ANN ARBOR, Mich. (WXYZ) — Dozens of people gathered on the University of Michigan's campus Monday afternoon to protest racism on the job.
The rally was in connection to a January 2022 lawsuit filed against United Electrical Contractors, which has offices in Lansing and Livonia. Former employees say they faced daily discrimination from company managers and nothing was done.
"While working here, I would hear racial epithets on a near daily basis. I was not given the same treatment as my other white coworkers were," former UEC employee Tyler Richardson said.
Richardson says employees of color were not provided with the same training or resources from company managers as their white counterparts. Richardson says when Black and brown employees spoke up about the discrimination, nothing was done and they were instead terminated. He says his employer cited pandemic layoffs on the basis of seniority, but white coworkers with less time on the job were not fired.
"The reason me and other people were fired is because we stood up for ourselves and we were retaliated against," Richardson said. "It has effected me in numerous ways, literally so many other ways. I’ve been very stressed about the situation. I was very depressed about it at first. When I first got out of high school, I thought I’d be an electrician, try to get myself into the trades in order to make a good life for my future and hopefully a good way to support my family."
The victims in the lawsuit refer to themselves as the "United 6 Plus," but the lawsuit has since gained more plaintiffs.
"I started out as a floor man at United Electric and then I suffered a minor injury. Upon the injury, I was demoted and then I was basically a grunt worker after that. I got bounced around job site to job site," said Jordan Shank, who is also a part of the lawsuit.
Shank says he also witnessed racial slurs being used daily on the job.
"You couldn’t even fathom how often it happened, but it happened a lot. It’s not a good thing, not in 2022 or 2023," Shank said.
Victims and attorneys in the case are now calling on companies that provide housing for students, like Landmark Properties, to stop working with UEC amid the allegations.
"Here supervisors witnessed an African American employee who has the n-word emblazoned on his hard hat and of course, they say well, that’s the only one we got for you, you got to wear it until we can order you another one. (He had) to walk around like that. It’s the supervisors, the managers that use all of the racial epithets," said Richard Mack, who is representing the United 6 Plus. "This is so egregious because it was so endemic. It was almost throughout the entire culture of United Electric that these sorts of things would be happening on a near-daily basis and absolutely nothing down about it."
Landmark Properties sent the following statement in response to the protest:
Landmark Properties is aware of and is actively monitoring the allegations and pending proceedings to United Electric Contractors. At this time, neither the statements from the claimants nor our own investigation indicate that the alleged conduct occurred on our project site. We continue to review information surrounding this matter as it becomes available. We also continue to monitor our job sites and surrounding areas for vandalism.
Landmark Properties does not tolerate any form of workplace discrimination or harassment and follows all applicable federal, state and local anti-discrimination and harassment laws and regulations.
Mack says the lawsuit is also about the employees that continue to work under the alleged conditions.
"These plaintiffs had co-workers. These plaintiffs are aware of other Black and brown, female workers who continue to work for United Electric and they want to see justice for them as well," Mack said. "If you’re not a part of the solution, you’re a part of the problem and right now, companies that are letting this go by and are just sort of shrugging their shoulders, they’re becoming part of the problem."
In a statement, UEC president Scott Flegler said the following:
These activities are part of an ongoing harassment campaign orchestrated by the IBEW, designed to interfere with our company’s operations and relationships and tarnish our reputation.
We take any claims of discrimination extremely seriously and have a track record of doing so. When these allegations – which do not involve any project in Ann Arbor – were first made against us more than a year ago, we conducted a thorough review that revealed nothing to substantiate the claims. And since that time, the IBEW’s lawyers have offered no evidence whatsoever to support their allegations.
We are also very proud of our diverse and talented workforce. Diversity is one of our core values and key differentiators of our company. We not only include diversity and inclusion videos in our employee health and safety training program, but we also provide our employees with in-person diversity and inclusion training through a certified, third-party instructor.
We appreciate the ongoing support of our customers, who trust the quality and reliability of our team, while respecting the values of our company.
The plaintiffs in the case say ultimately, they want the workplace to be safe for everyone.
"I’m really hoping that this changes the future as far as the culture of the trades, equal opportunity. I want to see diversity training amongst every company, not just United," Shank said.
"This is a great community full of great people and I know they don’t want to be supporting somebody who is trying to degrade people because of their skin color," Richardson added.
Mack says they're still awaiting a decision from the courts, but they're hoping to see some motion in the case soon.