Battling discrimination on the job

Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity leads campaign in Washington state

James Pratt speaks of his experiences with racism at an OWLS rally outside the King County Administration Building in Seattle. PHOTO: Megan Cornish / FS
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In Seattle, a multiracial group of transit workers is leading a campaign initiated by Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity (OWLS) — to “root out racism” in a county named after Martin Luther King, Jr. The irony is appalling.

Demands for racial justice go unheeded. Requests to meet directly with King County Executive Dow Constantine are denied. But this isn’t stopping county workers from demanding change and that elected officials “Do your job!”

On the move. This campaign began to take shape in March when the coronavirus sparked shop-floor organizing at the county’s transit agency around demands for protective equipment and transparency for frontline workers, who are also disproportionately of color. A press conference in April and “Protect Frontline Workers!” motorcade in May were followed by public Zoom discussions about systemic racism at King County.

OWLS members include unionists from Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), Laborers, Carpenters, American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), Teamsters — as well as retirees and workers wanting to be in unions. An open, multiracial, multigenerational organization committed to union democracy, OWLS attracts activists who want to build a fighting labor movement. Its members embraced this campaign with a vengeance.

In early June things exploded when racism at Metro hit new lows. Someone staged a black figurine next to what looked like a noose on a flagpole at the bus agency’s South Base Complex. This classic KKK-style death threat was a last straw, the latest at a complex many employees call “the plantation” due to its toxic environment. When a photo went viral, management made promises to investigate but no action was taken. On June 26, OWLS called a picket and rally at the worksite, drawing support from labor and community groups, and a multiracial crowd of fed-up Metro workers. Demands included disciplinary action for the perpetrators; immediate action when racist threats occur; and no retaliation to whistleblowers.

Cheryl Jones, a twenty-four year veteran transit operator and OWLS member, said it best, “The county is only interested in giving an image of equity. Any time something happens that might tarnish that image it is swiftly swept under the rug. If the truth does somehow come out — the county rushes out to do damage control.”

Demanding justice. In September OWLS called for a meeting with county executive Constantine to discuss the epidemic of racism on the job. They were denied. His staff referred OWLS to the same department heads managing the county’s dysfunctional “Equity and Social Justice (ESJ)” program. The ESJ initiative lacks independence and is notorious for ignoring or dismissing worker’s complaints of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.

An example is James Pratt, a 25-year veteran at Metro. Pratt, one of a few Black mechanics, followed the county’s procedure for reporting racial harassment on the job. For a year the county took no action on numerous complaints that he and others filed about a co-worker. Finally, when Pratt confronted this bigot after a safety-related incident, management took Pratt off the job for almost a year and tried to fire him! Fortunately, he had thoroughly documented his case and he is back at work, no thanks to the ESJ program.

Sadly, union officers with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587 also betrayed Pratt by refusing to challenge management’s outrageously racist misconduct. Pratt and other ATU members continue to push the union to address the issues of racism, harassment and nepotism on the job.

Constantine is the top county official. When he refused to meet with OWLS, OWLS brought the meeting to him. In October, a picket and rally at the King County Administration building brought numerous workers who gave their testimony. Unions and community groups joined with solidarity statements.

Lenneth Richard told of facing a glass ceiling at the county’s Solid Waste Division. Despite 20 years on the job, he was passed up for promotion in favor of a white woman with no previous experience. Richard said, “I was told I wasn’t qualified.” Juan Hood, a county custodian, pushed further, “We are tired of the nepotism.” He noted, “There is a disconnect from Dow [Constantine] on down.” Furthermore, when positions are open, the interview process “…is bogus because they already have those people handpicked.”

Others observed that despite the need for more buses so passengers can social distance and control the coronavirus, the county recently laid off 200 part-time drivers, many of them immigrants. Now in the South End where people of color and poor folks live, buses are notoriously overfilled. “This cannot be a finance issue. King County is hiring 29 managers that make six figures each,” said one driver who almost lost her job.

OWLS is raising demands that get to the heart of the issue including: immediate action to stop racist threats and harassment at King County worksites; resolution for all who have filed complaints on racism without satisfactory conclusion; establishing an independent office of equal rights to ensure compliance; instituting Affirmative Action in hiring, training, promotion; no retaliation against whistleblowers; and no layoffs!

The fight continues. To get involved, contact OWLS at organizedworkersLS@gmail.com.

Burns is a retired union carpenter and a member of OWLS.

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