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Decades-Long Suit Nets Workers $6.2 Million in Back Pay
 

By Kathy Gurchiek  1/22/2008

More than 150 Hispanic and black workers—who, as members of Local 28 of the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association, were underpaid for years because of their race or national origin—have won nearly $6.2 million in back pay under a federal ruling.

What has been called one of the longest-running lawsuits in Manhattan involved claims that the local gave job referrals primarily to white union members and prevented its non-white apprentices from receiving adequate training and supervision.

It is a practice that has worsened in recent years, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which represented the workers in their suit against Local 28. The local represents 3,000 workers who perform duct work and heating and air conditioning installation, among other tasks.

The suit was filed initially in 1971. The local repeatedly was found to have not complied with a court order banning the discriminatory practices, according to a 2004 Newsday news report.

The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986, resulting in a decision that helped establish that affirmative action “can be a permissible remedy in the fight against discrimination,” Louis Graziano, EEOC trial attorney for the case, told SHRM Online.

The settlement—signed Jan. 7, 2008, and announced Jan. 15—directs the local to compensate the workers for back pay during the period from Jan. 1, 1984, to March 31, 1991.

Under the ruling from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Local 28 agreed to make significant changes in the union’s job referral system and to establish monitoring systems aimed at equalizing the access that local members have to job opportunities.

“We consider this a historic moment for the union,” Riccardo Iaccarino, counsel for Local 28, told SHRM Online.

“The new leadership that came into office in July 2006, headed by the business manager Michael Belluzzi, made a decision to use the union’s resources to resolve this matter that had been a plague upon the union these past 40 years,” he said.

On its web site, Local 28 notes its commitment to “to taking all steps within its authority to provide equal employment opportunity to all members, regardless of racial or ethnic background.”

It lists “red flags,” such as derogatory language and a pattern of repeatedly using an all-white overtime crew, as examples of illegal discrimination and outlines for members the process of reporting, investigating and resolving incidents of discrimination.

On its site, the local says it “will not tolerate, condone or allow discrimination by any of its members or any signatory employers who work within its jurisdiction.”

Under the ruling, the 156 claimants are permitted to be re-initiated into the union with full membership rights without any payment of back dues, fines or penalties.

The local reached this settlement more than a year ago, Iaccarino said, but because it was a federal court class action requiring a lot of process, the judge did not sign it until Jan. 7. Local 28 implemented changes, such as the web site information and an improved referral system, more than a year ago, he said.

“We hope that these developments are an indication that, with the recent change in leadership, the union has decided, after many years of costly litigation, to work with the court and the plaintiffs in obeying the court orders and to begin to resolve the outstanding claims against it,” the district director of the EEOC’s New York office, Spencer Lewis, said in a press release.

Litigation and settlement negotiations continue in the remaining claims of union members who say they suffered discrimination by the local after 1991. Graziano could not put a number on the remaining claimants but indicated it could be well over 100.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org.

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