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Racism at a GM Plant, From Insults to Nooses, Spurs Firings

Jan. 23, 2019
'GM downplays this and says it is a few isolated incidents, but it’s not,' said Michelle Vocht, a Michigan lawyer representing eight employees at the plant who are suing GM.

After three lawsuits alleging rampant racism at a General Motors Co. plant in Toledo, Ohio, and firings in response, African-American workers say the offensive behavior continues.

The latest incident was last week, when a toy monkey was displayed to taunt black co-workers, lawyers for current and former employees at the plant said. It comes after years of racist language on the assembly line, scrawled slogans and swastikas on the restroom walls and nooses suspended in the workplace, as well as misogyny, according to the lawsuits. In addition to the impact on the workers, it’s a reality check for a company whose chief executive officer, Mary Barra, stands as an icon of gender diversity in the C-suite.

The lawsuits, which were brought last year, seek unspecified damages and action to end the behavior. One says GM figures in a “legacy of reprehensible crimes against African-Americans.”

“GM downplays this and says it is a few isolated incidents, but it’s not,” said Michelle Vocht, a Michigan lawyer representing eight employees at the plant who are suing GM, alleging a hostile workplace. “They didn’t take it seriously enough, and it’s still happening.”

Stopping the Line
The company does take the complaints seriously, spokesman David Caldwell said. GM has taken disciplinary action and also fired some employees, Caldwell said, declining to say how many--measures that haven’t previously been reported. Meetings and training sessions were held. For one of the sessions, GM took the unusual step of stopping the line.

Caldwell said GM and the police are investigating to determine who is responsible for the racist acts and that the company has a handwriting expert working on the matter. He said union officials reported the toy monkey to Toledo plant managers and that “the investigation is intensifying.”

Among the alleged acts, some of which were detailed earlier by, were Whites Only signs on restroom doors and nooses hung from the ceiling in the plant. Some workers referred to black employees as “monkeys” or called them “Dan,” for “dumb-a-- n-----,” according to one of the lawsuits. Some wore T-shirts with swastikas under their coveralls, one of the suits claims.

In legal documents, GM acknowledges the nooses, hostile remarks and offensive slogans but denies some of the incidents and the claims that they were widespread. It says the alleged conduct was contrary to its “good faith efforts to comply with applicable law.”

“I’m outraged that any of our employees would be subjected to harassment,” Gerald Johnson, the company’s vice president of North American manufacturing, said in an email. “GM’s stand is clear: We have zero tolerance for racist or discriminatory behavior.” Johnson said the company would “drive it out of the workplace.”

Jobs Bank
“We live in a society where racism is still an ugly and destructive presence,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California at Berkeley who isn’t involved in the matter. “That does not stop at the plant gate.”

Shaiken said tensions may rise if auto plants continue to close and more jobs are lost to a shift away from sedans. In the past, union workers who were laid off were given most of their pay, indefinitely, until they retired or found a new position in a factory. That program, called the jobs bank, ended in 2009 when the government agreed to bail out GM and Chrysler.

“The jobs bank was a cushion. You don’t have that anymore--you’re just out there,” Shaiken said. “When you start having a smaller pie, and people are losing homes and health care, that gets directed in all kinds of unfortunate ways.”

GM said the first official complaint came in 2017 and that the company responded vigorously. In April, a year before the first of the lawsuits, the automaker sent a notice to all employees saying offensive “jokes, cartoons, pictures, language” wouldn’t be tolerated. As part of an action plan GM developed that year, the company interviewed employees who used lanyards as part of their trade and who worked in the area where nooses were turning up.

By then, one suit alleges, it was too late.

“Hate-driven employees felt free to hang nooses, display racist graffiti and verbally attack and racially insult African-Americans,” the suit claims.

Ray Wood, past president of UAW Local 14, the union chapter that represents the workers at the plant, and Tammy VanRiper, past vice president, have filed their own lawsuits against GM, alleging harassment and a hostile workplace.

Wood, 65, was the first African-American president of the local, elected in 2006. He claims in his complaint that by the spring of 2017, when he was running for re-election, it had gotten around the plant that he had been named president of the Toledo unit of the National Association of the Advancement for Colored People, a post he won in 2014. He says nooses and racist signs were posted and he was subjected to repeated racial epithets and threats.

Wood reported the first noose in March 2017, he said in an interview. He said GM didn’t do anything for weeks and that when it did, it was just a statement in a weekly letter to employees that most throw away without reading.

“There was always an undercurrent of racism at the plant,” Wood said. “The last several years it really took off.”

He lost his re-election bid and retired in 2017.

VanRiper, the local’s first female vice president, claims in her suit that she was subjected to sexual harassment. A member of the union local’s Civil Rights Committee, VanRiper, who is white, assisted with investigations and helped minority employees file complaints and grievances involving racial discrimination at the plant.

When she ran for re-election in 2014 and, unsuccessfully, again in 2017, workers defaced her campaign signs, calling her a “n----- lover,” “Ray’s ho,” and “VanStripper,” according to her complaint.

The lawsuit claims that VanRiper applied for a job at the plant as a health and safety trainer. When she didn’t get it, the manager admitted that if he hadn’t given the position to a white male, “he would have gotten his ‘a-- chewed,’ ” the suit claims.

VanRiper lost her bid for re-election.

Caldwell declined to comment on VanRiper’s lawsuit. In its legal response, GM denied all allegations in the suit.

In a 10-month investigation concluded last March, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission found probable cause to determine discrimination, spokeswoman Mary Turocy said in an interview. The commission’s report said GM’s response was inadequate and that some GM managers showed indifference to the claims.

Caldwell said officials at the plant reported the behavior and “condemned it in zero-tolerance fashion.”

The next step in the commission’s process would have been a hearing. The workers decided to sue instead.

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