was, “what is the carbon cost of Amazon Prime’s two day shipping?” Two female Amazon tech workers paired up with Seattle 350 and started digging into the online retail giant’s carbon footprint. Their research exposed a chilling fact. Exhaust from Amazon trucks, cars and planes are equivalent to 4.7 coal plants running year-round.

With success comes competition. CenterPoint attracted a competitor in 2018 anxious to build a 2,200 acres development. This Kansas City-based industrial warehouse developer, Northpoint Development, has been working on a plan to usurp the prime farmland in unincorporated Jackson Township in Will County and replace it with industrial warehousing distribution centers.

This proposed expansion would add 53,000 more trucks to the existing roadways traversing through the county. Amazon wants to build 30 more warehouses in Elwood-- 30 million more square feet of storage space. The proposed 2,200 acre expansion would further encroach on the largest tallgrass prairie in the United States, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

Ventura attends NorthPoint hearings

The exhaust-spewing trucks create another problem for the 2,500 residents of Elwood. Years of truck traffic has destroyed the local roads and bridges. Road construction needs paired with tax abatements to draw warehouse employers to the region have left the Village of Elwood $38 Million in debt.

Finally, a village buried in debt and tired of the non-stop truck traffic had the audacity to say, “no.” I had recently returned to my hometown of Joliet and entered the political arena as a candidate who had just run for Joliet City Council. I heard about a new warehouse expansion in Elwood and did some research and became active in a group called, ”Just Say No To NorthPoint”. More truck exhaust, more concrete, more class warfare, fewer economic opportunities and less prairie grass. It seemed like a raw deal. I joined their cause even though NorthPoint was nowhere near my district on the county board.

​The People’s climate march in September of 2018 drew hundreds to the region to focus the attention on the environmental impact of the NorthPoint expansion. Ultimately, after 16 hours of public comment and over 2000 concerned citizens, the village of Elwood voted “no” and NorthPoint’sexpansion was denied, for the time being.

People's Climate March-- Rise for Climate, Jobs & Justice

I wish the Environmental Degradation Stopped with Warehouses-- It Doesn’t:

Will County is effectively the "dumping grounds" for Chicago's dirty energy industry and garbage. Will County is home to two coal plants, two refineries and one nuclear power plant. We store the things America buys and we expose ourselves to higher level toxins so we can power the region and fuel transportation needs.

The air quality in the district ranks some of the worst in the country for Carbon Monoxide, Nitrogen Oxides, PM 2.5 emissions, PM-10 emissions, Sulfur Dioxide, Volatile Organic Compound emissions. The air quality index is considered moderate at an average of 66 which carries a health warning of “unusually sensitive people should consider reducing prolonged or heavy exertion.”

It didn’t take long to draw the conclusion that the 11th congressional district was ripe for a conversation about the Green New Deal. The current congressman, Bill Foster, touts himself as a businessman and scientist, but the truth is, he has done very little to address the looming climate crisis. Several friends met with Representative Foster, and he issued his standard, “no, it’s too expensive and too big” excuse.

I disagree. We need a big, sweeping movement across the United States that empowers and challenges Americans to engage in the cause of transforming our economy and changing the course of history to transition our energy system away from fossil fuels. The Green New Deal is massive in scope and spending, but we have the money and we have done this before. In the same way that Americans pulled together to address the crisis of the Great Depression and the Second World War, I believe that we will pull together once again. The climate crisis is our Great Depression. It is our WWII. It is our responsibility and challenge to overcome. We will overcome. We will succeed! We will thrive! To do this though, we need strong leaders and bold solutions. That is why I’m running for Congress in the 11th congressional district. We launched our campaign on July 20th 2019, with the belief that we could give a stronger voice to those who are struggling to be heard in a system that allows billionaires and Super PACs to drown out the voices of the rest of us with their unlimited campaign contributions. We need to change the current system that allows the wealthy and powerful to exploit other human beings while destroying our environment.

The Green New Deal seeks to change the system at its very foundation by restoring democracy and addressing income inequality. We cannot tackle the climate crisis by enabling the same people who created the mess, attempt to fix the mess with half-baked carbon capture cons. The fossil fuel industry is doing everything in its power to delay fundamental change, buy off lawmakers, develop slick greenwashed marketing campaigns, and attempting to utilize the crisis they created to justify more bailouts and subsidies.

We need to stand firm and demand a comprehensive solution that seeks to employ the low-wage warehouse workers in a new energy economy, making homes energy efficient, installing solar panels, building an efficient high-speed rail system, and developing the infrastructure necessary to support electric vehicles. We can do this! We’re all in this together.

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