Michigan electrical contractor accused of 'rampant racism' in lawsuit from ex-employees
The Rev. Charles Williams, president of the Michigan chapter of the National Action Network, talks about a lawsuit filed Tuesday that accuses a Lansing-based contractor of racial discrimination.
Six apprentice electricians filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against their former employer — the United Electrical Contractors, a Lansing-based company — accusing the company of tolerating racist behavior, harassment and discrimination for years.
Among other things, the workers said they were told to "hurry up before I pull out my whip," and called a "boy on a slave ship" who should go back 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 "rampant racism demonstrated at every level."
By late afternoon Thursday, UEC President Scott Flegler said the company had reviewed the claims and called them a "part of an ongoing harassment campaign by a union, designed to interfere with our company's operations."
To be clear, however, it was former workers — not a union — that filed the lawsuit.
Moreover, the company, which is non-union, said the lawsuit's claims had not previously been brought to the company's attention, but a few hours later, UEC said it was able to review them and were calling them unfounded.
To highlight their lawsuit and apply public pressure to UEC and their customers, the plaintiffs also staged a news conference in the freezing cold outside the U.S. District Court, which included support from the National Action Network, a civil rights group.
The lawsuit, they noted, is coming just days after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Each of the plaintiffs talked about their experiences with racism at the company.
Burch, the first of the workers to speak Tuesday morning, said he reported his concerns to a project manager, who responded he didn't have time for it — and did nothing.
"It made me know that racism is still alive on American job sites," Burch of Albion added. "The justice that we'd like to get from this is that United Electrical Contractors be held accountable for letting their employees treat us with such harassment every day."
The lawsuit — filed by attorneys Richard Mack and Andrea Frailey with Miller Cohen in Detroit — seeks damages and corrective measures, including mandatory training, and an end to the harassment, discrimination and retaliation.
At the news conference, the plaintiffs also made the case that UEC, which does electrical work for municipal and high-profile private development projects in Detroit, should be held accountable by public officials, especially those in Detroit.
And the lawsuit underscores what the Society for Human Resource Management, a professional human resources membership association, has said is a need, in general, for "open and honest conversations" about bias, discrimination and racial inequity.
SHRM released two reports last year — the Cost of Racial Injustice and a Blue Ribbon Commission Report on Racial Equity — that found 42% of Black workers experienced unfair treatment at work based on race and ethnicity in the past five years.
In addition, 26% of Asian people, 21% of Hispanic and Latino people and 12% of white people also said they experienced unfair treatment.
As a result, U.S. organizations lost billions, including $172 billion in turnover alone.
UEC acknowledged additional claims also had been filed through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which it called unsubstantiated, and the National Labor Relations Board.
The company president also said that UEC is proud of its "diverse and talented workforce," it offers diversity training, and diversity is "one of our core values and key differences of our company."
In addition, a trade group, the Associated Builders and Contractors, defended UEC, calling the lawsuit a "false narrative."
The ABC took aim at the lawsuit, saying it is a "weak attempt to oust" the company from "numerous construction projects that were rightly won." It also calls the claims "unfounded and false."
"It has come to my attention that building trades unions are using disparaging and libelous accusations of racism or racist behaviors directed at United Electrical," Jimmy Greene, the Michigan chapter president of ABC said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
In the 31-page complaint, the 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 offenses.
Tavera, a Mexican American who was laid off, said white employees received preferential treatment. They would get rides from the parking lot to the job site, when he would have to walk. He got less training and pay, and heard managers use racial slurs, including "beaner," "spic," and "wetback."
Management, the suit said, did nothing to prevent this language use.
Murray, a Black man who resigned from the company, said nonwhite employees were given more demanding work, denied training and the foreman title 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 is unrelated to the other Richardson, said employees would bring up political issues to stir 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. One foreman asked him: "What are you?" He replied: "Human."
The foreman continued to taunt Burch, urging him to go back to his plantation. When Burch asked the foreman to stop, he replied: "I’m gonna get you off my job site. I don’t like your kind."
Burch said he also was transferred to less desirable work sites.
Shank — a white employee who said he had a work-related injury in 2019, returned to work with medical restrictions and was eventually fired — confirmed he heard others using racial slurs.
He also said he was demoted and replaced by a non-disabled employee who was less qualified and accused the company of retaliating against him for reporting racist language.
"The National Action Network stands against racism in the workplace," the Rev. Charles Williams, president of the network's Michigan chapter, said in the release promising to protest the company's actions. "This will not be tolerated!"
Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Lansing's United Electrical Contractors accused of racism in lawsuit