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Powerful alderman vows to join Ed Gardner to protest shortage of blacks on job sites

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A powerful alderman said Tuesday she plans to join retired Soft Sheen Products founder Ed Gardner on the picket lines to protest a shortage of blacks on city construction jobs.

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), chairman of the City Council's Budget Committee, said she shares the frustration of Gardner, who joined a handful of protesters last week in forcing an all-Hispanic Sumit Construction crew pouring a new sidewalk in the 2200-block of 95th Street to temporarily shut down a city-financed project.

"They deserve an opportunity just like we do. But, who started this fight first? We did for inclusion. So they're riding on our wagon--not the other way around," Austin said of Hispanic workers.

"We should not have to beg or borrow for inclusion--not in this day and time. Why are we still doing that? Why are projects being let and there are no African-Americans? We should not still be fighting...to be included on construction projects. Why are we still at this 50-years-ago door" fighting to get in?

Asked what she intends to do about it, Austin said, "Just what Ed Gardner's doing: Protest. Let him be out there Thursday and I don't have business for the city, I'm gonna be right out there with him."

Gardner's crusade began a week ago when he was driving on 95th Street and noticed that no blacks were working the project to replace the sidewalk adjacent to a strip mall one block east of Western.

The protest has grown from a handful of activists who have long agitated for black construction jobs to a crowd that included people from every walk of life.

On Sunday, nearly 1,000 people answered Gardner's call to rally at 95th and Western.

The 87-year-old business icon credited with bankrolling the election of Harold Washington was joined by elected officials, civil rights and community leaders and business titans, including Ariel Capital Chairman and CEO John Rodgers, a close friend and fundraiser for President Barack Obama.

Gardner vowed to come back again on Thursday if he didn't hear from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Evergreen Park Mayor John Sexton, who was stricken by West Nile virus in September.

Emanuel's communications director Sarah Hamilton noted that the mayor has called Gardner "numerous times" since the retired businessman took to the streets and, "Our staff has been meeting with him since he first expressed his concerns."

In an e-mail to the Chicago Sun-Times, Hamilton said, "The Mayor and Mr. Gardner agree that this has been a long-standing issue and the Mayor is committed to opening the doors of opportunity for more African-Americans throughout Chicago."

Every time there's a complaint about a shortage of blacks on city construction sites, Austin said the "excuse" is always that African-Americans didn't apply or they're not qualified, Austin said.

"If you are the employer and you say I'm not qualified, what are your qualifications?" she said.

"You raise the bar and lower the bar. You say I don't wear the right tie. I don't have the right color hair. I'm not wearing the right kind of shoes. I didn't get the right kind of construction boots. You're the one moving the line all the time. Yes, we do apply. But we're the last ones hired."

Austin said she agrees with Gardner that unemployment is the root cause of the drug-dealing and the bloodshed in many black neighborhoods.

"It has to be. It there's no hope of anything in our community--if there's no potential, no jobs and no opportunity, what are we supposed to do?" she said.

City construction contractors are required to fill 50 percent of their jobs with city residents. But, there is no requirement that African-Americans be hired to fill construction jobs in black neighborhoods.

Hamilton noted that Emanuel has taken several steps to bolster minority hiring.

They include: creating a new mentorship program for minority- and women-owned businesses; ensuring minority participation on the CTA's Red Line project; cracking down on white-owned "fronts"; earmarking an $11 million settlement from a company accused of minority contracting fraud toward improving the set-aside program and creating an apprenticeship program in the city's Department of Water Management with a specific emphasis on recruiting minority workers that will hire 75 apprentices in 2012, and a total of 225 apprentices over six years.

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