Updated 09/24/12 – 5:27 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — The 87-year old founder and former owner of Soft Sheen Products led a pair of protests in the Beverly neighborhood and Evergreen Park on Monday, over the lack of black workers on local construction crews.
WBBM Newsradio’s Bernie Tafoya reports Ed Gardner now walks with a cane, has a wife at home with Alzheimer’s, and says he shouldn’t have to be leading a protest to try to get more African Americans hired for construction work.
“Here is a crime – when you don’t get this equal opportunity for jobs, and so forth. That’s why we’re selling drugs. They’ve just got discouraged, they don’t want to find a job now,” he said.
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Bernie Tafoya Reports
Gardner, the legendary businessman who built the Soft Sheen hair products company from scratch before selling it for millions, led a protest rally in the Beverly neighborhood on Monday, over the lack of black workers on a road construction project in the area.
“If we don’t work, nobody works,” protesters chanted at the rally.
CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine reports Gardner later took his protest to a private construction site in nearby Evergreen Park. Gardner and his fellow protesters temporarily shut down work on the construction of a new shopping center to be anchored by Meijer and Menard’s stores.
The protesters stormed onto the construction site at 92nd Street and Western Avenue, vowing to shut the project down over the lack of jobs for African Americans.
“That cement will not be poured until I see half black Americans on this job,” just this simple, Gardner said after arriving at the Evergreen Park construction site.
He was threatened with arrest, but in the end, the protesters stopped work at the site, and he eventually left.
Gardner said he decided to stage the protest after he spotted a curb replacement crew on 95th Street in Beverly last week, and not one of the workers was black.
“The Indian fellow I talked to, who was foreman of this group, I said ‘Where are the blacks?’” Gardner said.
He claimed the foreman told him “there are no blacks” and walked away from him.
Gardner said he mainly sees white, Latino, and East Indian workers on road construction crews in black communities, but no African Americans.
Visibly shaken by the city’s goals for minority employment failing to ensure African-Americans get a fair share of the work on the road work on 95th Street, he accused City Hall of failing to enforce its own hiring rules.
“Eighteen years old, I was in New Guinea and the Philippines, fighting for this country, and I’ve got to come back and fight for black people at 87 years old,” Gardner said.
“Where’s the Mayor? Where are the aldermen?” he added.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel was downtown, talking about high tech jobs, but heard Gardner’s complaints about construction jobs loud and clear.
“There are clear goals, and nobody can violate them. And there are clear goals for the city, because they reflect good economics, and good policy, and those are our policies as a city,” Emanuel said. “If there’s a subcontractor not abiding by the law, they won’t be a subcontractor much longer.”
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio Political Editor Craig Dellimore Reports
The mayor said the city’s Department of Procurement Services would look into the situation with the work crew on 95th Street.
“We have a clear goal, as it relates to women and minority hiring – a citywide goal,” he said. “As you saw, just recently in the contracts awarded for the CTA on the Red Line, very high numbers.”
A Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman said the company working on curb replacement on 95th Street in the Beverly neighborhood is a minority-owned firm, although it is not owned by an African-American.
Unemployed union finisher Harold Jackson said it’s hard not to notice the lack of black workers on local construction crews.
“They tell you there’s no work out here, and you see all this construction going on out here, and you’re sitting at home everyday. You know, how would that make you feel?” Jackson said.
Gardner said the mayor should do more to make hiring more fair.
“I think the city of Chicago has a responsibility to see sites like this – not only this one, but all over the city – to see that blacks are getting their share of the employment,” he said.
Late Monday afternoon, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said any abuse or fraud of the minority contracting program is not tolerated and companies who violate city policies will be swiftly penalized.
Government hiring rules don’t apply to private projects, like the Evergreen Park shopping center, but Gardner said his point and protest were the same.
“We’re going to apply the income to support these businesses, yet you have the audacity to not even respect us enough to see that our young men and women get jobs here,” Gardner told a representative of the Evergreen Park construction project.
Representatives at Power Construction, the shopping center contractor, did not return calls for comment.
It was the late Mayor Harold Washington who tried to diversify a basically all-white construction work force in Chicago, by requiring minority-owned businesses receive a percentage of all city contracts. However, not only has the program itself been riddled with fraud, getting minority-owned contractors themselves to hire minorities has been – and obviously continues to be – a problem.