Former employees sue United Electrical Contractors for 'obscenely racist behaviors'

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Detroit — Six former employees of an electrical contracting company in Michigan filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against their former employer, alleging "obscenely racist behaviors and practices." 

Managers and employees at United Electrical Contractors are accused of using racial slurs on a near-daily basis and discriminating against Black and Hispanic workers in the complaint filed at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

Plaintiffs, who refer to themselves as the "United Six," say White employees were regularly given preferential treatment and provided better training opportunities, and workers of color were routinely harassed by management who ignored instances of abuse from other workers at all levels. 

The Rev. Charles Williams, president of the Michigan Chapter of National Action Network, speaks at a press conference outside the Theodore Levin United States Court on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022, surrounded by the "United Six" who are suing United Electrical Contractors for alleged "obscenely racist behaviors," and their lawyer, Richard Mack.

"I heard White employees use the N-word so often it became a part of the air," said Marius Richardson of Bath, one of the six plaintiffs.

"At one point, a White coworker told me to hurry up or he would 'pull out [his] whip,'" added Richardson, who worked for UEC as an apprentice electrician during 2020. 

United Electrical Contractors President Scott Flegler called the allegations in the complaint "unfounded" and argued that the lawsuit is "part of an ongoing harassment campaign by a union, designed to interfere with our company's operations and relationships."

"These claims had never previously been brought forward to anyone at our company. We take any claims of discrimination extremely seriously and have a track record of doing so," Flegler said in a Thursday statement. 

"When these same plaintiffs filed allegations against us with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year, we conducted a thorough, independent review, revealing nothing to substantiate those claims," said Flegler, noting the EEOC hasn't yet completed its review but despite that, the union has publicly released the new allegations. 

"This further establishes that the actual goal of today’s announcement was to harass and cause harm to our company," he said. 

The lawsuit was brought 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 filled various positions between 2015 and 2021. Most, like Richardson, were apprentice electricians, but Murray became a foreman in 2017, according to the suit. 

The lawsuit alleges that the five Black and Hispanic plaintiffs faced 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," the plaintiffs' attorney Richard Mack of Miller Cohen said at a Thursday morning press conference outside the Theodore Levin United States Courthouse in downtown Detroit. "But it's rare that you hear so much (about) where supervisors, management are not only allowing it but participating in it themselves."

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

Murray said he was not given a company credit card while he worked as a foreman, despite White counterparts receiving them and, he claimed, using them inappropriately. 

When Shank, the only White plaintiff in the lawsuit, heard employees and managers racially abuse fellow workers, he said he stood up "against the rampant racism," which was met with retaliation by UEC, which 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 on the basis of his disability by demoting him following a work-related injury to his back and abdomen in 2019.

Tavera said that foremen at the company would question his national origin, call him slurs and ask if jumping off a ladder reminded him of jumping over the border wall. 

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

Tyler Richardson of Lansing speaks at a press conference outside the Theodore Levin United States Court on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022.

The plaintiffs are seeking damages for economic injury and extreme mental and emotional distress, among others. Asked about the sum of damages sought in the complaint, Mack said they were after "anything and everything that the law allows." 

The plaintiffs also are demanding mandatory diversity and inclusion training of supervisory personnel and employeesas well as a complaint process for harassment. 

Flegler said Thursday that the company is proud of its diverse and talented workforce.

"Diversity is one of our core values and key differentiators of our company, which is why our employees receive diversity training," he noted. 

The Rev. Charles Williams, president of the Michigan chapter of National Action Network, said the alleged behavior at UEC was unacceptable, as was continuing to give 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 Thursday calling the suit "bogus" and saying it was based on "false claims" made by union members. 

"The exemplary character of the men and women of United Electrical simply want to win work in a fair and ethical manner and that is what they did. Any actions taken against a company based on false allegations becomes a test for how we respond to it," said ABC chapter president President Jimmy Greene. 

"I hope that any General Contractor’s response is to continue to honor the contract award to a company that won it ethically and with an outstanding record of providing great work safety, timely and with excellent quality.”

halbarghouthi@detroitnews.com

@HaniBarghouthi