West Side labor activists during an April 14 rally in Humboldt Park. | Paul Goyette

Workers’ rights activists and their allies are demanding that candidates running for the 7th Congressional district pledge to refuse donations from Amazon, support workers’ efforts to unionize and support a Community Benefits Agreement for the Amazon distribution hub that’s being built at 1260 N. Kostner Ave. in West Humboldt Park.

In late June 2021, Amazon confirmed rumors that it bought a portion of the property belonging to the Allied Metals alloy producer to build a distribution center. Amazon and Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), whose ward includes the property and the residential blocks to the east, touted hundreds of jobs that would earn $16 an hour.

Nobel Neighbors, a local community organization, has expressed concerns about freight traffic impact, and the fact that the project was announced without any community outreach or input from residents.

During the April 14 rally, Black Workers Matter, a West Side organization that advocates for minority workers, decried the secrecy around the project, as well as the fact that the site’s location in the federally designated Opportunity Zone.

By the distribution hub being in an Opportunity Zone, Amazon can defer their capital gains taxes until 2026. Additionally, if they sell the property within 10 years, they won’t pay any capital gains taxes on the building’s appreciation.

The activists invited all three candidates running for the 7th District Democratic primary to make the pledge of refusal. Among the three people running, two made the pledge at Thursday’s rally: Austin activist Kina Collins and Denarvis Mendenhall, who ran unsuccessfully for 24th Ward alderman in 2015. The incumbent, longtime Rep. Danny K. Davis, did not attend the rally.

Two other politicians, Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) and state Rep. Lakesia Collins (9th), said they support the pledge, as well.

The distribution center will be one of nine hubs Amazon is building in Chicago to speed up delivery. Aside from the $16 an hour wage, which puts it $1 above the Chicago minimum wage, the company will be implementing sign-on bonuses of up to $1,000.

But Amazon didn’t publically announce that it was seeking to build a hub in West Humboldt Park until the sale was complete. Shortly after the announcement, Nobel Neighbors board member Maura Madden said she first heard a rumor about Amazon coming to the area from a Chicago P.D. film crew member, but didn’t pay much attention to it.

That changed, however, when Gary Pachucki, the owner of the Terminal, a “creative office campus” directly north of the property at 1334 N. Kostner Ave., said that he was talking with Amazon about shared parking.

Howard Ray, an area resident who said he alerted city officials like Ald. Mitts to the fact that Amazon was looking to locate in Humboldt Park, organized the West Humboldt Park Community Coalition.

Since hearing about Amazon’s plans, Ray and his organization have organized community meetings, canvassed the neighborhood and conducted surveys of residents. They’re also pushing the company to do more robust community outreach, hire at least 60% of the hub’s workforce from the community and pay workers a $28.50 starting wage.

Black Workers Matter co-founder Anthony Stewart said they scheduled the event to coincide with the approaching federal tax filing deadline.

Activist Dan Giloth speaks during the rally on Thursday. | Paul Goyette

“We all pay taxes, so we want justice on taxes and jobs,” he said during the rally. “We can’t do that if we have secret deals. We need transparency.”

Dan Giloth, an organizer with Black Workers Matters, said that the group questioned how much Amazon jobs would benefit the community. He said that the starting salary wasn’t enough for Chicago costs of living and pointed to a 2021 study by the Strategic Organizing Center, a labor union coalition.

The study drew on Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) data to show that from 2017 to 2020, Amazon distribution center workers were about twice as likely to be injured on the job as other warehouse workers. A Washington Post analysis of OSHA data reached a similar conclusion.

“That’s the jobs those officials talk about,” Giloth said.

Giloth added that, aside from pressuring politicians, the activists want to build “a container of support” for workers, so that they enter the workforce under the best conditions possible and are able to decide whether they want to form a union without pressure from Amazon.

Kina Collins said that, as a daughter of two union members, she supports Black Workers Matter’s pledge without hesitation.

“We are here today because it is absolutely detestable that Amazon made over $33 billion last year and their workers are living paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “And it is unacceptable that our congressman, who represents one of the most Democratic districts in the Midwest, refused to reject corporate PAC money.”

According to Opensecrets.org, Congressman Davis has accepted a $2,500 campaign donation from Amazon. When reached for comment on April 15, Tumia Rumero, Congressman Davis’ chief of staff, said that the congressman plans on returning to the money.

“Whatever money we got from Amazon, we’re sending it back,” Rumero said. “But if anybody thinks that a small contribution from Amazon is going to sway any policy decision they are delusional.”

Mendenhall also agreed to the pledge, saying that he worked for Amazon in the past “and stood on my feet 10 hours a day” without having much to show for it.

“I am running [for office] with you in mind, with the workers in mind,” he said.

The rally got the support from the Teamsters. Daniel Ginsberg said that, as a UPS driver, he got a glimpse at the conditions inside an Amazon warehouse.

“It’s not right and we want to fight for them to get a collective bargaining agreement, so that we can stand together against corporate greed,” he said.

Retired railroad worker Randolph Purnell Jr. is a lifelong West Sider who currently lives in Melrose Park, but got involved with the West Humboldt Park Community Coalition, because he still owns property in nearby Austin and has some time to support labor causes.

“[Amazon] can’t continue to just dog workers and have people work for nothing while they continue to get kickbacks from the government,” Purnell said.