POSTED: 2 APRIL 2008 - 9:30pm HST

22 workers sue Austal for racial discrimination

[Note from Dick Mayer: Austal is, of ourse, the company which is building the 2 Superferries. Atlantic Marine (mentioned in the last sentence) was bought
by Hawaii Superferry Chairman, John Lehman in 2006.]

by Jeff Amy and Kaija Wilkinson on 26 March 2008 in

A group of 22 current and former black employees have sued Austal USA, claiming that company managers participate in and condone widespread racial discrimination at its Mobile River shipyard.

"Defendant's racial discrimination is its standard operating procedure rather than a sporadic occurrence," the plaintiffs stated in a suit filed last week in federal court in Mobile.

Bob Browning, Austal's president and chief executive, said the company has not discriminated or turned a blind eye to such behavior by its employees.

"We're going to defend ourselves very vigorously because we have some very aggressive policies about treating people equally," Browning said.
Among the allegations:

Black workers at Austal are paid less than white workers in the same positions with similar experience.

Austal doesn't openly post advancement opportunities and chooses less-qualified white workers over more experienced black ones, in some cases making the black workers train their new bosses.

Austal doesn't provide the same training opportunities to black workers as to whites.

Managers retaliated against black workers who complained about racist behavior.
The lawsuit seeks class- action status, which means the plaintiffs could represent other black Austal workers.

The workers asked the court to forbid further discrimination; order fairer promotion, pay and training practices; order black workers promoted in order to make up for discrimination; order the company to offer jobs to plaintiffs who left Austal; and order damages and back wages for current and former black workers.

Browning declined to comment on specific claims and also declined to say how many black employees or managers are among Austal's almost 1,200 workers.
Candis McGowan, the Birmingham-based lawyer for the plaintiffs, said that until complaints were filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2006, Austal had no black supervisors.

"Austal has a practice and a custom of merely selecting less qualified Caucasian employees for these positions with no posting or application process," the suit says.

McGowan and Browning dispute the outcome of the EEOC inquiry. The agency examines complaints to decide if the federal government wishes to intervene. Usually the agency does not, but issues a letter giving complainants the right to sue.

Browning said the lack of federal findings proves Austal is innocent.

"It's frustrating. You know they go to the highest federal agency in the land with a complaint that was thoroughly investigated, and there was nothing found to be wrong," he said.

McGowan said the EEOC issued the letters at her clients' request because they were tired of waiting on the agency, and the lack of action does not prove anything.

The suit includes broad allegations of a racially hostile work environment, including anti-black graffiti in bathrooms that reappears despite frequent painting, supervisors calling black workers "monkeys" or "boy" or "blue gums" or "n--r".

Jermaine Roberson, who left the company earlier this month, said that in December, he found a stick figure hanging by a wire noose with the word "n--r" written on it.

A number of plaintiffs claim to have been constructively discharged, a term that means treatment was so bad that they quit "under circumstances under which a reasonable person would have felt compelled to resign."

Browning said Austal has an affirmative-action plan, posts jobs internally and interviews anyone interested. He denied that the company condones racial hostility.

"We do a lot of training with our supervision and management about treating people equally," Browning said. "We have zero tolerance for people who don't behave in that way."

The lawsuit describes those efforts as "ineffective," saying discriminatory practices continue and managers "continue to participate in, are aware of, encourage and/or condone the racially hostile work environment."

McGowan said the case was not related to an upcoming vote at the shipyard on whether employees should join a labor union.

Such cases can be hard to get to a jury. Last year, Senior District Judge Brevard Hand dismissed a suit against ST Mobile Aerospace Engineering during trial, finding for the company as a matter of law.

Several jurors protested the move to Hand, saying testimony citing nooses and racially derogatory remarks was sufficient evidence of a hostile work environment to send the case to the jury.

Discrimination claims have a long history in area shipyards. Most recently, Atlantic Marine settled with 85 workers in 2006, giving each about $12,000, or more than $1 million in total.

see also:
Island Breath: John Lehman - A life of bad ideas
Island Breath: Senate slashes money for Austal

Island Breath: HSF Completed in Mobile  1/28/06