On May 18, Mayor Daley steered through the City Council an ordinance that requires half the jobs on city-funded construction projects be reserved for Chicago residents. Daley’s concept has long been endorsed by low-income activists, and yet he has won little praise for his efforts. At best critics say the ordinance is a weak first step in the right direction. At worst they say it’s an affront to equal opportunity.
“Daley doesn’t understand how insulting it is to drive past a city work site, especially in the black community, and see a bunch of white workers and trucks with suburban addresses,” says Eddie Read, president of the Black Independent Political Organization and the advocacy group Chicago Black United Communities. “This ordinance doesn’t do enough.”
The need for the ordinance dates back at least 30 years, to a time when middle-class residents and industry first started fleeing to the suburbs. Left behind were thousands of residents with no access to the growing suburban job market. Meanwhile, many suburban firms turned right around and won lucrative city construction contracts. They continue to do so to this day. “In effect, we’re sending our tax revenues to the suburbs,” says Wendy Pollack, a lawyer with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago who has studied this issue. “It doesn’t make sense, particularly when you consider that we need jobs in the city.”
In 1984 the City Council passed an ordinance intended to remedy this problem by reserving half the jobs on all city public-works projects for Chicagoans. To prevent contractors from fulfilling the requirement by giving city residents only the lowest-paid janitorial and security-guard jobs, each job was assigned a category based on pay and skill level. Contractors were supposed to fill half the jobs in each category with city residents. “The point was to insure that city residents also get a crack at the high-paid trade positions, like carpenters and pipe fitters,” says Wendy Siegel, director of the Chicago Institute on Urban Poverty at Travelers and Immigrants Aid. “It was a tough ordinance, at least on paper.”
But city officials never even tried to enforce it. They either argued that it was unconstitutional or complained that it was too difficult to enforce. Indeed, few people knew the ordinance was even on the books when activists began clamoring for residency requirements last year. “The need for residency rules is greater today than it was even back then,” says Siegel.
Siegel cites a recent Tribune article that reports that Chicago lost about 8,700 jobs in 1992, while 50,000 new jobs were created in the suburbs. Moreover, according to researchers at the University of Illinois, suburbanites held about 52.6 percent of the construction jobs on sites in Chicago during 1990.
On top of that Governor Edgar left at least 50,000 Chicagoans without any means of support when he ended the general assistance program in 1992, says Siegel. “They replaced general assistance with Earnfare, which is a very limited program that reaches far fewer people. We don’t know what happened to all those people knocked off of general assistance. I’m sure many of them are on the street.”
In 1993 Travelers and Immigrants Aid joined forces with several community groups to form the Employment Policy Coalition. One of their first recommendations was to have the city adopt and enforce a constitutionally acceptable residency requirement for public-works jobs. What followed was a classic example of Chicago-style political machinations. In the face of a legislative push by independent aldermen for the ordinance, Daley did what his father might have done. He crafted his own version and got the council to adopt it.
“Our purpose was to create job opportunities and send a signal to contractors that they have to consider Chicago residents for these jobs,” says Daley aide Rosanna Marquez. “We believe the contractors who make the effort can reach these goals.”
To enforce the ordinance, the city will create a monitoring unit in the purchasing department. “In order to receive a payout, the contractor has to show his payroll,” says Marquez. “Then we will know who did the work.”
Some critics denounce the ordinance because it doesn’t require that Chicagoans be given half the jobs in all work categories, including high-wage trades. “Under this ordinance, it’s possible for a company to meet the 50-percent residency requirement by giving the lowest-paying jobs on any work site to Chicago residents,” says Pollack. “You could have a situation where all the carpenters came from the suburbs and all the security guards came from Chicago. That would defeat the purpose of using the ordinance to open up some of the trades.”
The ordinance also allows the city to waive residency requirements in some cases. Contractors requesting waivers have to make an appeal to the purchasing department. Critics say waiver requests should go before the City Council. That idea, Marquez says, would be unwieldy.
“Having council hearings on these matters would slow a lot of the very work that aldermen want done in their wards,” she says. “Some might complain because the law allows waivers. But we feel the ordinance would be struck down by the courts without them. You have to allow a waiver for a contractor who, for example, can’t find an underwater welder who lives in Chicago.”
To the criticism that the residency requirements aren’t broken down by skill category, Marquez answers that too strict a system might ignite a suburban backlash. “We don’t want to slam the door on each other. If we make this too tight it’s antiregional. Then Evanston or Oak Park or other suburbs could very well retaliate by creating their own special residency requirements. We would like to see Chicago residents have a crack at those jobs too.”
But Read and others contend the city isn’t trying hard enough to find qualified city residents for local public-works jobs. “They’re running a desk affirmative-action program,” says Read. “They’re not getting out of the office. They’re not going to the sites. They’re running things from their desks, and they accept whatever the contractor tells them.”
Read says his organization has compiled a list of 5,000 black tradesmen who live in Chicago. “We’re not talking about someone who thinks he’s a carpenter because he helped his grandfather build a back porch,” says Read. “These are skilled tradesmen with union cards who live in Chicago and they can’t find work.”
Read says he and his allies run their own affirmative-action program on the south and west sides, at the request of a group of local black leaders called the Council of Elders. “The Council of Elders is made up of seasoned black men and women who provide guidance and direction to our communities,” says Read. “We have a hot line that people can call, and we have people in the community doing bird-dogging, and when they spot a construction site that doesn’t have black workers they call our headquarters. We’ll send out a caravan. We’ll get about 15 guys and we’ll go over to the site. We don’t mess with the crew. My guys are disciplined. I’ll say, ‘We’d like to talk to the site superintendent.’ Then I’ll tell him, ‘I have received a call that there are no black workers on this site. Can you share with us how many black workers you have?’ Usually they start hemming and hawing. So I tell them that ‘in accordance with affirmative-action statutes of this city, we encourage you to employ black workers.'”
And if they don’t comply?
“Then we take more direct action. [Once] we sent a crew of men, I won’t say where, to a work site and they put their own padlock on the gate. That way no work could be done without hiring black men. Sometimes it turns into a confrontation. We had a site on 45th Street where one of their guys chased one of our guys with a hammer. We came back the next day with 30 guys. And their guy said he was sorry.”
Siegel, Pollack, and other members of the Employment Policy Coalition say they will press for amendments that would strengthen the ordinance. And Read says he’ll continue to visit sites.
“If Mayor Daley does not take the lead in improving the whole unemployment situation for black people, there will be a major confrontation in the streets,” says Read. “Construction workers are some of the most aggressive and intense people that there are. They don’t have any problem with physical confrontation. And we don’t intend to back down.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.