OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — On June 26, 2019, elevator mechanic Leiroi Bowie arrived at an Oakland construction site at 1100 Broadway to find a noose wrapped around a wooden barricade, right next to the elevator on which he was assigned to work.
Bowie who has worked for Mitsubishi Electric & Electronics US, Inc. since 2016, said it’s not uncommon to see racist graffiti scribbled on Porta Potty walls at construction sites.
“You see it so much it becomes part of your daily work. It becomes normal. It’s always been around and I feel like it’s always going to be around,” he said in an interview Tuesday.
But the noose — a horrifying signifier of lynching — felt acutely threatening. What scared him more was his supervisor’s reaction.
“I made a complaint to the head foreman and his response was ‘What do you want me to do about it?’ That was the type of attitude they gave about the situation,” Bowie said, adding that he had to call another foreman, then it went to the human resources department and his union. “But as far as that day, I didn’t feel like we got anywhere.”
One person said to be involved told Bowie it couldn’t be real noose “because a noose has 13 loops,” Bowie said Tuesday. “The scarier part was when my superintendent came to the job he said the same thing.”
In an inherently dangerous field like construction, going to work every day as a Black man in a hostile environment is doubly stressful.
“It feels frustrating to have to come to work not knowing are you safe around the guys you work with. Working in a high rise building you have to trust the gentlemen you work with,” he said.
It’s even more distressing when your employer seems indifferent to a workplace culture that sanctions racist behavior.
Bowie is joined by three other skilled Black mechanics in a lawsuit filed in Alameda County Superior Court late Friday that meticulously chronicles — with photographic evidence — years of abuse, threats, and racist comments that went largely unaddressed by the company’s human resources department.
They also claim they were denied overtime opportunities and assigned menial tasks like sweeping the floor while white apprentices were given actual elevator work and the chance to advance in the company.
“All they wanted to do was get a paycheck and not be harassed,” their attorney Larry Organ with the Civil Rights Law group said in an interview Tuesday.
He said in 26 years as a civil rights attorney he’s never seen such an array of well-documented workplace racism.
“I’ve never seen this spectrum of hateful conduct that is actually documented with pictures so that we know what happened. It just shows you what’s going on right now even here in the Bay Area,” he said. “It’s very discouraging that this is going on in the Bay Area and it highlights the level of empowerment that people with racist views have.
“Our clients complained to supervisors, managers, and HR for several years and the conduct was out in the open. These are things people could easily see and yet they didn’t do anything.”
Craig Martin, 50, started with the company in September 2016. He suffered a stroke roughly two years later, which he attributes in large part to the stress he underwent in a hostile and racist work environment.
Martin says a few days after he returned home from the hospital, his supervisor showed up at his home with his last check and a termination notice. He was allowed to return to work only after he complained to his union.
“Imagine the emotional toll that takes to be told that you’re fired when you’re recovering from a stroke brought on by the stress of the harassment you’re going through in the workplace,” Organ said.
Gabriel Ross, 46, started as a mechanic with Mitsubishi in 2018. That same year he encountered a drawing of a black monkey on a job site.
And there were more images in the coming months — a hanging man drawn on an elevator entrance in October 2019, a swastika in the bathroom a month later, and the words “KKK” in the hallway in January 2020. All three incidents occurred at 385 14th Street in downtown Oakland.
The images were not isolated to one location. This July, Ross saw a drawing of a person bent over and the “BLM” written with an arrow pointing at the person’s buttocks in the bathroom at 75 Howard Street in San Francisco.
Ross says his personal belongings were also defaced with racist imagery. In April 2018, he found satanic stars and “KKK” written on his toolbox. The apprentice who acknowledged writing it was temporarily moved to another site, only to be reassigned to work on the same site as Ross even though Ross clearly said he never wanted to work with the man again.
Ross, who also spoke out on Tuesday, said he felt like he was being attacked for complaining about the incident, even though he was the victim.
“It’s obvious they didn’t care or take it seriously,” he said.
Ross also says the apprentice threatened him and called him a “rat mother fucker” for reporting his conduct to HR.
When Ross saw the noose at Bowie’s site a year later, he felt like things were escalating.
“It is a direct attack on us as Black men. For me to have my friends attacked like that. I felt it myself. I felt like my life was in danger, like his life in danger,” Ross said. “The graffiti was one thing and they dealt with that lightly. I’m like what’s next?”
The lawsuit also describes a pattern of verbal harassment.
When Lavell Roberson, 55, started with Mitsubishi in 2017, he was told a superintendent used the “N-word” at work despite employee complaints. It wasn’t long before Roberson was also subjected to the superintendent’s racist remarks. According to the complaint, at one point, he asked Roberson “How do you get a Black guy out of the tree? Cut the rope.”
The lawsuit says a mechanic in charge repeatedly used the “N-word,” “KKK,” and “monkey” in reference to Black people. For years he carried a toolbox inscribed with “RIGGIN,” which he would ask employees to read backwards. Ross said he sent a photo of the toolbox to the company’s HR director. “The sign had been there for many years and she was aware of it, yet failed to discipline Mr. Florence for his conduct,” the lawsuit says of the HR director.
While another apprentice acknowedged placing the noose next to the elevator in June 2019, the lawsuit says a witness corroborated the mechanic in charge’s involvement. The man also told Bowie to keep his name out of his mouth when he went to report the noose, according to the lawsuit.
Martin says the man also routinely cracked racist jokes at his expense while trying to impress an adjuster. Like the time he said to Martin, “Man, if maybe you didn’t stay in the ghetto you wouldn’t be so dumb,” or “Where did you learn to do elevators, in the hood?” Or another time when in front of a food truck he told Martin “go get that chicken, you like that chicken man.”
The adjuster just laughed.
The lawsuit says the adjuster and the superintendent discouraged advancement and denied Black employees training opportunities, repeatedly referring to Black employees as “undesirables.” When Roberson expressed an interest in a superintendent position, the superintendent told him “shut that down” and blocked his application, the complaint says.
New white hires from out of state were also given housing accommodations, a benefit not offered to Black out-of-state hires like Roberson. Though the superintendent specifically promised this benefit to Roberson he revoked it after meeting Roberson in person according to the lawsuit.
In an emailed statement, Mitsubishi Electric chief operating officer Michael Corbo said the company had investigated the complaints lodged by the men.
“Mitsubishi Electric US embraces diversity and inclusion. Some very serious allegations have been made against our company, and while we are unable to comment on the specifics of this case because of employee privacy rules, what we can say is this: our company previously investigated all complaints the employees raised and took prompt action as appropriate,” Corbo said.
“Mitsubishi Electric US does not tolerate harassment, discrimination or retaliation. We have strong policies and practices against harassment, discrimination and retaliation and provide regular training on those policies and practices. We encourage employees to report issues immediately. We investigate those issues thoroughly.”
The superintendent was fired after Roberson said he had retained lawyers, a point the company noted before the men filed their lawsuit. The company also fired the apprentice who left the noose near the elevator in 2018.
“It is too little too late because this conduct went on for years,” Organ said.
Bowie and Ross agreed, saying many of the people still involved in racist conduct remain at the company. The adjuster, Ross said, “is still controlling much of construction at our company and he was the guy who wouldn’t do anything in my situation. Just firing somebody doesn’t handle it because most of the players are still playing the game.”
Ross, Martin, Roberson, and Bowie seek exemplary and punitive damages for race discrimination, harassment, retaliation and violation of the California Family Rights Act.
Ross said upper management visited his job site Tuesday, where he felt like he was being watched. “They were right there,” he said. “Right in my face.”
While it may feel retaliatory, Ross remains resolute. “I’m not going to let somebody drive me out of something I love,”he said. “I love being in elevator construction. I love it so much I had my son take the test.”
Ross said that having a 22-year-old son preparing to enter the industry motivates him to fight even harder to change the culture, so his son won’t ever have to encounter a noose at a job site.
“I’m not going to fall back, I’m going to fall forward,” he said.
For Bowie, it’s a matter of not backing down in the face of overwhelming pressure to just give up.
“I like the Mitsubishi product. I just don’t like the people I work with due to their racist nature and their attitude. I don’t want to show my kids that when times get tough you quit. I want to send the message that is isn’t cool and won’t be tolerated,” he said.
“I like what I do. I like constructing elevators,” he added. “I like problem solving. I like the knowledge I’ve obtained throughout the years. You walk into an elevator shaft and there’s nothing there. And months later you have this whole machine transporting people to other floors.”