Illinois black highway workers demand fair employment opportunities and equity

Sep 17 '20 | By Ray

Black tradesmen working for the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) say there is a history of systemic racism in the department, particularly in District 8 in Southern Illinois. These diligent tradesmen are now demanding workplace equity and a policy that helps end racism on the state’s highway projects.

Lee A. Coleman (Phone: 618-346-3360), who worked 15 years as an Equal Employment Opportunity officer with IDOT, said years of documenting, reporting and complaining about the systemic racism has not produced any action, regardless of what political party occupied the governor’s mansion or held a majority in the state legislature.

“We’re concerned about fairness when it comes to black people particularly,” he said. “We want to make sure that African Americans get a fair chance to reap the benefits of the tax dollars they’ve paid into the Federal Highway Fund with reference to internal, external hiring and subcontracting opportunities.”

When contacted by phone and email by BTUS and various other news sources, IDOT officials would not address specific accusations, nor would they identify anyone who could be interviewed. Paul Wappel, public information officer for IDOT released a prepared statement.

“The Illinois Department of Transportation is deeply committed to creating and sustaining an organization that reflects the communities it serves, internally and externally,” it said. “Inequality and discrimination are not and will not be tolerated. Ensuring equal rights and showing every individual respect, dignity and kindness are vital pieces of the department’s mission.”

Coleman said “As EEO officer, I have witnessed my supervisor actually change scores I assigned to a contractor.”

To gain access to equity for black workers, Coleman and his supporters want the Illinois General Assembly to revive Senate Bill 263, which would make it a felony for an IDOT administrator to intentionally change scores on a contractor’s annual evaluation. Those scores are used when awarding state construction contracts.

Members of the Black Chamber of Commerce also want:

> A separation of minorities’ Disadvantaged Business Enterprise goals from white women goals. Between 65 and 70% DBE contracts go to white females as opposed to other minorities, Coleman said, which leaves the remaining 30% of to be shared between all other minorities, he said.

> An independent EEO officer who reports to the Office of Business and Workforce Diversity, not to the project Implementation engineer.

> A requirement that at least one minority sit on the interview panel.

> An investigation into the racism at IDOT that looks into address harassment on the job, promotions, firings and the interview process.

Coleman also said he wants an investigation into why African American section heads who have retired from IDOT are not getting the same opportunity others get to work as consultants to the employees hired to replace them.

“White people have retired and within three months they’ve been called back and given that opportunity,” Coleman said.

Coleman said in the 15 years he worked at IDOT, he never saw an African American come back into the department and serve as a 75-day consultant to help train the successor of the department they just left.

“This is part of IDOT’s policy, but it’s not being applied when it comes to African Americans,” Coleman said.

IDOT has allocated $2.3 billion of it’s massive $23.4 Billion 2020 budget to District 8’s five-year plan for highway improvements. The district is the second largest in the state, encompassing 12 southern Illinois counties, with large numbers of black populations throughout, yet very few opportunities for black workers have been realized.

Black Chamber members are calling for an investigation of the low number of black native born Apprentice who are not getting into the trade unions after graduating from the Highway Construction Career Training Program (HCCTP), though more than 600 have graduated from the program.

In fact, the state of Illinois has one of the highest levels of unemployment for a native born black population in the country, highlighting an economic crisis that far too few political leaders are talking about. The problem should be discussed, studied and solved. And the ineffective solutions of the past aren’t going to fix it.

Anti-growth policies that hurt black families should also be reconsidered, especially the prevailing wage law and the taxes and regulations that drive away jobs. These policy failures overwhelmingly affect black job opportunities. Research shows that prevailing wage laws result in lower wages for black construction workers and less construction work for black tradesmen.

“There is difference in treatment of African American maintainers as compared to their white counterparts with reference to disciplinary action,” Coleman said “We want a citizen review council to meet quarterly to review hiring practices and promotions at IDOT, disciplinary actions and interview panels.”

Throughout the press conference, which was held on a Zoom video conference, various members nodded their heads in agreement to the demands for equality and justice for black tradesmen and tradeswomen working at IDOT as well as fairness when it comes to hiring and disciplinary action. Some said aloud that “it is time for a change,” and “it’s long overdue.”

“In the climate of the Black Lives Matter Movement all eyes are on IDOT,” Coleman said. “Now is the time for IDOT to step up and make sure that African Americans get a chance to benefit from their financial investment into the Federal Highway funds when it comes to internal and external employment and subcontracting opportunities.”

Although Coleman, the so-called minority inclusion officer for IDOT is now coming out in favor of inclusion of black tradesmen on state highway projects, there was a very different tone in air just under a decade ago when his department (IDOT) was sued by the Metro East Black Contractors Organization (MEBCO) for $650 million. According to St. Louis American Report:

We’ve all heard the expression “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Apparently that’s the philosophy that the Metro East Black Contractors Organization (MEBCO) has adopted with respect to the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT).

Recall that two months ago MEBCO was poised to march and shut down the Mississippi River Bridge project (on the Illinois side of the river) because of disparities regarding African-American inclusion.

Then, on the verge of what would have been an embarrassing protest for Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, the governor intervened and dispatched staffers (including the acting secretary of IDOT) to East St. Louis to meet with MEBCO leader, Dr. William E. Mason, MEBCO legal advisor attorney Eric Vickers and ESL Mayor Alvin Parks Jr.

During their meeting, a number of concessions were tentatively agreed upon for the appeasement of MEBCO and the would-be protestors. It appeared that a catastrophe had been averted.

However, over the past two months, nothing was ever finalized, making it appear, in the words of Malcolm X, that MEBCO and the protestors had been “had... took…hoodwinked and bamboozled” into standing down.

So, after being clearly tricked, betrayed and humiliated, MEBCO called a press conference, announcing the filing of a $650 million lawsuit against IDOT, claiming that the state has reneged on promises concerning minority hiring for the bridge project.

According to Vickers, “IDOT has harmed the black community. IDOT has harmed black contractors black workers. It has harmed black people and minorities who have ever thought about going into construction but looked at IDOT and said, ‘I can’t ever get work there.’ So IDOT has to pay for the harm that it has done.”

Should MEBCO prevail, money from the lawsuit would be placed into a trust fund for minority contractors.

This is what happens when a state like Illinois has $13 billion set aside for their roadwork plan, but is too selfish, too racist and too arrogant to share the wealth with those who have prepared themselves for the workplace (as America preaches), yet are locked out because of racial “poli-tricks” as usual.

This must stop, and so-called black leadership doesn’t get a free pass on this one either. NAACP president Johnny Scott has been missing in action, as usual, throughout this ordeal and State Representative Eddie Jackson and State Senator James Clayborne have been conspicuously invisible, mute and detached, as expected.

Yet, I am sure that when Scott needs to pimp his NAACP banquet tickets or Jackson and Clayborne are up for re-election they will be front and center with their campaign literature filled with bogus facts and photo ops.

And what of Lee Coleman, the so-called minority inclusion officer for IDOT (and a native of E. St. Louis)? One would think that if he were actually doing his job all of these compliance issues would never have become an issue in the first place.

That is why MEBCO, the unemployed black construction workers and contractors MUST (through protests, “blowing-up” the phone lines with calls and organizing) remind these political leeches that “you reap what you sow,” then work vigorously to replace them with those who will fight for their interests.

Addressing this alarming employment discrimination with in the IDOT should be a top priority for Illinois lawmakers, who should tackle the problem with policy solutions that will have a positive impact on black families. Otherwise, the trust black tradesmen have for their elected officials will continue to deteriorate, and black neighborhoods will continue to depopulate as families migrate out of the state in search of better opportunities in the construction trades, while others reap the benefits of their black tax dollars.


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