Former employees sue United Electrical Contractors for ‘lewd racist behaviour’

Detroit — Six former employees of a Michigan electric company filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against their former employer, alleging “obscenely racist behavior and practices.”

United Electrical Contractors officials and employees are accused of using racial slurs on an almost daily basis and discriminating against black and Hispanic workers in the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

The plaintiffs, who refer to themselves as the “United Six”, claim that white employees regularly received preferential treatment and offered better training opportunities, and that workers of color were regularly harassed by management who ignored cases of abuse of other workers at all levels.

“I have heard white employees use the N-word so often that it has become part of the air,” said Marius Richardson of Bath, one of the six complainants.

“At one point a white co-worker told me to hurry up or he would step down. [his] whip,” added Richardson, who worked for UEC as an apprentice electrician in 2020.

United Electrical Contractors President Scott Flegler called the lawsuit’s allegations “unsubstantiated” and argued that the lawsuit was “part of an ongoing campaign of harassment by a union designed to interfere with operations and our business relationships”.

“These allegations had never before come to the attention of anyone in our business. We take any allegation of discrimination extremely seriously and routinely do so,” Flegler said in a statement Thursday.

“When these same complainants filed allegations against us with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year, we conducted a thorough and independent review, revealing nothing to support those allegations,” he said. said Flegler, noting that the EEOC has not yet completed its review, but despite that, the union has made the new allegations public.

“It further establishes that the real purpose of today’s announcement was to harass and harm our business,” he said.

The lawsuit was filed by Richardson, Eric Burch of Traverse City, Vance Murray of Southfield and Tyler Richardson of Lansing, who are all black, as well as Gabriel Tavera of Jackson, who is Hispanic, and Jordan Shank of Atlanta, who is white. .

The six were employed at UEC, which has offices in Lansing and Livonia, for different periods and held various positions between 2015 and 2021. Most, like Richardson, were apprentice electricians, but Murray became a foreman in 2017, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that the five black and Hispanic plaintiffs suffered racial harassment, discrimination and retaliation in violation of their civil rights.

“In today’s civil rights litigation, you hear a lot about racism in the workplace,” plaintiffs’ attorney Richard Mack of Miller Cohen said at a press conference Thursday morning outside the courthouse. of American Justice Theodore Levin in downtown Detroit. “But it’s rare that you hear so much (about) where supervisors, management not only allow it but participate in it themselves.”

Burch claims a foreman called him “a boy on a slave ship” who should “go back to (his) plantation”, while Tavera claims he was repeatedly called “Brown Boy” and asked him whether he was “Mexican or (an N-word)”.

Murray said he did not receive a company credit card while working as a foreman, although his white counterparts received them and, he says, used them improperly.

When Shank, the only white plaintiff in the lawsuit, overheard employees and managers racially abusing his co-workers, he said he spoke out “against rampant racism,” which was retaliated against by the UEC, who allegedly forced him to dig trenches by hand while other employees were able to use a backhoe.

Shank also alleges the company discriminated against him because of his disability by demoting him following a work-related back and abdominal injury in 2019.

Tavera said company foremen would question his national origin, call him slurs and ask him if jumping from a ladder reminded him to jump over the border wall.

He, along with Marius Richardson and Tyler Richardson, were laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic due to what they were told was a lack of work, according to the complaint, which claims white employees with less seniority were not dismissed.

Lansing's Tyler Richardson speaks during a press conference outside US Court Theodore Levin on Thursday January 20, 2022.

The plaintiffs seek damages for economic harm and extreme mental and emotional distress, among other things. Asked about the amount of damages sought in the lawsuit, Mack said they were looking for “anything and everything the law allows”.

The complainants are also demanding mandatory diversity and inclusion training for managers and employees, as well as a harassment complaint process.

Flegler said Thursday that the company prides itself on its diverse and talented workforce.

“Diversity is one of our core values ​​and key differentiators for our business, which is why our employees receive diversity training,” he noted.

The Reverend Charles Williams, president of the Michigan chapter of the National Action Network, said the UEC’s alleged behavior was unacceptable as it continued to award it contracts with major development companies and the city of Detroit.

“The National Action Network stands against racism in the workplace,” Williams said. “We support the legal action of these six workers and the workers who remain under the Jim Crow thumb of this company.”

The Michigan chapter of the Associated Builders & Contractors trade association, which represents the non-union construction industry, released a statement on Thursday calling the lawsuit “false” and saying it was based on “false allegations.” made by union members.

“The exemplary character of the men and women of United Electrical simply wants to earn work in a fair and ethical manner and they have done so. Any action taken against a company based on false allegations becomes a test for the how we respond to it,” said ABC Section President Jimmy Greene.

“I hope the response of any general contractor is to continue to honor the award of the contract to a company that has won it ethically and with an exceptional record of job safety, speed and excellent quality.”

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Patricia D. Rutt