Residents living east of the West Humboldt Park Amazon distribution facility near the intersection of Division Street and Kostner Avenue renewed their push for a Community Benefits Agreement, marching right up to the building’s front door this Tuesday.

Ever since the facility was announced in August 2021, people living in the residential blocks east of the site expressed concerns about the traffic jams and pollution caused by increased diesel truck traffic, and tried to pressure Amazon to commit to hiring local. They got support from Black Workers Matter activists and several elected officials, including Brandon Johnson, who was Cook County commissioner at the time. The fact that the opening of the facility continues to be postponed – most recently to Sept. 27 – only aggravated the situation.

In late August, the neighbors sued Amazon, claiming that it didn’t get the proper zoning clearances. And on Sept. 12, they marched to the building to present petitions calling for Amazon to adopt a community benefit agreement that sets local hiring targets, a $28 salary floor and pollution mitigation. Cook County Commissioner Tara Stamps (1st), who was appointed to replace Johnson and who expressed support for the neighbors’ efforts before said appointment, emphasized that she intended to do everything in her power to hold Amazon accountable, and told the crowd that they were welcome to throw her out of office if she doesn’t follow through.

The facility’s arrival was shrouded in secrecy. Austin Weekly News received a tip in early August 2021 that the company was buying a northeast portion of the Allied Metal property. At the time, Amazon confirmed the plans, but declined to share any details. When it did release the plans later that month, the company promised to create 500 jobs.

Since then, Amazon scaled down some of its plans for regional distribution centers, and the number of promised jobs declined. While it originally planned to open the facility in 2022, the deadline got pushed back several times.

Amazon indicated that, for the warehouse, the starting wage is $18.50 per hour, with employees receiving automatic salary increases once every six months. That puts it above the current Chicago minimum wage of $15.80 an hour.

In August, a group of residents led by Maura Madden, a member of the Nobel Neighbors community organizations board of directors, filed a lawsuit against Amazon. Ramsin Canon, the group’s attorney, said that the lawsuit alleges that the facility should be considered a freight hub, which, under the Chicago zoning code, requires a special use permit. Amazon describes its facility as a warehouse, which, as an industrial use, is allowed on the property by right. The neighbors argue that Amazon is trying to avoid scrutiny that comes with the special use process, which requires a public hearing and approval by the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals. Canon said that the lawsuit is still in the early stages, and there hasn’t been any movement since the original filing.

The West Humboldt Park Community Coalition, Black Workers Matter and the neighbors are also pushing Amazon to adopt a Community Benefit Agreement that would commit the company to hiring at least 60% of the workers locally, setting the wages at a base of $28.50 an hour and developing a plan for emissions control.

“There are things that can be done,” Madden said during the rally. “There are [electrically charged] vehicles, EV vehicles, turn off your vehicles when they’re there for, like, four hours, loading up trucks.”

She emphasized that they don’t want Amazon to leave – they just want the company to be “good neighbors with us.”

“We want them to be straightforward,” Madden added. “Do what’s right for the people that leave here, the community, the people who have to live with that. That’s all we’re asking.”

Black Workers Matter organizer Anthony Stewart pointed to the fact that the city signed a community benefit agreement with Bally’s Corporation, which is planning to open a casino at the Tribune Publishing printing plant.

“Why is it our [West Side] aldermen voted for a River North casino deal with a community benefits agreement – but can’t support one for us on the West Side?” he said. “We don’t want to be sitting over here in a year with dirtier air, more congestion, and no good, safe, long-term jobs for local people. We need a binding CBA.”

In a statement to Austin Weekly News, Amazon insisted that they have done community outreach, saying that they worked with Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), whose ward includes the facility site and the residential blocks, and community organizations such as Bethel New Life and West Humboldt Park Community Council. The council expressed support for the project when it was announced, citing the need for local jobs.

“Hiring for this facility started late last month and is ongoing, with new positions being posted regularly for local residents.” said Amazon spokesperson Steve Kelly.

Amazon defended its environmental record, citing the fact that Chicago was one of the first cities where the company rolled out electrically charged delivery vans, as well as its general plans to reach net zero by 2024.

The group marched up to the facility’s front doors to present a copy of the petition – which, according to the organizers, had at least 80 signatures from local residents – urging it to adopt the CBA. When they were turned away, Stewart and Madden taped two petition sheets to the door.

Cook County Commissioner and long-time union activist Tara Stamps poses with local residents and activists after the rally | Credit: Igor Studenkov/Staff Reporter

Stamps showed up after the rally to offer support. She said that she, along with fellow county commissioner Anthony Quezada (8th) and State Rep. Lillian Jimenez (D-4), sent a letter to Amazon urging the company to negotiate with the residents. The distribution facility and the surrounding residential blocks fall within Quezada and Jimerez’s respective districts, while Stamps’ district starts immediately south of Division Street.

“We are not there yet, but we’re moving the needle on what the electeds have done up until this point, which has been silence in regard to what the people are demanding,” Stamps said. “[Right now], we do have progressive voices who understand what is at stake and are willing to lend whatever power they have in those spaces to this fight. So, this is not the beginning, this is us moving ever-closer to where we are demanding [that they hire] from this community, we are demanding green energy, so those are the two demands that we have at the table.”

She emphasized that she was prepared to walk the walk.

“[The activists] are going to hold my feet to the fire, and I want you to,” Stamps said. “If ever I’m missing in action, or you don’t hear my voice amplifying [what’s happening] in this space – call me out on it. Because the way that we get bad policy and the way we don’t move is we keep having people in place for too long. So, if I ain’t doing my job, get me out of it.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...