Six apprentice electricians filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against their former employer — United Electrical Contractors, a Lansing-based company — accusing the company of condoning racist behavior, harassment and discrimination for years.
Among other things, workers said they were told to “hurry before I get my whip out”, and called a “boy on a slave ship” who should return to his “plantation”, a ” brown boy” and the N-word.
The plaintiffs – Gabriel Tavera, Vance Murray, Marius Richardson, Tyler Richardson, Eric Burch and Jordan Shank – allege they were subjected to a long list of “creeping racism demonstrated at all levels”.
Late Thursday afternoon, UEC President Scott Flegler said the company had reviewed the grievances and called them “part of an ongoing harassment campaign by a union, designed to interfere with the operations of our business”.
To be clear, however, it was former workers – not a union – who took the lawsuit.
Additionally, the company, which is not unionized, said the lawsuit’s allegations had not come to its attention, but hours later the UEC said it was able to examined them and called them unfounded.
To highlight their lawsuit and exert public pressure on UEC and their customers, the plaintiffs also held a press conference in the freezing cold outside the U.S. District Court, which included support from the National Action Network, a group defense of civil rights.
The trial, they noted, comes just days after Martin Luther King Jr. went on vacation.
Each of the complainants spoke about their experiences with racism in the business.
Burch, the first of the workers to speak on Tuesday morning, said he reported his concerns to a project manager, who replied that he didn’t have time – and did nothing.
“It let me know that racism is still alive on American job boards,” Albion’s Burch added. “The justice we would like to see from this is that United Electrical Contractors be held accountable for letting its employees deal with us with such harassment every day.”
The lawsuit – filed by attorneys Richard Mack and Andrea Frailey with Miller Cohen in Detroit – seeks damages and remedies, including mandatory training, and an end to harassment, discrimination and retaliation.
At the press conference, the plaintiffs also argued that the UEC, which does electrical work for large-scale municipal and private development projects in Detroit, should be held accountable by officials, especially those in Detroit. .
And the lawsuit underscores what the Society for Human Resource Management, a professional human resources association, said is a need, in general, for “open and honest conversations” about prejudice, discrimination and racial inequality.
SHRM released two reports last year – The Cost of Racial Injustice and a report by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Racial Equity – which found that 42% of black workers experienced unfair treatment at work based on race and ethnicity in the past five years.
In addition, 26% of Asians, 21% of Hispanics and Latinos, and 12% of whites also said they had experienced unfair treatment.
As a result, American organizations have lost billions, including $172 billion in revenue alone.
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The UEC acknowledged that additional complaints had also been filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which it said were unsubstantiated, and the National Labor Relations Board.
The company president also said that UEC prides itself on its “diverse and talented workforce”, that it provides diversity training and that diversity is “one of our core values and the main differences of our company”.
Additionally, a trade group, Associated Builders and Contractors, defended the UEC, calling the lawsuit a “false narrative.”
The ABC took aim at the lawsuit, saying it was a “weak attempt to oust” the company from “many construction projects that have been deservedly won”. He also calls the allegations “unsubstantiated and false”.
“It has come to my attention that construction unions are using derogatory and defamatory accusations of racism or racist behavior against United Electrical,” said Jimmy Greene, president of ABC’s Michigan Chapter. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
In the 31-page complaint, apprentice electricians said they were treated differently than their white counterparts, facing fewer training opportunities, less compensation and retaliation.
Each worker alleged a list of violations.
Tavera, a Mexican-American who was laid off, said white employees get preferential treatment. They were driven from the parking lot to the construction site, when he had to walk. He received less training and less pay, and heard managers use racial slurs including “beaner”, “spic” and “wetback”.
Management, according to the lawsuit, did nothing to prevent this use of language.
Murray, a black man who quit the company, said non-white employees were given more demanding work, denied training and the title of foreman while preferential treatment was given to white workers.
Marius Richardson, another black worker, also accused the company of discriminatory treatment and allowing others to hurl a variety of racial slurs, epithets and nicknames, including calling them “Obamas”, a derogatory reference to the former president.
Tyler Richardson, also a black worker who has no connection to the other Richardson, said employees would raise political issues to stir up controversy and make comments, such as “Black Lives Matter is bull —-” . Management, Richardson said, heard the racist comments and laughed.
Burch, a black employee, said that in addition to racial slurs, he was asked about his race and ethnicity. A foreman asked him: “What are you?” He replied, “Human.”
The foreman continued to taunt Burch, urging him to return to his plantation. When Burch asked the foreman to stop, he replied, “I’ll get you off my yard. I don’t like your kind.”
Burch said he was also transferred to less desirable work sites.
Shank – a white employee who said he suffered a work-related injury in 2019, returned to work with medical restrictions and was eventually fired – confirmed hearing others use racial slurs.
He also said he was demoted and replaced by a less qualified non-disabled employee and accused the company of taking revenge on him for reporting racist remarks.
“The National Action Network stands against racism in the workplace,” the Reverend Charles Williams, president of the network’s Michigan chapter, said in the statement, vowing to protest the company’s actions. “This will not be tolerated!”
Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or [email protected]