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Lawsuit claims GM plant had nooses, 'whites only' signs and managers did not stop racism

Posted at 9:22 AM, Jan 17, 2019

It took 14 months for the noose to show up.

Fourteen months where Marcus Boyd says he endured racist comments, slights, even threats in a hostile workplace run by General Motors.

A workplace where people declared bathrooms were for "whites only," where black supervisors were denounced as "boy" and ignored by their subordinates, where black employees were called "monkey," or told to "go back to Africa."

A workplace where black employees were warned a white colleague's "daddy" was in the Ku Klux Klan. Where white workers wore shirts with Nazi symbols underneath their coveralls.

In Ohio.

In 2018.

All those allegations are detailed in a lawsuit filed against GM in which eight workers say managers at the Toledo Powertrain plant did little or nothing to stop racism.

For Boyd, it began on his first day. He said he could feel the glare from white team members as if they were saying, "Who's he to be in charge of them?"

All the other supervisors, who were white, received training before their jobs, Boyd said. Boyd, an experienced supervisor albeit in a different industry, was given a clipboard and told to start.

But if he wondered if he was making too much of that, the situation crystallized when some of his juniors ignored him, refused to follow his directions and called him the N-word, though he could never see exactly who said it.

When he reported the insubordination to upper management, he said he was told to deal with it himself, to counsel his workers who'd used the slur.

The message he said he took from his leaders at the plant: Be happy you're here. Deal with it.

But it got harder each day to ignore, he told CNN in an interview.

A white employee Boyd oversaw told him: "Back in the day, you would have been buried with a shovel."

In his role as supervisor, Boyd reported that, too. The worker was taken to a disciplinary hearing with a union official and business leader where he freely admitted what he had said, Boyd recalled. But then Boyd himself was pulled aside and advised to let the matter go if he wanted to get along at the plant, he said. No disciplinary action was taken, Boyd said.

Boyd and other workers of color learned there was a coded language to talk about them, according to the lawsuit. White employees kept calling them "Dan." They thought some people didn't respect them enough to learn their names. But other colleagues told them it was a slur, an acronym for "dumb ass n-----."

The N-word was a regular part of life at Toledo Powertrain, where components are made for various Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac vehicles , Boyd said. A white woman seen walking with him later found "N----- lover" written on her pizza box.

When Boyd and others reported the abuse, their leadership told them to handle it themselves, he said.

Even more violent situations were brushed away. Boyd said he feared for his life when a member of his team, irate about a vacation request, yelled and raised a heavy, metal clutch assembly as if he was going hit him.

Boyd said he reported it. This time the offender was punished by losing one day's salary. "One day!" Boyd repeated, frustrated. For what felt like a direct threat to his life. One swing with that clutch could have been deadly, Boyd said. He said he believes there's a simple reason why.

"You have management people in high places, and union officials in high places, that work together to protect people ... that are white," Boyd said.

'Like being at war'

It got to the point where Boyd began asking God to protect him.

"I used to have to pray. Literally, 'Lord protect me,'" Boyd said.

"It was like being at war," he added.

He said he and another black supervisor, Derrick Brooks, who was a former Marine, treated their workplace almost like it was a battlefield. When they saw each other or checked in by phone, as they did every day, they would let the other know, "I got your six," the term soldiers use to say they have your back.

It was the kind of reassurance they felt they were not getting from GM management.

And then Brooks found a noose hanging in the area where he worked. As the only black employee in that space on his shift, he believed it was aimed to intimidate him.

It was a breaking point, the beginning of the end of his career -- and that of Boyd -- at GM. Not just because the noose had been hung. But because of how GM allegedly reacted.

GM: Every shift was trained

That first noose, and then a second, then third, fourth and fifth were all reported to GM, according to the lawsuit Boyd and eight other black employees have filed against the company for allowing an "underlying atmosphere of violent racial hate and bullying."

GM rejects that characterization.

The company declined to be interviewed but provided a statement that it held mandatory meetings and closed the plant for a day to have training for every shift.

"Every day, everyone at General Motors is expected to uphold a set of values that are integral to the fabric of our culture," GM said in the statement. "Discrimination and harassment are not acceptable and [are] in stark contrast to how we expect people to show up at work."

It continued: "We treat any reported incident with sensitivity and urgency, and are committed to providing an environment that is safe, open and inclusive. General Motors is taking this matter seriously and addressing it through the appropriate court process."

Boyd, Brooks and other black workers said initial meetings after the noose focused on violence, but not racial discrimination or intimidation.

GM, which declined to answer questions on the record after supplying the statement, placed an article about harassment in the employee magazine. The company replaced all ropes in the plant with yellow chains in an effort to stem the noose incidents.

But Boyd, Brooks and other black workers say that just removed an object, not the hatred.

The union at the plant also disagreed that any practices were discriminatory.

Dennis Earl, who was elected UAW local president in 2017, said: "Union people protect employees no matter what race, ethnicity."

Of Boyd's allegations, he said: "Punishments were equal across the board. If he feels management was being more lenient -- I don't see that. I've never seen that. It's pretty colorblind, if you ask me."

Earl, who is white, has worked for the plant for 34 years. He told CNN there could be "bad actors" like there can be anywhere, but there was no widespread intentional racism.

"Do I believe people are a little too sensitive these days? Absolutely," he said. "What passed 20 years ago doesn't pass today."

"You can't say the things you used to say off the cuff. It doesn't excuse it, but it's not racially motivated statements," he added.

"It's just bad judgment."

Great salary, but too high a cost

Brooks and Boyd both wanted to keep their supervisor jobs. They had worked hard to get these jobs, very good jobs with a six-figure salary, far higher than most in Toledo.

Brooks used his salary for his eight children and Boyd takes care of his mother, a double amputee.

Both felt they had an extra requirement to draw their paycheck, beyond the work they did -- be grateful, do not complain.

"There's unwritten rules with regards to manufacturing plants and when it comes to management," Brooks said. "When it comes to us being black supervisors, you need to be more appreciative of the job title that you have and go along and do the job that we're asking you."

But the noose felt like a direct threat.

"How rough and tough can you be when you got 11 to 12 people who want to put a noose around your neck and hang you 'til you're dead?" Brooks asked.

As with Boyd's experiences, Brooks was told to investigate the incident himself, he said. One person told him in a blatant lie: "That's not a noose used for hanging, it's a noose maintenance operators use to tie off a line."

Brooks shook his head as he recalled the scene. "Being in the military I know plenty about knots," he said, "and I know there is no reason whatsoever to tie a knot like that other than to use it for hanging a person."

For Boyd, the noose was a threat filled with deeply racist roots, capping the fear he felt each of the previous shifts over 14 months in a workplace where he says racism was often ignored and allowed to thrive. "A noose just represented everything that happened to me every day before that."

And then two colleagues said they had heard alarming rumors and advised Boyd to get a gun, he said.

"There were eight white males that was supposedly plotting to sabotage and to follow me out," Boyd said.

It got to the point he was terrified. He feared that he'd be on the news after being found dead after an incident at the plant.

His mother urged him to quit the job, however much it paid. He left. So did Brooks.

Not just two men

It wasn't just Boyd and Brooks complaining. Another employee made a police report about the nooses and conversations about guns being brought to work. Others filed complaints with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission.

The commission, which enforces state laws against discrimination , announced the findings of a nine-month investigation last March: GM did allow a racially hostile environment.

Darlene Sweeney-Newbern, the commission's director of regional operations, said racist behavior was so prevalent at Toledo Powertrain that she'd rank it among the worst cases her team has seen. Incidents continued while the commission was investigating, according to Sweeney-Newbern.

And she rejected GM's defense that it had taken appropriate action.

"GM did not deny that these things were taking place. They simply said, 'Hey as soon as we heard of these things we moved in and we took action.' That is not what we found in the investigation," she said.

One example came from a former union president's testimony, Sweeney-Newbern said, that at a meeting to address the placing of nooses a white supervisor bemoaned that "too big of a deal" was being made.

That supervisor went on to say, "There was never a black person who was lynched that didn't deserve it."

"That shows part of the culture problem at the plant," Sweeney-Newbern said.

"This is the individual that's going to go back and explain how wrong it is to the staff?" she exclaimed.

With no hope of change at the plant, Brooks took another job that paid a lot less. He is working on his Ph.D. Boyd is back in school with plans to go into a different industry.

Both say they can't believe that in this day and age they experienced the racism they did at work for one of the United States' oldest and most storied companies, still a key part of the economy at No. 10 on the Fortune 500 list.

And they hear it's continuing at the plant, which is why, they said, as part of their lawsuit they want the court to dictate procedures and policies to address incidents of harassment, as well as compensation for their suffering.

"There hasn't been anything put in place with regards to trying to deal with the issue," Brooks said. "They are not doing anything with regards to really getting into the crux of what the issue is."

GM has not identified who was responsible for hanging the nooses so no one has been fired for those incidents. However, a GM representative said there have been some people dismissed in Toledo during the entire process of extensive anti-discrimination, anti-harassment work, which is continuing across its plants with cooperation from the union.

Lawyers for the men suing GM say there continue to be hateful and racist remarks at the plant to this day, which they plan to include in the lawsuit.

On Wednesday, lawyers showed photos including one showing a message scrawled on a cart on the plant floor that says: "You only need to hang mean bastards, but mean bastards you need to hang."

GM said it is aware of the incidents and has retained a handwriting expert to analyze the graffiti, noting that the police are involved.