Trains, trolleys and legendary sleeping cars rolled out of the Pullman Company’s Chicago factory for a century until it was shuttered in 1981. Its demise signified the end of railcar production in the United States.

Now, with the IBEW and Chicago Local 134 leading the way, modern railcars will be built not far from the site of that old plant.

Sixth District Vice President David J. Ruhmkorff, right, and Chicago Local 134 Business Manager Donald Finn greet Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth prior to a ceremony on March 16 to kick off construction of a new railcar manufacturing facility on the city’s south side. The plant will employ more than 100 IBEW members in the manufacturing sector.

CRRC Sifang North America, a subsidiary of a China-based railcar manufacturer, formalized plans to build a $100 million facility in the Hegewisch neighborhood during a ceremony on March 16. It will construct up to 846 of the new 7000 series subway cars for the Chicago light-rail system.

Officials hope that will lead to work on railcars for other public-transportation projects across the country. CRRC Sifang is bidding to build new cars for California’s BART, which services San Francisco and Oakland, and METRA, which services northeastern Illinois, and plans to build them at the Chicago facility.

About 110 of the plant’s 170 full-time manufacturing employees in Chicago will be represented by the IBEW, Local 134 Business Manager Donald Finn said. Construction will provide work for possibly another 150 members.

“We have a project labor agreement on the whole facility,” Finn said. “From the first shovel going in that ground, there won’t be anyone but union people working there.”

It’s not only a boost for IBEW members, but also for a struggling neighborhood. The area around the facility was hurt by the Pullman closing and further decimated by the downturn in the U.S. steel industry, Finn said.

“To bring back manufacturing jobs to the city of Chicago on the southeast side, where we lost the Pullman factory and lost our steelworkers, and ramp that up sends a great message across the country,” he said. “We hear all the time that good-paying jobs are leaving America and we can’t compete. Here’s a Chinese company that’s building a facility here because we can provide a qualified workforce.”

New Cars, New Jobs

The project took root because of the need to update the aging railcar fleet for Chicago’s rapid transit system, commonly known as the “L.” Labor activists and other community leaders wanted to ensure the work to build them stayed in the community.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, far left, speaks during the March 16 ceremony.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and city officials reached an agreement in 2014 with the Chicago Federation of Labor, Jobs to Move America and the Chicago Transit Authority to adopt a provision in the request for bids that requested interested companies to provide the number and type of new jobs they planned to create along with workforce training programs if they landed the project.

It also was a major win for Jobs to Move America, a coalition of about 30 labor, spiritual, academic, civil rights and environmental groups, including the IBEW.

Founded in 2012, Jobs to Move America works to ensure good-paying jobs on public transportation projects remain in the United States. It has worked with the IBEW and others allies to secure jobs on projects in Los Angeles and Boston and is hoping to do so later this year in New York City.

But the agreement in Chicago is unique because CRRC Sifang has agreed to a landmark community benefits agreement, JMA deputy director Lindy Nguyen said. It will hire from the local community and invest in the development of a pre-apprenticeship and workforce training coalition. Sifang also has committed to hire military veterans, women, the formerly incarcerated and communities of color, she said.

“It’s the first of its kind in the industry, where we have a deep commitment from the company to quality jobs and access to those jobs for community members,” Nguyen said.

Finn and Ruhmkorff are interviewed by Chicago television station WLS before the March 16 ceremony.

Nguyen noted the Department of Labor has awarded a $4 million grant to the Calumet Manufacturing Initiative, most of which will develop training programs for the workforce. The Initiative includes the IBEW and other labor unions along with colleges, junior colleges and technical training programs in the area. 

“in the United States, there aren’t any real apprenticeship or training programs in this industry,” she said. “We’re building it from scratch.” 

Sifang was awarded the $1.3 billion contract in March 2016. Harry Ohde, Local 134’s assistant training director, said the first group of 30 employees will be hired in mid-2018.

Many will be IBEW members and the rest will be represented by the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers. Those 30 workers will be trained at Sifang headquarters in China for two months. They will return to the U.S. and work with Sifang, the IBEW and others involved in the project to set up railcar training programs in Chicago. The plant is expected to be fully operational by 2020 and the first cars will roll off the factory floor soon after.

“They’re going to be the trainers and foremen at that plant,” Ohde said. “What they have to do is go over there and learn the whole process.”

IBEW Training is Key

Both Ohde and Finn said good-paying manufacturing jobs now require technical training that’s increasingly like apprenticeship programs in other IBEW sectors.

Finn said Sifang officials were particularly impressed when they looked at the IBEW’s training programs and ideas on how it could train the new workers.  

The same 7000 series railcar that now is being introduced on Washington's Metro transit system will be built at a new facility on Chicago's south side when it opens in 2020

“When they saw what we were trying to do, they were just blown away,” he said.

“It’s gratifying to work with an international company to bring jobs to the United States,” International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said. “That’s exciting because it fights back against the notion that manufacturing jobs should be fleeing the country.

“But in one way, it’s no different than what we’ve been doing for the last 125 years. We’re providing hard-working men and women with the skills and training they need to move into the middle class. That’s the IBEW at its best and I’m so proud we’ve had a leading role in bringing this facility to Chicago.”

Along with Emanuel, Illinois Sens. Richard Durbin and Tammy Duckworth attended the dedication ceremony. Finn and Sixth District Vice President David J. Ruhmkorff represented the IBEW.

“Projects like this that upgrade our public transit system, create good-paying jobs and invest in our communities are exactly the sort of projects we should be encouraging,” Duckworth said. “Improving our city’s infrastructure and bringing rail car manufacturing jobs back to the south side of Chicago for the first time in three decades is a significant achievement that will open up new economic opportunities for local business and working families.”

For someone like Ohde, the connection is even deeper. He’s lived on the south side his entire life and witnessed the change in manufacturing trends. Too many have been troublesome and harmed working families.

This one will provide a needed boost.

“I got goosebumps when I was there for the groundbreaking,” Ohde said. “It’s pretty emotional.”

“It’s a huge job for the IBEW, but just as important, it’s great manufacturing jobs for this community,” he added. “Instead of going overseas, they’re coming here.”