Un-United Betrayal in Chicago

Like many American cities, Indianapolis was a venue for mass discrimination against Black-owned construction business.  I had been working since 1989 to change that.  For the most part, we were very successful. 

The “Indy Way” was complete diversity in the labor force and in business ownership.  So I guess it wasn’t made clear to United Airlines that when they chose Indianapolis as the site of their new maintenance hub they would have to show diversity in the building of this $1 billion project.  Mayor William Hudnut made it clear he would not sign the deal (incentives, agreements, etc.) until there was a signed agreement by all three parties:  United Airlines, the city of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana.

To my surprise, the economic development director for Mayor Hudnut asked to meet me for breakfast.  He informed me that the mayor was leaving politics at the end of the month (which we all knew) and wanted me to know that the agreement was partly a sham.  After Hudnut’s departure, the state and Gov. Evan Bayh would only hold them to one of the two parts of the deal.  There was a requirement to have a 13 percent minority workforce after the completion of the hub. Also, there was a requirement to have 13 percent participation in all phases of the contracting.  The governor’s office secretly told United they didn’t have to do the contracting phase.  The mayor relayed to me, “They are going to reneged on the contracting part.  You can’t divulge that I told you this but I want you to assure me that you will stop them.  You are the only one who can stop them.”  I was flattered with the challenge and accepted graciously.

As president of the Hoosier Minority Chamber of Commerce, I attended the first minority business outreach session for the project.  As I introduced myself, the United representative responded that the Minority Supplier Development Council would be doing the compliance monitoring for the project.  I publicly replied that format could not work because United was a major member of that organization and the “fox should not be watching the hen house.”  Then I responded, “The HMCC is going to watch over this project to ensure that you are going to make all goals.  We know that you don’t intend to but we are going to make you.”

It was at that point that the “war” started.  Little did United know, Indianapolis was now doing the real thing when it came to minority contracting.  Unlike Chicago, United’s home base, where fronting and outright fraud was used in declaring minority participation, we meant serious business.  We didn’t care what our governor’s office said.  It would be the real deal or nothing.

I used the five Black-owned newspapers and a few Black newscasters to prove my point. They would issue weekly progress reports on the contracting.  I would verify and then disclose the lies they were telling.  My “Fudge Reports” would contrast the number of jobs and real cash that could have gone to the local Black community versus the false numbers that equated to nothing.  It became clear to our local Black elected officials and leaders that the whole project was just a sham.  Our position became very credible as we turned up the public heat.

United was truly embarrassed about the exposure.  But they were so adamant about not doing the right thing that they decided to discredit me rather than run an honest program.  The local Black construction association in Chicago was Black Contractors United.  United Airlines asked the BCU to convene a meeting in Chicago between the HMCC and United.  Knowing how dirty Chicago-based companies and groups play, I suspected a “set-up.”   Supposedly, United’s CEO Stephen Wolf would be at the meeting.  The BCU, our “friend,” would moderate and bring closure to the controversy.

I gave them the number of people who would be coming with me.  What they didn’t know was that people were not only from Indianapolis but from Black contracting groups representing Kansas City, St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, Columbus and Washington, D.C.  We now had the majority of the votes. The meeting started and we were informed that CEO Wolf would not be coming.  We confronted BCU and United by stating “No Wolf, no meeting – get out!”  Suddenly, the United representative pointed her finger at the BCU director and stated, “Jerome, we had a deal! You will pay for this!” and marched out of the room.  Then we knew, Black Contractors United was bought off and was trying to sink us.  Things reversed on them and United had no alternative now but to “surrender.”

We soon met at the office of Indianapolis’s new mayor, Stephen Goldsmith, and closed on a new agreement.  Every phase of the project would  have 15 percent Black (not minority) participation – guaranteed by United and our new mayor. We did it.  I knew former Mayor Hudnut was somewhere grinning.

Harry C. Alford is the co-founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Website: www.nationalbcc.org.  Email: halford@nationalbcc.org.

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