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Friday, May 12, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Protest disrupts work on light rail

Seattle Times staff writer

Light-rail construction on Beacon Hill was interrupted for more than an hour Thursday when 17 protesters carried banners onto the site, demanding more contracts for black-owned businesses.

Obayashi Corp. is mining a 165-foot shaft, where passengers will ride an elevator down to a future Sound Transit train platform.

Walking past a huge crane, the group chanted "No black contracts, no black jobs, no light rail!" and sometimes, "No white rail." A dozen supporters watched from outside a fence.

It was the latest chapter in a three-year dispute with the regional transit agency. Sound Transit estimates that 5 percent of construction dollars have gone to African-American firms but protesters say one major firm hires relatively few blacks.

Obayashi's workers turned off their machines for safety. Some offered wisecracks as they waited out the protest.

"There's too many of you, not enough of us!" a black woman joked to a white co-worker. A white man muttered, "Not only do they not work, we don't work either" because of the protest. One worker joked, "No black rail!"

Sound Transit will be billed for lost time, said Obayashi project director Paul Zick. The stoppage lasted from about 10:45 a.m. until noon.

There were no arrests or injuries.

Seattle police Lt. Kerry Guynn said the demonstrators left when he asked. Obayashi will not ask authorities to file trespassing charges, Zick said.

Last month, the Community Coalition for Contracts and Jobs issued a written complaint on behalf of seven business owners who say they have been denied opportunities.

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Sound Transit is banned from enforcing specific quotas for African-American firms or employees. The agency's counts show blacks make up about a tenth of the overall work force, including employees of the big construction firms.

James Kelly, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, said Sound Transit should be more creative about matching black enterprises with jobs.

Eddie Rye, a coalition leader, said small trucking companies have to settle for "rental" agreements for their services under the big contractors, which he compared to sharecropping. He said that if Sound Transit would sign its own contracts with truckers instead, owners could then get bank credit to buy equipment and grow their business.

Sound Transit has hired an investigator to look into the dispute, as well as a complaint about working conditions by three former laborers at Beacon Hill. Obayashi rehired a fourth, Donald Mills, after he told elected officials May 4 that he was denied tools and issued a poorly fitting dust mask. Zick said Mills "deserved a second chance" after a misunderstanding.

In the afternoon, demonstrators regrouped at the corner of Rainier Avenue South and Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, where they briefly blocked traffic two weeks ago.

A short distance away, Corey Washington of Burien asked a transit staffer to help him get a job. "I'm ready to go to work right now," said the 32-year-old African-American father of five, dressed in an orange vest and new leather boots.

Talks between the jobs coalition and transit executives will resume May 18, Rye said.

"The next time we come out, and there isn't any improvement, people are ready to go to jail," he said.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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