On Monday, March 9, a delegation representing eight Chicago-area community, faith and labor organizations traveled to the Nippon Sharyo rail car factory in Rochelle, Illinois, to express in-person their grave concerns over alleged unhealthy and dangerous working conditions inside the factory. The delegation was organized by the Illinois Jobs to Move America coalition, and included 15 people representing Chicago and Northern Illinois Jobs with Justice, the Sierra Club Illinois Chapter, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, the Developing Communities Project, Alliance for American Manufacturing, International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART – Transportation Division), International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), United Auto Workers Region 4, and the AFL-CIO.
“We are deeply concerned that workers at Nippon-Sharyo are exposed to toxic chemicals and treated with indignity,” said Antonio Lopez with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. “It is of the utmost importance that the management at Nippon-Sharyo respond to our repeated requests to address the health and working conditions at their Rochelle plant.”
“As a faith based organization, we take very seriously any actions that on their face may contribute to the detriment of our environment as we are called to be good stewards. Developing Communities Project also stands shoulder to shoulder with laborers for good workers rights. We believe that happy and healthy work places contribute to economic growth for all stakeholders — employers, employees and the general good for community,” said Reverend Mitchell Johnson.
On October 22, 2014, Nippon Sharyo workers filed a complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) raising serious health and safety hazards inside the plant. The complain detailed reports of broken and unsafe scaffolding, catwalks, ladders and planks and lack of fall protection around Nippon Sharyo’s rail cars, that have caused worker falls and injuries. Workers also raised serious concerns about poor ventilation for those working with flammable chemicals, and lack of protective equipment for welders and other workers. The complaint prompted OSHA to launch an investigation, which is ongoing. Nippon previously received a serious OSHA citation in March 2014 for failing to provide proper ventilation for workers using an extremely flammable chemical, a Serious Violation that could have resulted in death or serious physical harm.
In response to OSHA’s investigation, community groups in the Chicago area and throughout Illinois are raising the alarm for Nippon Sharyo workers who may be in danger at work. On Monday, the delegation organized a caravan to the Rochelle plant and requested a meeting with the plant manager at the entrance gate. Nippon Sharyo did not allow the delegation to enter the factory to talk to managers, or provide any information on how the company plans to address safety and health concerns. The community leaders hand-delivered a letter expressing the safety and health concerns, which was also mailed last week. Afterwards, the community leaders met directly with Nippon workers over dinner to listen to their concerns.
“We’re glad that investments in mass transit and high-speed rail are creating jobs in Illinois, but we need to make sure these are good jobs in a safe environment,” said Jack Darin, Director of the Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter. “It is critical that all workers have a safe and healthy workplace, and the right to address their concerns about environmental and health threats without fearing the loss of their jobs.”
Prior to Monday’s delegation, Illinois Jobs to Move America coalition members have sent 15 letters of concern to Nippon Sharyo Chief Executive Officer Akira Koyasu – all unanswered. The Chicago & Cook County Building & Construction Trades Council, Communication Workers of America, Gamaliel of Illinois, and Teamsters Local 777 have sent letters, in addition to the eight groups who participated in Monday’s delegation.
Nippon Sharyo is a major corporation in the global railcar manufacturing industry that contracts with cities and their public transportation agencies to build passenger rail system equipment. Nippon Sharyo employs more than 500 workers in its railcar assembly plant in Rochelle. Nippon Sharyo has been awarded $1.3 billion worth of contracts with U.S. public transit agencies including Metra, in the past six years. The company received $4.7 million in grants, tax credits and training money from the State of Illinois to open the Rochelle factory.
The Jobs to Move America coalition unites community, labor, civil rights, academic, philanthropic, and environmental organizations advocating for cities to make our transit dollars go the distance — to build better, cleaner public transit systems, to create and retain good manufacturing jobs, and to generate opportunities for unemployed Americans like veterans and residents of low-income neighborhoods. Every year, United States transit agencies spend about $5.4 billion on bus and rail car purchases.