Working on A Dream
Chicago’s West Side is a war zone. But the casualties can’t be measured by body counts alone.
Dreams die, too, and the American Dream has all but vanished in neighborhoods such as North Lawndale, Garfield Park and Austin.
On streets in those neighborhoods, middle-class opportunities are not only ousted by the barrel of a gun, but also by politicians seemingly unconcerned with the effects of misguided public policy on jobs growth.
Nearly half of Chicago’s manufacturing jobs have disappeared over the last 15 years, according to data from the Illinois Department of Employment Security. The city now sits at an all-time low for manufacturing employment.
The state isn’t doing much better. Illinois is still down nearly 100,000 manufacturing jobs compared with its pre-recession peak, and is home to the worst rate of recovery among all surrounding states.
Historically, those jobs had served as a ladder up for black Illinoisans, enabling low-skill workers to earn a decent wage and better themselves through further education. Today, those opportunities are rare.
But three women from Chicago’s West Side are beating the odds.
Each morning, Ashley Agnew, Melindathee Griffin and Jane Johnson walk into Atlas Tool Works in Lyons, Ill., just a few miles west of Chicago city limits. The small manufacturer has been operating in Illinois for nearly a century.
Agnew, Griffin and Johnson each found themselves in dire straights before coming to Atlas.
Agnew grew up in Austin, but bounced around Chicago with her mother in Section 8 housing throughout her youth. She was able to attend fashion school, but after graduating could find nothing better than jobs at Talbots and Ann Taylor Loft.
Griffin called Austin home as well, and graduated from high school while caring for her baby daughter. After working in banking for 17 years and raising two more children, Griffin was laid off in 2007. The only job she could find was at a Walgreens pharmacy.
Johnson grew up between Garfield Park and Humboldt Park. Her father wasn’t around, and her mother died when Johnson was 16 years old. Despite that hardship, Johnson graduated from high school in 2009 and attended Western Illinois University for two years. But after her aunt fell ill, Johnson returned home to the West Side and took a job in fast food.
All three women worked in retail or food service. All three women felt stuck. But all three women found a way out.
Through a manufacturing training program at Bethel New Life, a Chicago social service provider, Agnew, Griffin and Johnson each secured a job placement at Atlas. Johnson works as a CNC machinist, Griffin works in assembly, and Agnew is a quality control clerk.
“This job has given me a lot more independence,” Griffin said. “And a lot more opportunity. There’s room for growth. There’s room for advancement. Retail doesn’t have that.”
Johnson agrees. With the money she’s making at Atlas, she’s planning to move out of the West Side to Oak Park, where she’s always dreamed of living.
“I definitely would not be able to do that when I was working in fast food,” Johnson said.
“These opportunities [in manufacturing] give hope to people who don’t feel as if they meet the requirements of certain jobs. It gives someone such as myself an opportunity to make a living, to make a name for themselves.”
Given the power of manufacturing work, Illinois policymakers should be concerned that the state’s recession recovery has been seen in corner stores, restaurants and hotels, but not in steady middle-class occupations where workers bend, forge and assemble. Since Illinois’ recession bottom in January 2010, retail jobs are up 7 percent, and leisure and hospitality jobs are up 16 percent. Manufacturing jobs have increased by just 4 percent – the worst rate of recovery among all neighboring states.
Zach Mottl, fourth-generation owner of Atlas, thinks he knows why.
“The more we grow, the more we’re being punished,” Mottl said. “So it’s not surprising to me that Illinois is struggling to create these jobs.”
“We’re paying $200,000 in property taxes every year. And our workers’ compensation costs are even worse.”
The Land of Lincoln is home to the highest workers’ compensation costs in the Midwest, according to a 2014 study by the state of Oregon. Residents also shoulder some of the nation’s highest property-tax bills. These factors make Illinois an unfriendly state for manufacturers, which need lots of manual labor and a substantial amount of space to succeed.
Mottl added 15 employees last year, each job paying more than $13 an hour. But there was a catch. His workers’ compensation costs went up substantially. If costs keep going up, Mottl fears having to move the family business out of Illinois.
He wouldn’t be the first.
The dreams of Agnew, Griffin and Johnson are alive and well. But unless state lawmakers make an effort to reform what’s ailing manufacturing, stories of overcoming hardship through honest work will be the exception in Illinois, not the rule.

Austin Berg