WEST BEVERLY —About 200 black construction workers gathered Tuesday at the corner of 91st Street and Western Avenue to protest what it said was a lack of black contractors used to build a nearby Menards store.
"This has got to stop. Building businesses in black areas but not using black contractors," said Edward Gardner, founder of the former Soft Sheen Products Co., who has been advocating for the hiring of more black construction workers.
"If I have one last crusade in life this will be it. I want to see more black faces at the beginning of a project, not at the end," the 88-year-old Gardner said.
Across the street from where protesters gathered is a new Menards store in south suburban Evergreen Park, where two dozen police officers occupied the parking lot and stood in front of the store's front entrance.
"We are here to maintain safety and peace and order," said Evergreen Park Police Chief Michael Saunders. "The protesters have a constitutional right to express themselves as long as they do not cause any problems or prevent customers from entering or leaving."
After marching around the parking lot a few times, Gardner lead the group inside the store to speak to Juan Horton, general manager for Menards, which opened the new store Tuesday.
"I am not the one who hired contractors to build the store. I manage the store once it's built and as you can see several of our employees are black," Horton told Gardner as the two shook hands.
Jeff Abbott, a spokesman for the privately-held, Eau Claire Wisconsin-based Menard Inc., was not available for comment.
Protesters handed out fliers in the parking lot to customers that read "Boycott Menards."
And Donald Estes, a 65-year-old retired construction worker, joined protesters to show his support.
"I agree with everything Mr. Gardner said. I see white boys working on all the construction projects in the 'hood making $30 an hour," said Estes. "But at the same time I see black boys standing around selling loose cigarettes because there are no jobs available.
"Now, I have nothing against white folks but I am tired of them coming to our communities and taking away jobs from qualified black folks," Estes said.
The group also has the support of Rev. Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network, a civil rights organization in New York.
"The Rev. Al Sharpton is watching this closely from New York. He is aware of the situation and the National Action Network is here to advocate for the inclusion of more black construction workers," said Maureen Forte, president of the Chicago chapter of the NAN.
Bob Israel, president of Save Our Community Coalition, whose members include community activists and black construction workers, said Menards is no different than any other business looking to make money off black consumers.
"These businesses move into our communities to take dollars away from us. Sure, they hire us at minimum wage and even hire a black manager, but when you get to the board room that's a different story," Israel said.
"Construction is one of the most respected blue-collar professions today but when it comes to hiring blacks to perform the work, we are at the bottom of the list," he said.
In 2012, Menard Inc. settled a $1 million class action discrimination suit filed by three black employees who said the company passed them over because of their race.
A company spokesman told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the company had done no wrong but "that it is a wise business decision to settle with the federal government whenever one has an opportunity to do so."
"To continue is like attempting to wrestle an 850-pound gorilla. You may survive doing so for a while, but it generally ends poorly for the poor citizens involved," the spokesman said.