Detroiter sues arena contractor, alleges racism

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

A Detroit construction worker is suing a contractor involved in building Little Caesars Arena, claiming he encountered “Mississippi-style racism” and saw evidence of suburban workers using fake addresses so the firm could meet the city requirement of hiring a workforce of at least 51 percent Detroit residents.

Harold Wilson, 63, filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Detroit last week against Hardman Construction Inc. based in Ludington. Wilson is seeking $1 million in damages, asserting the contractor violated his civil rights.

Hardman has retained the law firm Plunkett Cooney to represent it in the case.

Harold Wilson is suing Hardman Construction, based in Ludington.

“Hardman Construction vehemently denies Mr. Wilson’s allegations of discrimination and retaliation,” Thomas Vincent, the law firm’s president and CEO, wrote in an email to The Detroit News. “However, due to the fact that litigation is pending, I cannot comment further at this time.”

The lawsuit highlights the long-standing issue that for projects in downtown Detroit, the construction industry hires far more suburban residents than Detroiters and people of color. The city of Detroit has created laws to try to change that. One of those laws is a requirement that any firm getting a $3 million contract on a development receiving public funding must hire at least 51 percent Detroiters for the job.

The union skilled-tradesman says Hardman delayed hiring him for more than two months, and only after repeated visits to the arena site did he get work. He was then fired on his second day in June 2015, according to the lawsuit.

“All they needed was my Detroit address, and when they got that, they didn’t need me,” Wilson said in an interview. “They could then keep my address on the books for a long time.”

Wilson has been a journeyman carpenter, with training in welding and rigging, in Detroit since 1997, the lawsuit contends. He’s a member of the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights trade union. Over the years, he’s spoken out against racism in the industry to union officials, to various employers and government officials, the lawsuit contends.

At the arena job site, Wilson said he wasn’t allowed to use the same water cooler as other Hardman workers, nor was he allowed to put his lunch bucket in the same area as other employees. On his second day, Wilson arrived at the job and overheard workers saying he was going to be laid off, according to the lawsuit. Later that day, a Hardman supervisor told him no construction project should be a “minority job site,” according to the lawsuit. He allegedly then was handed a paycheck and fired.

The $863 million Little Caesars Arena is the sports and entertainment complex that opened in September on the northern edge of downtown. It is part of the estimated $5.4 billion in development projects planned for the downtown area between 2017 to 2020, according to a 2017 report by CBRE, a commercial real estate information firm.

Those 72 projects range from building the city’s tallest skyscraper on the former Hudson’s site on Woodward Avenue, an estimated $1 billion job; to the renovation of historic buildings such as the Book Tower and Book Building, an estimated $400 million job; to new housing, such as the $60 million apartment complex on East Jefferson that will have a Meijer store.

But city officials and others in the construction industry have said in the past that few, if any, of those major Detroit developments are meeting the 51 percent hiring goal.

At the Little Caesars Arena site, which took about 21/2 years to build, city data shows Detroit residents worked an average of 27 percent of total hours on the project from April 2015 to March 2017. Work at the arena complex continued until its September opening. The city hasn’t released the final numbers.

The city’s Office Human Rights office keeps track of hiring on construction sites. Portia Roberson, director of the city’s Office of Human Rights, did not respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit. But in a Detroit News interview in August she said: “It’s a long-standing issue. It’s not a Little Caesars Arena issue, it’s a much larger issue of skilled-trades training.”

Dozens of contractors who built the arena had to pay a total of $2.9 million into a training fund for not meeting the 51 percent hiring goal on a monthly basis.

Hardman had to pay $22,464 into the city’s training fund for having not met the local hiring goal in eight different months, city data shows. During the period Wilson contends he was trying to get work with the contractor, the firm had anywhere from 3 percent to 7 percent of its workers who were Detroit residents, according to the monthly city data.

But in later months, Hardman’s percentage of local hires improved dramatically, from 46 percent to 70 percent in some months, city data shows. The workforce on any construction site is fluid, and, on any given month, different workers with different skills are hired and laid off as the project progresses.

Wilson contends he came across evidence of suburban workers using fake Detroit addresses at a medical facility where potential hires had to go for drug testing.

“There were employees at the drug-testing site who said I was the only one person whose driver’s license was the same as I put on my form,” he said.

Wilson also said months before work began at the arena, he had been approached by several other union workers during training courses who asked if they could use his Detroit address. Those workers lived in the suburbs. “They offered me money if I could use my address,” Wilson said, who refused.

Wilson’s attorney, George Washington of the Detroit firm Scheff & Washington, says the suit may help expose the barriers that prevent many city residents and minority workers getting hired in the construction industry.

“This may be the tip of the iceberg,” Washington said. “We intend to produce evidence that we think will reveal the institutional challenges.”

A Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights document that’s part of the lawsuit states that less than 7 percent of its members were Detroit residents as of January 2017. The union vows to increase its Detroit workers to 57 percent by 2027, the document states. A spokeswoman for the union verified the letter is accurate.

The union said it wouldn’t comment on an ongoing suit involving a member and a contractor.

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN