Black Chicagoans rally to demand construction jobs

Ed Gardner leads African-Americans in Meijer protests, calls for more hiring

September 30, 2012

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(WBEZ/Natalie Moore)
Soft Sheen founder Ed Gardner, in pink hat, leads a rally to demand the hiring of blacks at Chicago-area construction sites.

About one thousand black Chicagoans took to the streets Sunday afternoon to protest what they see as a lack of construction jobs for African-American.

Black nationalists, activists, workers and politicians marched up and down Western Avenue, chanting “If we don’t work, nobody work.”

The target was the site of a new Meijer location. The store, part of the big-box store grocery chain, is going up at 92nd and Western in the suburb of Evergreen Park.

Leading Sunday’s protest was 87-year-old Ed Gardner, founder of the iconic Soft Sheen hair care company.

The millionaire has spoken extensively about the issue on black radio programs and has garnered massive support among African-Americans for picking up the mantle on the jobs issue.

A spokesman for the Meijer chain told WBEZ that officials have met with Gardner as well as the construction company. A letter on behalf of the company and contractor was sent pledging to support minority-owned businesses and contractors on the project.

The spokesman said the letter acknowledged that there were no diversity requirements included in the development agreement, but both parties “are committed to taking substantial steps to increase local participation in the construction of this Meijer store. To that end, we are adjusting our project marketing, outreach, qualification process, bid packaging and construction contract award processes to significantly increase the actual workforce needed on the site.”

For many protesters, the issue is bigger than Meijer. Unemployment in black communities frustrates many residents. Inclusion in black hiring, especially for local government contract work, is an ongoing issue. Even though Meijer is outside Chicago’s city limits, some protesters carried signs against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Steven Guy came out to show his support. Guy says he fruitlessly tried to get construction work several years ago on the Dan Ryan Expressway.

“In my neighborhood I see Hispanics and other people working,” Guy said. “But I see very few black construction people working. I tried to work on the Ryan, which was set up for people who lived along the Ryan to work.”

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush also marched. He has been accusing Metra of being racially insensitive for not setting higher local minority hiring goals on a bridge and rail repair project that runs through the South Side’s Englewood neighborhood. Rush said Sunday’s march was inspiring.

“The spontaneity of this movement demonstrates there’s a deep-seated anger about the fairness in contracting opportunities for African Americans,” Rush said. “There is no construction site in Chicago that is safe from this kind of demonstration.”

Rush said government agencies and construction companies must be held responsible when it comes to hiring.

Conrad Worrill, director and professor at the Jacob H. Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies of Northeastern Illinois University, said Sunday’s march was prophetic in bringing attention to construction problems.

“The iconic legacy that Mr. Gardner represented put a spark and has created the embryonic stages of a potential movement in this city that we can unify on,” Worrill said. “Since the death of [Chicago mayor] Harold Washington we have been fractured to this as an opportunity to bring our community together on a devastating issue: unemployment for black people, black contractors, the high disproportionate number of black people in the prison industrial complex.”

Other notables at the protest included former U.S. Senator Roland Burris, Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), Ald. Willie Cochran (20th), State Sen. Jacqueline Collins (D-Chicago), Chicago State University President Wayne Watson and U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Chicago).