Big unions join coalition for changes in Obama Library

    Jackson Park

    Crusader staff report

    The fight for a community benefits agreement for the Obama Library received a big boost Wednesday, October 11 when two major unions joined a movement that suffered a big setback a month ago when former President Barack Obama turned down activists’ demands to hire residents in communities near his $500 million presidential center and library.

    The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the Service Employees International Union Healthcare Illinois (SEIU) announced they will join the Community Benefits Coalition, a group of organizations that have galvanized community residents through protests and town hall meetings in Woodlawn, South Shore and Washington Park.

    CTU officer Michael Brunson made the announcement during a press conference at City Hall. CTU President Karen Lewis was not in attendance.

    “I am proud to stand here today with the groups fighting for a community benefits agreement. Together, we strengthen our fight for safe, sustainable communities — and our demand for development that works for ALL of our community residents,” Brunson said in a statement.

    The CTU has 30,000 members and the SEIU has 1.1 million members, making it the largest healthcare union in North America, according to its website. Together, the unions add firepower to a movement that had been losing momentum, to establish transparency and economic opportunities for struggling residents. Now, the Community Benefits Coalition will have thousands fighting for residents who are concerned about being shut out from a project that will significantly change Jackson Park and the surrounding area after the library is built.

    At a community meeting in Chicago in August, Obama said he doesn’t agree that a community benefits agreement is the right tool for the project and instead promised inclusion and asked the community to trust his vision. But with so much at stake with the project, the coalition continued to demand transparency via a community benefits agreement.

    The coalition wants at least 80 percent of the workers hired to work on the project to be from Washington Park, Woodlawn and South Shore. In addition, the coalition demands that the Obama Foundation and the University of Chicago preserve affordable housing near the center’s campus. They also want the institutions to set up a rental assistance fund to help struggling residents.

    Hoping to silence critics and activists, the Obama Foundation announced on September 29 plans to hire a diversity consultant for the project, which will be located between 60th and 63rd Streets in Jackson Park. The Obama Foundation has also promised to hire a project manager who will work with local residents. They additionally promised to hire an executive to serve as watchdog to ensure that firms with Black and Hispanic workers be hired.

    Jobs are a big concern among community residents, who demand more transparency and participation in the project. Many are concerned that minorities, particularly Blacks, will not be adequately represented in the workforce at the presidential center.

    Since leaving the White House, Obama has taken lavish trips around the world with the rich and powerful. In Chicago, Obama has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism that he and his wife Michelle represent Chicago’s Black bourgeois rather than the thousands of ordinary Black voters who twice helped elect him president. Questions about Obama’s concern for Black America has dogged him since his days was in the Oval Office. His plans for the library have taken the criticism to a new level.

    Syndicated columnist Harry C. Alford, who’s also president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce (NBCC), said history is repeating itself with the Obama library. He said under the Obama Administration, the NBCC had a falling out after Black contracts and lending fell below 2% while Black elected officials blindly supported Obama because he was a Black president.  He believes the same will happen in Chicago.

    “The fix is in!  They won’t sign an agreement because that will make them liable for what they are planning to do,” Alford said in a statement. “This will be a Project Labor Agreement (Union contractors only) and that will yield no more than 2% Black participation in a city that approaches 50% Black population.  Can’t they see the Jim Crow process being set up?

    “For years Chicago has been suckered.  They hire the Urban League to monitor projects and they claim everything is all right as Black unemployment rises to disgraceful proportions and the murder rate heads to the “moon.”

    Now, more attention is shifting to Chicago’s City Hall, where coalition organizers want the City Council to pass an ordinance that would secure the community benefits. The coalition agenda will mostly likely clash with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who once served as Obama’s White House Chief of Staff. He has been silent on the issue since Obama announced in 2016 that  Jackson Park would be the site of the library.

    “We cannot trust Rahm Emanuel to protect our families,” said Jawanza Malone, executive director of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization in a written statement. “We believe that without agreements, he will use this development to accelerate the push out of Black families on the South Side.”


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