Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Alleged racial discrimination at Lansing-based company brings protest downtown

March 29, 2022
<p>Protesters on March 22, 2022, outside of United Electric, rally against the alleged racial discrimination at the company. </p>

Protesters on March 22, 2022, outside of United Electric, rally against the alleged racial discrimination at the company.

Photo by Raenu Charles | The State News

Former employees of Lansing-based company United Electric, or UEC, alleged racial discrimination against the company in a lawsuit filed earlier this year.

Following the filing of the lawsuit on Jan. 20, 2022, two protests have been held outside UEC, attended by union workers, civil rights advocates and concerned citizens. For several former employees, this was their first time facing United Electric since leaving the company.

UEC is receiving millions of dollars of tax breaks from the state of Michigan to complete the Red Cedar Project, a new apartment complex near Michigan State University’s Brody Neighborhood. Protesters said they believe the company should not be receiving these tax breaks due to the alleged racial discrimination — to the point of legitimate safety concerns. 

“Workers of color like me were not given the same opportunities for training and advancement as our white coworkers,” Gabriel Tavera, a United Six Plus member, said in a statement. “Non-white apprentices were assigned to journeymen who would not train us and who would get angry if we asked questions.”

“I have a daughter who goes to Michigan State; she will never live in any development where United Electrical did the electrical," Ann Arbor city councilwoman Jen Eyer said. "I wouldn’t trust it.”

Many of the alleged acts of discrimination were committed at Skyvue Apartments, another complex in which UEC worked.

During his apprenticeship with UEC, United Six Plus member Marius Richardson said he heard the racial slurs from white coworkers “so often that it became a part of the air.” Richardson said one coworker told him he would “pull out his whip” if he did not hurry up.

After reporting these comments, Richardson said no action was taken by management. Richardson was told that after 90 days of apprenticeship, he would be given a raise. He never received one. 

Then, despite UEC having projects lined up for years, Richardson said he was terminated with the excuse that the company was out of work.

Hillary Coleman worked in administration yet still wasn’t safe from the racist environment at UEC.

“The racist treatment began as soon as I got there,” Coleman said in her statement.

She endured many racist comments about her hair, including a coworker physically grabbing her hair after asking him not to. Coleman began suffering panic attacks at work. 

Additionally, through her position, Coleman said she was able to see how everyone was getting paid. She said Black and brown workers were getting paid less, including Coleman herself, who was told that her position’s salary cap was $15.25 an hour, while her white counterpart was being paid $18 an hour. 

Some of the reported discrimination went past racial slurs and discrimination and into fear for one’s life.

“I finally couldn’t take it any longer because I actually felt like my life was in danger,” United Six member Chris Manning said. 

After dealing with racist incidents on a daily basis, including someone writing a slur on his hard hat and him having to wear it for a week before a replacement came, Manning said he was sent to a job site alone with a colleague that made varied threats and statements that concerned him.

After reporting these events to management, no action was taken. 

These transgressions, among others, were the cause of Thursday’s protest. 

“There’s no way that any institution should be supporting a group with federal (or) state dollars and then discriminating against someone of color,” C.A. Campbell, President of Lansing’s NAACP chapter, said at the protest

Many unions showed support for the United Six Plus.

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“Trade unions have long been part of the civil rights movement,” Eyer said. “They stand for equality for workers, and they fight against deplorable workplace conditions like we’ve heard about at United Electrical.”

“We’re out here standing in show of our support that racism needs to stop and that this is unacceptable in 2022,” Union Representative Ken Kolp said.

“This litigation is part of an ongoing harassment campaign by a union, designed to interfere with our company’s operations and relationships,” UEC President Scott Flegler said in a statement. “We take any claims of discrimination extremely seriously and have a track record of doing so.”

Fleger said the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, or IBEW, has repeatedly tried to convince UEC workers to join their union. He said most workers at the UEC were opposed to the union, and the United 6’s lawsuit aims to defame the UEC. 

He also said that the union has made several attempts at “unsolicited contact” with UEC workers — including email, text and social media messages — despite the workers asking to not be contacted again. 

“In apparent recognition that they are unable to win over the hearts and minds of UEC’s employees, the union has abandoned their failed recruitment campaign and transitioned to a pure smear campaign strategy. In short, because they can’t compete fairly in the marketplace, they are resorting to defamation and attempted character assassination to cause harm to our company and our employees,” Flegler said. 

Flegler maintains that diversity is important to the company, and that it continues to uphold it as one of its core values.

Richard Mack, the lawyer for United Six Plus, acknowledged the bravery of the former workers as they confronted their former workplace.

“You can’t imagine how much bravery it takes to be here in front of the very building where you have suffered racism, where you have suffered discrimination, where you have suffered sexually inappropriate comments,” Mack said. “How much bravery it takes to come here and look them in the eye and say, ‘I’m not gonna stand for it anymore.’”

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