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Nooses, "whites only" signs, and a monkey doll plague black workers at GM plant, lawsuit says

Workers allege a long pattern of racist harassment that has gone unaddressed at the Toledo plant.

by Tess Owen
Jan 18 2019, 7:22pm

A black employee at a General Motors plant in Toledo, Ohio, said he discovered a racist drawing and a monkey doll next to his work station this week. It's the latest incident in an alleged long pattern of “severe” harassment and a toxic racist culture that has gone unaddressed.

Black workers and supervisors at the plant say they’ve endured years of threats of violence from colleagues, including references to the Ku Klux Klan and nooses. Their experiences are fueling a lawsuit filed last April that’s now being expanded, according to NBC News. Michelle Vocht, a lawyer for workers at the plant, is preparing to amend the complaint alleging persistent racial harassment at the plant. The employee finding the drawing of the doll this week, she said, is further proof that the auto giant has done nothing to stop it.

The nine plaintiffs in the suit say their white colleagues left nooses “with intricately and carefully tied knots” hanging in the office, put up signs on the bathrooms saying “whites only,” called black male employees “boy” or “monkey,” and told them to “go back to Africa.” The suit describes how swastikas or stick figures with nooses around their necks were etched or painted in restroom stalls.

The plaintiffs also allege that white employees warned them to “be careful” because “daddy was in the Ku Klux Klan,” and sometimes wore shirts under their coveralls with “visible Nazi symbols on them.” According to the lawsuit, white employees sometimes left magazines with titles like “Guns and Ammo” lying around the break room and boasted they had guns stashed in their vehicles in the plant’s parking lot.

Black employees serving in supervisory roles described incidents where white underlings refused to comply with directions, causing the assembly line to shut down on occasion. One supervisor told CNN that a white subordinate threatened to beat him with a shovel.

The list goes on.

According to the lawsuit, originally filed in the Northern District of Ohio, black employees reported the harassment to their employers, but the company took no action. In fact, when they reported the harassment to their supervisors, their complaints were met with little response, or more racism. During a team meeting about racial tolerance, a white supervisor remarked, “What’s the big deal about nooses? There was never a Black person who was lynched that didn’t deserve it,” according to court documents. Lawyers say the supervisor wasn’t disciplined.

The Ohio Civil Rights Commission, which enforces state laws against discrimination, investigated allegations brought by employees and concluded last March that GM appeared “indifferent” to the persistent culture of racism.

“The race discrimination in the workplace was severe and pervasive,” the complaint states,
“and touches upon the core of African-American equality and their right to be free from the wounds and scars of iniquity.”

Vocht is also working on a separate lawsuit concerning allegations of racism at the Toledo GM plant. According to a complaint filed in December, GM chose not to transfer an eligible black employee to a job in Dayton, Ohio, near where he lived, despite his seniority at the company, and instead chose to transfer two white employees who were less qualified.

“GM has zero tolerance for racial discrimination in any form — and we find this kind of behavior unacceptable and outrageous,” said David Caldwell, manager of GM corporate news relations, in an email to VICE News Friday. “We are driving this out of the workplace. “

Caldwell also shared a statement from GM vp of North American Manufacturing Gerald Johnson, echoing Caldwell’s sentiments. “I’m outraged that any of our employees would be subjected to harassment,” Johnson said.

Despite the allegations in the lawsuit, GM says it’s taken clear steps to address employees' concerns, including removing individuals responsible for racial harassment.

“To date, the person responsible for displaying threatening materials had not been identified,” the company said in a email, without specifying which incident. “When that happens, the culprit will be terminated.” GM added that police are investigating.

The company has stressed that discrimination is not acceptable and made assurances that they were working to address the problem.

Cover: Partially assembled transmission travel down the line at the General Motors Transmission Plant in Toledo, Ohio, Tuesday, May 10, 2011. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)