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MITCHELL: White Castle targeted by protesters at building sites

Rainbow PUSH Coalition members block a White Castle construction site and demand that that black workers get a share of the jobs. | Photo courtesy Rainbow PUSH coalition

You would think by now, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. would be able to sit down.

Not a chance.

Jackson is still fighting battles that should have been won decades ago.

Last week he led a protest at a White Castle restaurant located at 22nd and Wabash, where an Orland Park company is doing renovation work.

Although the construction site is in a community with a predominantly black population, there were no black men or women working at the site.

OPINION

This has been such an ongoing concern, five years ago Ed Gardner, once a giant in the black hair care field, led a protest even though he was elderly and in frail health.

The problem hasn’t gone away.

“PUSH is looking at the building trades as one that we need to focus on,” said the Rev. Janette Wilson, a longtime senior adviser to Jackson.

“We should not have people building in the community and we are not part of the construction,” she said.

The dozen protesters didn’t have to march long before representatives of White Castle and Princeton Builders Inc. agreed to meet with the civil rights group.

Both sides described Monday’s closed-door meeting as “productive.”

“Our feeling as a family-owned business is we appreciate the opportunity to learn about areas where we can improve,” said Jamie Richardson, vice president of White Castle, adding that he intends to meet with Rainbow PUSH again on Tuesday.

“We’ve had an informal process for construction and we really believe that we’ve made an earnest effort to be inclusive on jobs. We’ve already committed to improving the process in terms of how we talk to our contractors about specific diversity goals,” he said.

Frank Voss, one of the owners of Princeton Builders Inc., the general contractor for the White Castle project on Cermak, acknowledged that when PUSH showed up, there were no African-American workers on the site.

He claims it’s not a matter of him not wanting to hire African-Americans, but a matter of relationships.

“It was a bid job. . . . There were no parameters for who participates and who doesn’t. We bid the job with people who have done those kinds of White Castles in the past, is price effective and can do the job in a timely manner,” he said.

Voss and a brother own Princeton Builders, which has one employee, and an “affiliated” company that does carpentry.

That company has nine or 10 employees, but the most consistent workers are Voss, his brother, his nephew, and his three sons, Voss told me.

“We are not constantly in hiring mode. It is mostly family and mostly direct blood,” he said.

During the ’60s when protesters showed up at a White Castle in the Bronx to convince White Castle to hire blacks and Puerto Ricans, angry white counter protesters greeted them.

After a lot of marching and some violence, African-Americans were able to sit at the counter, and eventually were hired at White Castle restaurants nationwide.

Today, Richardson can brag that in the Chicago area, 79 percent of White Castle employees are African-American, and 89 percent are from a diverse background.

“That is something we are proud of. Everyone deserves an opportunity and a job,” he said.

But he also said the company couldn’t “commit” to things that would be “harmful” to its business model.

“We can be thoughtful about listening to the concerns and challenges and learn from one another,” he said.

Because White Castle is in the process of “re-imaging” restaurants that have been a fixture in black neighborhoods for decades, activists thought this was an opportunity to ease the burdens caused by the city’s high black unemployment rate. They were disappointed.

“The White Castle at 79th Street [and South Chicago], where people are selling bean pies, incense and socks on the street, is brand new and there was not even a black flagger — not even a black person picking up the trash,” said Omar Shareef, president of the African-American Contractor’s Association.

“King fought to sit at the counter. We now are fighting for economic development for the people who have the same skills to perform and do the same work someone else is doing in our own neighborhood,” Shareef said.

“We don’t just want the job selling the food across the counter. We want to build the facility,” he said.

Jackson is still on the battlefield because the victory has not been won.