Multi-millionaire Ed Gardner fights for jobs in Chicago

Blacks are protesting being locked out of construction unions and jobs in the Chicago area. Photo: PV Bella

CHICAGO, October 1, 2012 — Ed Gardner is a wealthy businessman respected throughout Chicago’s corridors of power. At 87, Gardner enjoys being a “self-made” man who, with his wife, created Soft Sheen hair care products.  

As his children became adults and involved themselves in the day-to-day operations of the company, Gardner became involved in community projects. One of the keys to success is giving back, he says:

My family has always been involved in trying to make life better for the African-American community… We thought it was our responsibility as a successful black company, where we gained most of (our) income right here in Chicago, to give back…to help the black community realize its strength and power.” (Chicago Weekend/ 

Edward Gardner also involved himself in politics. He bankrolled and helped elect Chicago’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington. He also became deeply involved in trying to stop the violence in the Black community, something that has been spiraling out of control for three decades.

His reach includes financing community programs through his own foundation and donating $4 million dollars to renovate an architectural landmark on the city’s Southside, the Regal Theater. 

After selling Soft Sheen to L’Oreal, Gardner began running his own investment firm, continuing to give back to and participate in the community. 

Edward Gardner is making news again. He led a protest march through Chicago and suburban Evergreen Park last Sunday. This was his second protest in a week. 

What pushed Gardner to once again step into the public arena?

While driving around the city, Gardner noticed road construction and other construction projects in or near African American communities. He also observed there were few, if any, black construction workers on the sites. A community activist told him about a major retail construction project at 91st and Western, in Evergreen Park.

There were no black workers on that project either. 

So Ed Garner, who should be enjoying his golden years and the fruits of his labor, staged a protest. Then he planned a rally last Sunday; approximately one thousand people from all walks of life, showed up including Congressman Danny Davis, 98-year-old civil rights activist Webb Evans, Chicago Attorney Sam Adam Jr., and radio personality and former alderman Cliff Kelly.  

Among those in attendance were former and current politicians, business people, community activists, unemployed construction workers, and ordinary folks. 

They marched, rallied, gave speeches, and shut down traffic for almost one half mile. The basic tenor of the rally, from the point of view of unemployed construction workers, was that unions hate black people, unions do not want to hire black people, unions are corrupt, and politicians and civil rights activists are doing nothing to rectify the situation. 

There has been a simmering battle between black construction workers, contractors, and unions over the past few years. One of the biggest complaints is the exclusive use of Hispanic workers and sub-contractors. They are also angry over the refusal of the construction unions to allow African Americans to get good paying jobs on projects in their own communities. 

It should be noted no one is demanding affirmative action programs or quotas. Their demand is simple. Skilled construction workers should be hired from the communities in and around where projects are being built. 

The major contractors and retailers are in a bind, since most are from out of town. They rely on local sub-contractors to insure all hiring meets various government regulations. The unions do not have that problem.

They place their people on the jobs. Some of the major unions are run by Hispanics. 

The unions refuse to recruit people from the various communities where these massive projects are being built. They bring in outsiders when Chicago has a high rate of unemployed skilled Black construction workers.

While the construction unions are doing little to alleviate that problem, Edward Gardner decided to do something about the situation. He is putting his considerable power and reputation behind a move to hire more black construction workers on projects in or near black communities. He will not let this problem go away.

There are planned meetings with contractors and union officials this week. 

According to Gardner and other activists, if there is not a resolution, some of these sites may be shut down by protests. With all the unemployed people in the black community, that may be easy to accomplish.

Construction workers living in black communities were left out of the demolition of public housing units and the rebuilding of affordable housing in their place, even though the legislation clearly stated that percentages of all jobs were to go to people living in the communities or public housing. As usual in Chicago, the law was ignored. 

Activists are angry that skilled workers living in communities where work is being done are being left out again. 

The issue is pitting blacks against Hispanics and blacks against union rules, especially seniority rules. From the rumblings, there is no love lost between those two groups of workers. Blacks have no love for the unions, which they claim lock them out. Some protest signs called for Illinois to become a right to work state 

Edward Gardner may have his toughest political and community challenge yet. Unions do not care about rich guys like him. Chicago politicians - city, state, county, and federal - only care about who gives them campaign contributions.

They act, react, or look the other way depending on the size of the checks. 

But that does not phase Gardner, a Chicago native and World War II veteran. Edward Gardner has an entrepreneurial streak, meaning he is not afraid of a little work. Gardner and his wife started Soft Sheen by formulating hair care products in their basement. Through years of trial, tribulation and hard work, the Gardners built that company into a $55 million dollar business.

The Gardners understand work, and they’re willing to work to fight a thoroughly corrupt system. I doubt he is frightened by it.

Gardner is fighting unions who make it a point to promote hatred of wealthy people like him, people who worked hard for what they earned, built their own businesses, became wealthy, and have the gall and temerity to give something back to those who they profited from. If anyone can push back against the unions, though, it’s Ed Gardner.

Peter V. Bella is a retired Chicago Police Officer, freelance journalist and photojournalist, cook, and raconteur.  He likes to be the irreverent sharp stick that pokes, prods, and annoys.  His opinions are his and his alone. Mr. Bella is a member of the National Press Photographers Association, Online News Association, and the Society for Professional Journalists. 




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Peter Bella

Peter Bella is a retired Chicago Police Officer, freelance photographer, freelance writer, budding videographer, and passionate cook.  He aims to be the sharp stick that pokes and annoys.  The Middle Class Guy is a political column written from a center-right point of view.  While concentrating mainly on politics he will stray into culture, entertainment, sports, cooking, and humor from time to time, along with Memories of things Pabst.  All from a middle class perspective.

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