West Town migrant shelter opening pushed back as unions protest construction work

Liz Nagy Image
Wednesday, November 1, 2023
West Town migrant shelter opening pushed, union carpenters protest
The opening of a Chicago migrant shelter in West Town has been delayed because the space isn't ready, and some union carpenters protested who is performing that labor.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Migrant families were supposed to be moving into a West Town shelter at Ohio and Western Wednesday, but the alderman's office said that's now been pushed back until at least November 4 because the space still isn't ready.

Who's performing the construction work is now another point of contention.

A handful of union carpenters along with their picket line rat mascot stood in protest along Western Avenue Wednesday. They're contesting who is carrying out the quick-turn construction at the industrial space that will house 200 asylum seekers, including families and young children.

Workers continued to come and go through a back alley entrance. A site supervisors said a team of about two dozen contractors are on a tight two week timeline to make the space livable.

"The problem we've had thus far has been lack of transparency with the mayor's office," said 36th Ward Ald. Gil Villegas.

Villegas said after he helped fight to make the shelter a space for families rather than single men, he started getting calls from frustrated union carpenters. The site's foreman told ABC7 they're private, non-union workers hired through a broker contracted through the city.

"That's a mistake. I'm 100% for making sure that we have building trade union workers there, so if they're doing that it's the city doing that and that's a big mistake," Villegas said. "And we gotta make sure we're taking care of the building trades."

A spokesperson for the umbrella union representing carpenters in Chicago says the members aren't protesting migrants or the shelter explaining in a statement, "We just want to make sure construction projects are built with local workforces that are paid prevailing wages and benefits. It's how we protect the middle class and working families."

Now as private contractors scramble to install showers, toilets, and make general improvements, west town neighbors are set to take the legal fight over the shelter before a judge.

The city released the following statement:

"The City of Chicago is at an increasingly critical point in the new arrival mission, with asylum seekers sleeping on the floors of police stations, at O'Hare Airport and outdoors in inclement weather. A pre-existing contract with the City allowed for expedited work on the property at 526 N. Western to provide immediate safety, warmth, and shelter for asylum seekers by this weekend.

Mayor Johnson remains committed to labor and will always work in support of workers and working families."