“At a time when cops are killing black people and given the benefit of the doubt, we [were] unjustifiably terminated without even a hearing,” said Ronald Lewis, a discharged Transit Authority (TA) employee, speaking to the press in front of the TA headquarters in Brooklyn on March 30. Lewis, who is black, was one of 18 subway car cleaners—an entire shift—fired four weeks earlier. Most were blacks and Hispanics.
On April 25, from the steps of City Hall, Lewis, and 13 of the cleaners, announced the filing of a $14 million lawsuit against the TA and six management officials for wrongful termination, seeking punitive damages and back pay. The suit alleges that the workers were fired as retaliation for their complaints of racial and sexual harassment and other abuses, including references to blacks as “niggers” and a female cleaner as “a fat bitch.”
On March 1, members of the mostly black overnight cleaning crew, who worked out of the TA’s 240th Street Maintenance Shop on the IRT 1 and 9 lines, were “taken out of service” and discharged after allegedly holding a meeting without permission and refusing to return to work, according to Arthur Schwartz, attorney for the 14 plaintiffs. Attempts to resolve the problem with management that night failed. Instead, the crew was escorted out of the building by police.
They had been granted permission, says Schwartz, to meet in the lunchroom, but shortly after it started, three supervisors came and said the meeting was “unauthorized.” His clients believe that this was done in retaliation because they had “dared to complain about abuse.” In papers filed with the TA, the workers allege that conditions at the maintenance shop resembled “a slave labor camp,” and often were in violation of TA safety rules. They speak of having to remove human debris—left after a person is hit by a train—from the surface of subway cars without protective equipment, being forced to sign for safety gear they did not receive, and having to mix chemicals in a way that is illegal under their contract. Employees were even denied the right, they say, to speak to each other or to get paid for overtime.
“I’ve got boxes of paperwork to prove [the supervisor’s] culpability,” says Julia McMillion, the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 recording secretary, who says that problems with car appearance supervisor Ahmad Hassan date back to 1994.
Although the plaintiffs are still in arbitration with the TA, the lawsuit cites violations of their rights under the New York State Human Rights Law and the New York City Administrative Codes, as well as infringement of First and 14th Amendment rights to free speech and due process of law. Eight of those fired were probationary employees who had been on the job less than a year and were not entitled to an arbitration hearing (several of them, however, are part of the lawsuit), and three others have returned to work.
According to an internal TA memo from management, the union representatives of the cleaners wanted to create “huge problems.” They threatened “to rally outside the shop, go to the federal government, and get the Reverend Al Sharpton involved.” The memo also states that all the employees who had a problem with [their supervisor] had at one time been written up or counseled for violating TA rules. However, during arbitration, one superintendent, says Schwartz, stated that the plaintiffs should not have been fired.
The cleaners insist that management and top-level union bureaucrats fostered an antiworker environment at the shop without fear of repercussions for alleged abuses against employees.
“Poor union officiating and its incestuous relationship with management has put the members of the union at grave risk,” says Lewis, the most outspoken of the plaintiffs, who describes the 240th Street site as the “breaking-in barn, a boot camp” where many new workers are trained. “The union is just as much to blame.”
Local 100 is sharply divided between its progressive faction, New Directions (which hired Richard Lipsky Associates to handle public relations for the cleaners), and the entrenched leadership of TWU president Willie James. Despite receiving legal assistance during arbitration, the workers say that the union has not adequately defended them.
“The union hasn’t done very much up to this point. The case is so outrageous that if the union went public right away and made a big deal about it, it would have gone away already. It has a terrible smell,” says Schwartz.