Editor's note: The following column describes the Seattle Black community's frustration over inequitable contracting on the city's light rail line, a problem that TriMet has addressed more successfully in Portland.
On Jan. 26, African Americans who care about our community rallied at the board meeting of Sound Transit in order to advocate for Blacks getting contracts and jobs. Although it appeared that the board cared little about our community, we spoke out anyway.
Sound Transit is a public authority that is building the light rail system; the project will require the expenditure of billions of taxpayer dollars to run trains from the North End to the airport and beyond.
The group pushing for King County Blacks to receive our fair share of this money is called the Community Coalition for Contracts and Jobs. Remember this name and support CCCJ, for it has been working in your interest. The point persons are community leader and businessman Eddie Rye and able co-leader Patricia Paschal.
The general contractors have not been fair and responsive to CCCJ requests. Of the $87 million paid to date on the $280 million light rail tunnel contract, African American contractors and suppliers only received $857,000. Brothers and sisters, if my math is right this means our people received only less than 1 percent of this project.
CCCJ organized after people became angry when they drove by public projects that didn't include Black workers. Those projects, sponsored by the Seattle Housing Authority, South East Effectiveness Development and other public agencies, included rebuilding housing at Holly Park and Rainier Vista without Blacks so much as even holding up a sign that read "Slow." The CCCJ filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development against the housing authority and its prime contractors.
We are unemployed, under-employed, poor and tired. We can't abide business as usual anymore.
In the summer of 2003 the CCCJ, Black clergy, Black contractors and community members protested the awarding of the initial Sound Transit contract to Kiewit Pacific for $94 million. In its bid, Kiewit listed projects overseen by three Black contractors at a cost of less than $300,000.
Speaking with facts and passion, we confronted the board for not including Blacks in a fair way on the design and prep work contracts that had been awarded. As a result of the protest of the contract was delayed for over a month.
Although promises were made to increase participation by African American contractors to more than $3 million, as is typical, promises have not resulted in actions. How often have we seen this? Our architects and engineers have been overlooked for design work. Contractors, suppliers, tradespersons and journeymen have not received significant work.
These practices keep us poor and impoverished, sick and tired, disadvantaged and disenfranchised. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told us before he died that the battle is economic now — not legal. Political segregation is largely over; today the battle is about the money.
Since slavery, Blacks have been skilled in construction. We were craftsmen before we came here — just look at the pyramids and the obelisks. When we arrived, we built Monticello; we built the Capitol where Congress meets; we built the master's house and the slave quarters. We know how to build things.
When word arrived that the $87 million had largely passed our community by, we had to respond. We came to the meeting early but could not speak on the agenda early. The board moved us toward the end. This was the beginning of the negativity we were to experience.
A citizens advisory panel presented a report that praised Sound Transit and said nothing about Sound Transit's commitment (or lack thereof) to diversity. A Black attorney working for Sound Transit said a contract for $89 million for a parking garage could be waived from having to meet diversity goals because the contract was indivisible.
Who's fooling whom? The demolition is not divisible? The excavation is not divisible? The grading is not divisible? Not even the landscaping is divisible? Do they think we are ignorant?
Only Sound Transit board member and Seattle City Councilor Richard McIver spoke against this. The contract was approved unanimously.
Other contracts were approved without any requirement for participation by women- and minority-owned firms. McIver spoke in favor of a provision to maximize participation by women- and minority-owned firms on all Sound Transit contracts. But other board members suggested the provision might be overruled by Initiative 200, which prohibits the state from using race or ethnicity in deciding student admissions, employment or contract awards.
McIver countered, "Aren't we receiving federal money, and doesn't federal law have such provisions?" The Sound Transit board's attorney said that I-200 may well make such language either illegal or unenforceable.
How long we are going to allow African Americans to work against our interests when it is generally understood that they have their jobs because they are African American? Should we not at least talk about such people in our Black media and then on behalf of the community protest their position to the powers that want our vote?
We were called to the table two hours after the meeting started. We talked about the $87 million that was largely denied our people and about the discrimination experienced by the few contractors who are working, on the broken promises regarding Blacks getting our fair share and on how we have been experiencing such discrimination for 40 years.
I questioned whether the board – except for McIver – even cared. I believe their attorney was patently wrong about federal law. The doctrine of pre-emption (and the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution) make federal law applicable at all times where significant federal money is involved. Although I-200's supporters always said that I-200 would not prohibit outreach programs, no outreach was done for our community.
This event will be televised on public television, but what we really need is to not wait for the meeting to be rebroadcast, nor even to read this and weep. Instead, we need you to talk up what is going on, come to our rallies and help us keep the pressure on.
The CCJC is fighting for jobs and contracts for you — fight with us. As Frederick Douglass stated, "Power concedes nothing without a demand."
The Rev. Carl Livingston is a member of the Community Coalition for Contracts and Jobs.