GARFIELD PARK — The bid to save part of an apprenticeship program that gives CTA jobs to ex-offenders began with a prayer asking city and union leaders to spare a vulnerable minority population from yet more struggle.
“This successful program will not be available to ex-offenders coming home from prison. It will make it even harder for them to find employment to support themselves and their families,” said the Rev. Autry Phillips, with Target Area Development Corp., a grassroots social justice community group based in Auburn Gresham.
The transit agency’s apprentice program, started in 2007, hires 65 nonviolent ex-offenders for nine-month stints cleaning the interiors of CTA rail cars for $9.50 an hour. It’s been hailed by community leaders as a “lifeline” and a springboard, giving participants a chance to build a resume with real job skills.
City officials expanded the program last year, quadrupling it to 265 jobs and reportedly making it one of the largest job re-entry programs in the nation.
But some of the jobs will be axed Tuesday. The 65 positions on the block are part of the Amalgamated Transit Union's Local 308 headed by Bob Kelly, who has so far refused to extend the program.
“He can save the program, literally himself, with the stroke of a pen,” said CTA spokesman Steve Mayberry. “For the first time in the history of American labor, you have the president of a labor union pushing people out of work.”
Kelly has said he wants the CTA to pay the rail workers more money. The 65 rail apprentices are dues-paying union members, but they’re paid a considerably lower wage than their union counterparts and don't get benefits.
“What do I say to people when I say you’re going to do the exact same work next to a guy making $25 an hour and benefits, and I'm not going to pay you benefits," Kelly said on "Chicago Tonight" recently. "They're using these people to save money. Give them the right wages, health, pension, benefits. Let’s give these people a real second chance. Let’s do it. I will sign that deal tomorrow, turn these people over, and give them a real shot at life.”
But Mayberry called the issue of raising wages a “nonstarter” because the program isn’t part of the union contract, and the jobs are temporary by design.
Still, placing blame for the program's looming demise didn’t seem to concern the community leaders who gathered outside the CTA’s West Side bus terminal on a bitterly cold Monday morning.
"We understand the role of unions to protect the rights of union members; nevertheless we as the community have been charged to protect all of our citizens in the community, including ones that have made a mistake and have paid their debt to society," a coalition of community groups said in a statement.
Phillips said he was hoping to rally more community support to land a meeting with Kelly and representatives from Local 308. Kelly could not immediately reached for comment.
As of Monday afternoon, the meeting hadn’t been scheduled.