Worker-Run Factories and Chicago Neighborhoods that Need Them

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #1 in August 2005]

by Ryan Hollon

If you drive through Chicago’s West Side you will see blocks full of factories that are either abandoned or on their way to being abandoned. If you live on the West Side, or if you drive there and get out of your car long enough to talk to people, you will find that there are a whole lot of adults looking for steady work . Neighborhoods like North Lawndale and Garfield Park have unemployment rates that frequently reach around forty percent. Many of the adults making up that forty percent have been cycled through the prison system for non – violent actions . Several studies have shown that about four of every five African – American males growing up on the West Side will be arrested and locked up at some point in their life. Meanwhile, Even without a felony conviction , the odds of an adult looking for a living-wage job are nowhere near 80%. And after enduring lock-up, the formerly incarcerated reenter their home communities with a mark on their record that makes getting decent work all but impossible.

Speak to an economic developer and they will tell you that tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs have fled the West Side in recent decades. Yet all that has really left are the companies that once ran the factories. West Side neighborhoods are still rich with acres and acres of underused industrial space. So why not reopen closed factories and create jobs for people in these neighborhoods? Considering all the money wasted on short-sighted economic development policies in Chicago and Illinois, that’s really not such a crazy idea. While community activists seem to have fewer economic resources every day, the City of Chicago and State of Illinois have failed to break out of wasteful approaches to economic development. As a result, nobody has launched the types of sustainable economic projects on the scale needed to rebuild the economic infrastructure of the West Side.

What exactly are Worker-run Factories and are they possible in Chicago?

Worker-run factories are democratically run industrial sites. They are typically marked by their participatory governance (be it direct or representative), fair wage scales, employee-ownership, and the way they minimize hierarchy while maximizing equality. At a time when it is increasingly difficult to distinguish management techniques from surveillance technologies, worker-run factories offer an alternative approach to production. Namely, they offer an approach that empowers employees and gives them cause to care about their company’s success. In an era of footloose corporations , worker-run industrial development seeks to tie both people and capital to place . One way to build a connection between factories and nearby residents is to strengthen the alliances between worker-run factories and community-building efforts. The examples of worker -run factories that surround this article provide models of how this idea has been realized in different contexts.

In Illinois there is a little known law allowing the government to take over a factory on the verge of certain closure. Whether or not this law has ever been used (likely not), it provides the perfect legal frame for this type of alternative economic proposal. When private investors and owners are through with a factory, these industrial spaces could be turned into f actories run by and for the formerly incarcerated. There are precursors for successful business ventures run by ex-offenders. Also, there are models of how training and education can help facilitate worker-led cooperatives.

We live in a world where the flight of dollars from poor communities sets the tone for future economic possibilities in a region. Successful worker-run factories could tie together human, community, and economic development. They offer a way to reclaim the intimate relationship between people, place, and production. Meanwhile, the gravity of the employment crisis in high- incarceration neighborhoods demands that these opportunities be created. As the employment prospects for the formerly incarcerated shrink steadily , the sense of societal urgency grows exponentially. The way that this growing sense of urgency is translated into real solutions will depend on how willing people are to look toward alternative models.

How can this proposal be funded? Reinvesting Development and Justice Dollars

Every year in Illinois, hundreds of millions in subsidies are given to big companies in efforts to attract jobs. Insane sums of money are spent on corporations that already have insane sums of money . In 2000 , the Ford Motor Company proposed a manufacturing campus that would bring a projected 800 jobs to Chicago’s far Southeast Side. They received the equivalent of $95 million in government subsidies, averaging out to $119,000 spent for every job created. A year later Boeing received about $56 million in subsidies to relocate its headquarters to Chicago , while estimating the move would bring 500 new jobs to the area. Though they later implied that the government funds were not a primary decision in their move, an estimated $110,000 had already been set aside for every expected job. These examples demonstrate at least two things: 1) Chicago and Illinois governments are serious about economic development , and 2) their approach to job creation is seriously wasteful. If these same funds were spent on developing already existing assets on the West Side, the financial impact would have been felt by low-income Chicago residents rather than the wealthiest of the world’s corporations.

Another funding stream that should be deployed for economic development in high-incarceration areas comes from the prison system itself. In recent decades, while much of the rural landscape was hosting the boom in prison construction , poor urban regions like the West Side were the unspoken targets of “get tough on crime” politics. As the tragedy of prison-related spending has grown exponentially, criminal justice planners have started to map prison spending at the block level. Maps of “million-dollar blocks” are identifying literally millions of dollars wasted on incarcerating residents from the same square blocks. As argued by advocates for reinvesting money spent on incarceration, such dollars would be better spent if used to empower those living on the most troubled blocks. In North Lawndale, an area with somewhere around 600 square blocks (many of which are not residential) approximately 13,000 adult residents are incarcerated in any given year. Given the annual costs of incarceration, estimated at $23,000 by the Illinois Department of Corrections in 2003, it can be speculated that hundreds of millions of dollars are spent incarcerating just North Lawndale residents every year. If even a portion of these annual funds were spent developing worker-run factories for residents of the West Side , there would unquestionably be a substantial drop in the poverty that translates into crime and its subsequent punishment.

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