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The steps taken Monday by the Daley administration and City Council to address police abuse rightly dominated the news out of City Hall. After years of delays and inaction, the city agreed last week to settle four police torture cases, and as the council’s finance committee signed off on the $19.8 million in payments Monday, aldermen urged Mara Georges, the city’s top lawyer, to find a way to end the city’s obligations to defend and pay a pension to the lead torturer, former commander Jon Burge. Then aldermen Ed Burke and Isaac Carothers, one a former cop and the other chairman of the council’s police and fire committee, introduced an ordinance that would require police involved in shootings to take tests to see if they’ve been drinking–standard procedure in other cities. In a demonstration three floors upstairs, Al Sharpton called for reforms–such as a fully independent agency to investigate police misconduct–that local leaders have pushed for years.

But nearly lost amid all of the talk about the police department was the finance committee’s discussion of another important civil rights issue: minority access to jobs in the predominantly white building and construction trades.

City and negotiators for 33 trade unions representing 7,800 city employees recently hashed out a deal on pay and benefits for the next 10 years. Some critics have charged that the Daley administration gave away too much–pay will increase by 16 percent over the next five years alone–in the interest of ensuring labor peace during the possible buildup to the 2016 Olympics. Others, including many of the council’s black aldermen, have long howled that the trades shouldn’t get sweet city deals when they can’t be bothered to improve recruitment outside old white ethnic circles. Former alderman and current Cook County commissioner William Beavers summed up this view during last year’s Big Box minimum-wage debate: Unions, he said, “don’t do nothing for us in the construction industry.”

Monday, though, union leaders and city attorneys stressed that the new agreement calls on the trades to enroll at least 100 former students from Chicago public schools or city colleges in apprenticeship programs each year. Union leaders said repeatedly that the plan was their idea.

It sounded great to aldermen. Then they started asking questions, and it began to sound less great. As Ninth ward alderman Anthony Beale put it a few minutes later: “We have no teeth.”

Beale first asked the union officials and city lawyers what safeguards were in place to ensure the apprenticeship numbers were met. Jorge Ramirez, secretary-treasurer of the Chicago Federation of Labor, said the unions would have to report their progress to the newly formed Labor Management Cooperation Committee, established to smooth out any city-labor issues over the next decade. “People will be watching,” Ramirez said.

“But there’s no penalties in place?” Beale asked, then answered himself: “Once we sign this, we’re on for ten years, and there’s no guarantee that some of these locals with low minority participation will do their part.”

“Well, that’s true,” Ramirez said. “But it was one of the goals of the agreement.”

Tom Villanova, president of the Chicago and Cook County Building & Construction Trades Council, added that it had never been easy for the unions to find qualified apprenticeship candidates from the public schools. “There are only 17 shop teachers in all of the Chicago Public Schools,” he said.

“Well, we had shop when I was in high school,” Beale told him. 

Manny Flores, of the First Ward, and Ed Smith, of the 28th, both urged the union and city officials to issue regular reports on the apprenticeship numbers. “My experience is that if it’s not in the contract, it doesn’t happen,” Smith said. The union officials said they were serious about the new initiative but made no other concrete promises.

Fifth Ward aldermen Leslie Hairston wanted more details. “What are your goals for minority hiring?” she asked. “Of the 100 apprenticeships, how many do you expect to be minority?”

“A hundred,” Villanova said.

Hairston nodded. “Well, the reason I’m asking is that we sit in here year after year, and minority people must be hiding under a rock, because we can never find them for jobs,” Hairston said. “Who will monitor this?”

“The LMCC,” Villanova said. “The mayor appoints an independent monitor to it.”

“The mayor appoints an independent monitor,” Hairston said. “That’s pretty funny.”

The aldermen grilled the officials and groused a little more, then approved the labor pact with a unanimous vote.