In 2008, Republic Windows and Doors union workers occupied the factory they were working at after discovering the company was going to close down. The workers demanded that the company pay out their benefits and vacation days, and eventually won millions of dollars in compensation. Through this occupation, Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ) was born.
Originally getting its footing as a project of United Electrical Workers, WWJ eventually split off in 2009 to create the 501(c)(3) that exists today. WWJ is based in Will County—North America’s largest inland port and home to two rail yards and around 400 warehouses that employ thousands of workers per site.
Unfortunately, many warehouse and transportation workers still struggle for decent wages, benefits, and working conditions. That’s where WWJ comes in. WWJ teaches workers their legal rights within the workplace and instructs them on how to organize and advocate for improvements regarding workplace conditions. “We’ve organized around [labor issues] and gotten workers to come together and collectively take action and change,” says Roberto Clack, the organization’s executive director.
While WWJ’s mission has stayed the same throughout the years, the issues it focuses on change to align with workers’ current needs. WWJ has always recognized the importance of housing access—higher wages mean more access to stable, safe housing—but the last year and a half has brought a renewed focus on housing as the organization responds to workers’ needs during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “People would get COVID at their work and they’d have to isolate for two weeks and then they’d lose their job and they weren’t able to pay rent,” says Clack.
WWJ has helped those they serve get groceries when they’re sick and access emergency programs, including rental assistance. “We did 204 referrals for rental assistance leading up to the July deadline,” Clack says. “80% of those referrals were warehouse workers.”
In recent months, WWJ has been working to promote vaccine access and awareness among workers, and has continued to address housing injustice from a workers’ rights perspective. In April 2021, WWJ launched the Worker Outreach Program, which helps workers access and maintain housing by assisting with tenant legal help, expungement, and rental assistance, among many other issues.
“We are interested in a broader lens, a progressive lens, and that’s definitely central to who we are and what we’re fighting for,” says Clack.
For Clack, looking toward the future requires an examination of the present, specifically ongoing labor and supply shortages. Clack and Warehouse Workers for Justice are continuously raising awareness about how essential the roles of warehouse workers are, while also fighting to ensure that warehouse workers receive the wages, benefits, and dignity that they deserve as essential workers and human beings. Access to affordable, stable housing continues to be a key part of WWJ’s organizing as they fight for workers to not only obtain the benefits of their employment, but also have their most basic needs met.