Working Family Solidarity is an organization that strives to unify Black and Latino workers and families against unjust Chicago working and living conditions.
One hundred and four thousand square feet of rubble, in the corner of which stands a towering pile of what was once buildings for industrial jobs. However, before being torn down just a few weeks ago these buildings sat empty for nearly a decade.
Claudia Galeno and Kevin Johnson Jr. are employees of Working Family Solidarity. Johnson, Galeno and her husband, Leone Jose Bicchieri, took me down to Planned Manufacturing District (PMD) #7 from their office in Pilsen to see this abundance of vacant space. Working Family Solidarity is a grassroots organization founded by Bicchieri that works towards equitable working and housing rights in Chicago. They put emphasis in uniting Black and Latine workers.
“I’ve done labor rights a lot during my many years of organizing, but it just felt like we had to add a little more to the housing aspect,” Bicchieri explained. “Because we were fighting on so many things, winning better wages, health and working conditions to try to stabilize families at home to have better income, and then the families would lose it all when the rent went up.”
PMD #7 is indicative of both problems that Working Family Solidarity is trying to address. A PMD is supposed to be a zoning designation that only allows development of manufacturing. However, Johnson believes that they are being greatly mishandled and are not being held to high enough labor standards in terms of wage compensation, severance packages, benefits, etc. On top of that, with PMDs being directly in the middle of certain communities, Johnson wants some of the people from those specific zip codes to be hired.
“That would help 200 extra families be able to feed themselves and stay out of poverty,” Johnson said.
And Johnson’s critiques ring true. One laundromat located in PMD #7 only paid their workers $7 to $8 an hour and didn’t have a single Black employee despite being located right next to North Lawndale, an overwhelmingly Black majority community. With the help of Working Family Solidarity’s lobbying, that has changed. Wages were later increased and the workforce diversified.
Still, there are more problems with these PMDs. Across the street from the previously mentioned 104,000 square feet of rubble is a building only being used at half capacity. These spaces are not being utilized to their maximum potential.
Bicchieri, a Latino man, met Johnson this summer through mutual activists. He was looking for a young, like-minded Black community member to solidify Working Family Solidarity’s mission of uniting Black and Latine workers. At 23 years old, Johnson fit that mold perfectly.
“He’s lived the difficult experiences that we’re trying to organize against that people have,” Bicchieri said. “He knows what it’s like to be homeless. He knows what it’s like to find jobs where you’re not treated particularly well. He knows especially how much our communities of color need good solid jobs with housing stability.”
The importance of housing stability that Working Family Solidarity strives for is paramount. As Galeno puts it, “We need to be able to raise happy children, healthy children.”
“Now that I’ve become a mom, I realize how important it is to have enough money and to be able to give them a good education, good food and healthy vegetables,” she said. “Everything the parents have or don’t have is going to affect the children in a negative or positive way.”
Two days after being shown PMD #7, Johnson and staff member David Ervin brought me to PMD #8, where they shot a video for their “Message to the Mayor” campaign outside of a giant, boarded-up brick building, another unused space meant for industrial jobs.
The “Message to the Mayor” campaign is a series of short videos that Working Family Solidarity produces directed at Mayor Lori Lightfoot raising concerns about the city’s new development plan as well as other problems facing Chicago residents.
Johnson uses the lessons he’s learned to help Working Family Solidarity.
“I’m from Englewood. West Englewood, city of Chicago,” Johnson said. “I grew up in poverty, violence, gun violence, drug violence and not a lot of hope. When I graduated, I was able to use my expertise to get a lot of good-paying jobs. I used to think that money was the way to change the world, that you make enough money, then you could just give enough money that you could make the change that you wanna see. Because of the way the world is set up, they try to make it seem that if you don’t have enough money, you don’t have any power. If you don’t have any power, you’re nobody. That’s when I started to realize that money or not, I’ve always been a powerful person.”
Header illustration by Dayna Teemer