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Black Labor Leaders Call for More Construction Jobs

By  Wendell Hutson and Ted Cox | April 14, 2013 8:02am 

 Black labor leaders are demanding more work for black construction workers, saying many lack the union seniority to get good jobs.
Black labor leaders are demanding more work for black construction workers, saying many lack the union seniority to get good jobs.
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CHICAGO — The Public Buildings Commission met Friday with about 100 representatives from construction and architect firms at Kennedy-King College on the South Side to discuss an upcoming, $220 million summer construction project for Chicago Public Schools.

And one of the main points PBC officials spoke about was minority participation.

"Most of the work performed on these schools will be in African-American communities, so you may want your team to reflect that," said Chuck Kelly, deputy director of Diversity & Compliance for the PBC, told potential contractors, both white and black.

Erin Cabonargi, executive director of the PBC, said it is important that whatever companies are chosen that their work crews are a "diverse reflection of the community."

The six-week project headed by the PBC is set to begin June 21 and end Aug. 12, according to Mimi Simon, a spokeswoman for the PBC.

Earlier this year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel ordered a new hiring mandate for construction jobs. Residents of communities where construction takes place must be hired to perform at least 7.5 percent of the hours on city-funded projects in those neighborhoods. But millionaire Edward Gardner, who pushed for a hiring mandate, said that number is inadequate and should be 50 percent.

Gardner demanded the PBC ensure black workers be hired for the CPS project.

"I want a guarantee that black workers will be used for this upcoming construction project since most of the schools in need of repairs are located in black neighborhoods," said Gardner, 81, a Chatham resident and founder of Soft Sheen Products Co. "We are already behind in getting our fair share and we want a guarantee that blacks will have an opportunity to work."

Emanuel defended his administration's hiring practice.

"We [Gardner and I] share similar goals," the mayor said at an unrelated event Thursday.

The mayor added that he is committed to making sure all citizens are represented fairly when it comes to city work in their neighborhoods, so "that every community is seen to be receiving investments and every community is also receiving a role and a place at the table as it relates to employment."

Bob Israel, president of Save Our Community Coalition, whose members include community activists and black construction workers, said what the mayor offered was "an insult."

The Chicago Urban League is working with the PBC to assist with outreach to minority and women-owned businesses, said Andrea Zopp, president and chief executive officer of the CUL.

"I absolutely agree with Mr. Gardner and I am glad he went to the meeting," Zopp said. "Pressure needs to continue to be put on the mayor and on unions, who often use seniority as a way to exclude African-Americans. Skilled workers in communities where work is going to be performed should have equal access to these job opportunities."

Some black construction workers, who attended Friday's informal meeting, also agreed with Gardner, who has been lobbying City Hall for a year to increase its hiring of black construction workers.

"A lot of blacks are not in the union, so that excludes a whole lot of them," said Howard Garrison, president of Trial Architects, 2139 E. 87th St. "Before you can join the union you have to work at least 600 hours in construction. Many blacks do not have a lot of seniority so they will not get called for assignments, which makes joining the union an impossible task."

And Omar Shareff, founder of the African-American Contractors Association, described Friday's meeting as a 'dog and pony' show.

"They [PBC] sat up here and talked the talked but when it comes down to it, they will not walk the walk," Shareff said. "All they are doing is blowing smoke up our butts and we're (blacks) tired of it."