Charles E. Davis, 63, hustled down Constitution Avenue on Wednesday, perspiration beaded on his face and passing out fliers while every so often joining in with the protesters he was trailing and chanting, “Our City! Our Jobs!”
He was one of hundreds of people demonstrating around the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture construction site between 14th and 15th streets NW and demanding fair-hiring practices from Clark Construction.
The protesters, sponsored by D.C. Jobs or Else, have accused the Bethesda-based company of not doing enough to hire local residents, specifically minority-owned businesses. Clark is the largest construction contractor for the District.
Davis said he has 40 years’ experience in the construction industry but has been out of work for two years. He’s been living off his savings and finding odd jobs painting, cutting grass and doing demolition, and he’s unsuccessfully applied for various jobs throughout the city with the company. The lack of community support for the protest hasn’t helped much, either, he said.
“We’re dedicated workers,” Davis said. “I want to work, I want to support my family, I want to send my grandkids to college. . . . We need unity, and we just don’t have it.”
The Rev. George C. Gilbert Jr. of Holy Trinity United Baptist Church, one of the organizers of the protest, said that between October 2011 and February 2012, he took 116 men and women to apply for jobs at Clark Construction sites in the District but that none of them was called or interviewed. He and others have been trying to work with local unions and employment groups to come up with an agreement with the construction company.
Some of the minority group members have been hired for one-day jobs but nothing long term, Gilbert said.
“We’ve found these buildings are being built, but the people are not benefiting,” Gilbert said.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly report for June shows that the national unemployment rate for African Americans edged up to 14.4 percent, far above the overall 8.2 percent jobless rate.
Crews broke ground on the museum in February and are in the excavation phase. The museum is slated to open in late 2015. Other companies working on the museum are Smoot Construction and H.J. Russell and Co., both of which are black-owned businesses.
Linda St. Thomas, chief spokeswoman for the Smithsonian Institution, said the museum and the companies working on the project are committed to hiring minority workers and minority-owned businesses. She also said that the companies and the Smithsonian are working with the District’s Department of Employment Services to keep it up-to-date on job listings.
There are plans to have a trailer on the construction site by the end of July where people can find out more about applying for jobs. The three construction companies also sponsor monthly meetings about job openings and new bids.
“Over the next four years, there will be all kinds of skilled labor needed in different phases . . . from excavators to crane operators,” St. Thomas said. “As the project moves along, different professions will be required.”