Revision Street: Tom Shepherd (V)
I worked briefly as a steel worker, but I consider myself more of an honorary member. My dad spent almost 45 years at Wisconsin Steel and he made me promise that I would never go to work in the steel mills. So I embarked in business—the business of politics and government jobs. I worked as an organizer and opened what we call the Friends of Labor back in the days when the mills were still working and there were a number of strikes back then late ‘70s early ‘80s. I was living in the suburbs at the time and working on a strike assistance committee, and I happened to own a building in downtown Harvey with a partner that was the president of a steel worker local that I had helped support and organize, so we became a strike headquarters.
Tom’s phone keeps ringing, and by this point he’s just decided to turn it off. He’s a busy man, but excited to talk about the labor history in Chicago.
You can hardly find anybody in this area that works in steel. There’s hardly any steel manufacturing being done in the city of Chicago, all the big mills are closed. Finkl Steel is going to be moving out here. They’re taking over what formally was Versa-Steel. US Steel still has a plant in Gary, Mittal Steel has a plant in East Chicago. It’s owned by an Indian person who I understand lives in England or Holland, I’m not sure, so it’s foreign owned. Those are the last remaining vestiges of steel. Ironically the Sherwin- Williams plant, which is just to the south of us here, employs about 120 union workers under the steel workers umbrella because they used to be atomic chemical workers.
So there’s small local of steel workers that produce paint, but there aren’t too many union employees here in the neighborhood. The six most active people who came together to fight this Wal-Mart thing and form the nucleus of what we call the Concerned Citizens of the Ninth Ward, more radically known as the Pullman 6 [laughs] are myself and Sherry Williams who is a postal worker and belongs to the postal workers union, Arlene Eckles who is a flight attendant, Jeff Helgeson who is a professor of labor history, and Ellen Garza who formally was a staff member for SEIU or AFSCME*. So there are some former labor union people here who strongly believe in the labor union concept.
Together we visited business people, we surveyed them. There are a lot of small businesses. A lot of Korean-owned businesses, Palestinian-owned businesses, a hodgepodge of black mom-and-pops, and those people were some how persuaded to back this Wal-Mart plan. It’s not a real strong group—they don’t have regular meetings, they lost their city funding. I’ve talked to them and they say, We know this is going to be very damaging. I say, Well, why did you how did you attach your name to it? And they say, The alderman kind of . . . you know. . . . They’re insinuating that there was some pressure applied somehow, somewhere.
Very early on in this whole campaign for development here in Pullman Park, there was no mention of a Wal-Mart. A lot of us were welcoming any kind of development. Ryerson Steel left a year ago in December, closed over there. The last of the 150 steel worker jobs left the area when Ryerson closed, and the land was just laying there dormant all this time. So, a shopping mall, whatever. We’ll have construction jobs and then our kids that grow up in this neighborhood would hopefully be able to do what I did and so many others did, grow up getting summer jobs or Christmastime jobs. We were we kind of bought in on this development, until it was dropped on us in April, just before the May City Council meeting, that it was going to be a Wal-Mart. And it was Wal-Mart or nothing.
I don’t think that one company should dominate the entire retail industry. I don’t think that it’s good to not have competition. I don’t like the fact that probably 85% of their stuff is imported from China. I don’t shop at Wal-Mart. I wouldn’t buy a box of chewing gum from Wal-Mart. I was in Florida with my sister and her husband visiting them in February and when they went in their to do their shopping, I took a walk through an adjacent orange grove. I found that very pleasant.
*The Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.