Michigan electrical workers subjected to ‘Jim Crow-era’ racism, lawsuit alleges

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The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. - Shutterstock
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

Six former employees of United Electrical Contractors in Michigan filed a federal lawsuit on Thursday, alleging they were routinely subjected to “obscenely racist behaviors and practices.”

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan claims that company management and employees created a retaliatory and hostile work environment by harassing and discriminating against workers of color.

According to the suit, employees and managers called the workers the N-word and “wetback” and made racist remarks like, “Hurry up before I pull out my whip” and “Go back to your plantation.”

The complaint alleges that the six employees were illegally fired and received disparate treatment, compensation, and training opportunities.

UEC, which has more than 125 employees, does electrical work for high-profile development projects such as The Godfrey Hotel Detroit, The Standard in Ann Arbor, and the Red Cedar project in Lansing.

“In today’s civil rights litigation, it’s rare to hear of the near-daily use of the worst racial epithets and other harassment, being hurled equally by supervision and hourly workforce,” the plaintiffs’ attorney, Richard Mack of Miller Cohen, said at a news conference in Detroit on Thursday. “Coupled with the stark discrimination they experienced, the story of these plaintiffs reads like a Jim Crow-era novel. Yet for them, it's not a story they can end by closing the book.”

The lawsuit alleges violations of the Civil Rights Act. Additional complaints will be filed once the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issues “right to sue” notices, Mack said.

“I heard white employees use the N-word so often it became a part of the air,” said Marius Richardson, who is Black and worked for UEC as an apprentice electrician in 2020. “At one point, a white coworker told me to hurry up or he would ‘pull out [his] whip.’ This same employee told me that he was ‘raised to not like Black people.’ The foreman heard these comments and took no action. In fact, the foreman himself regularly used the N-word. When I reported this racism to management, nothing was done.”

Richardson said he was denied raises that white appreciates received, despite having no performance issues. He also said he was fired when management insisted work had dried up, while white apprentices with less seniority retained their jobs.

“I heard white employees and white managers use the N-word almost daily – both to and about Black employees,” said Gabriel Tavera, who is Mexican-American. “White employees constantly harassed me, calling me ‘Brown Boy,’ asking me if I was Mexican or a N-word, telling me to go back to Mexico even though I’m American-born, calling me beaner, spic and wetback, and asking me if jumping down from a ladder reminded me of when I ‘jumped the border wall.’ Management did nothing to stop this language. In fact, the foreman laughed.”

From the beginning of his employment, Eric Burch said he was subjected to racist behavior.

“When I first met Foreman DJ Shepherd, he asked me if I was ‘Arab, Muslim or a towelhead.’ Around that same time, Foreman Shepherd told me to ‘go back to my plantation,” said Burch, who is Black. “When I requested that he stop making racist comments, Foreman Shepherd told me: ‘I’m gonna get you off my job site. I don’t like your kind.’”

After complaining about the harassment, management transferred Burch to a less desirable job site before firing him, according to the lawsuit.

On top of losing their income, Mack said his clients continue to suffer from “the remnants of this horrific racism.”

“Make no mistake, they will fight for justice,” Mack said. “Someone should pull United Electrical Contractors out of their self-created time machine, and have them meet us in court!”

Rev. Charles Williams, a Detroit pastor and president of the Michigan Chapter of the National Action Network, said UEC’s behavior is reprehensible.

“The National Action Network stands against racism in the workplace,” Williams said. “UEC has caused at least six workers to face extreme harassment and intimidation because of their race. And most of them got fired for raising legitimate concerns. We support the legal action of these six workers, and the workers who remain under the Jim Crow thumb of this company.”

Metro Times couldn't immediately reach UEC for comment.

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About The Author

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling is an award-winning investigative journalist who operated Motor City Muckraker, an online news site devoted to exposing abuses of power and holding public officials accountable. Neavling also hosted Muckraker Report on 910AM from September 2017 to July 2018. Before launching Motor City Muckraker,...
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