Fouling the Air

Employees say Northwest Airlines works harder to avoid discrimination lawsuits than it does to stop bigotry

As decreed by the settlement, Northwest will pay a former manager in the Detroit cargo facility $50,000, plus an additional lump sum for paid leave. The airline will provide further antidiscrimination training to its cargo employees in Detroit. The company also agreed to employ an independent investigator should other allegations of racial bias be made at the cargo facility.

Two weeks after the Detroit settlement was announced, the EEOC filed a nationwide class-action lawsuit against Northwest, charging that the company was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Specifically the agency took issue with what it described as a "zero acceptability" policy by Northwest, which prohibited the hiring of people with seizure disorders for certain jobs. The EEOC is seeking compensation of up to $300,000 for each of the original three plaintiffs, and "an end to any discriminatory employment practices."

In a press release dated April 25, Northwest disputes the EEOC's claim that it has a blanket prohibition on hiring people with seizure disorders. The company argues that hiring decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, and that the plaintiffs--who had applied for jobs that require working with heavy equipment and fuel--were not qualified. "We have an obligation to the highest safety standard possible for our customers," Peach explains.

Since 1998, 17 different discrimination cases--claiming biases based on age, disability, or race--have been filed against Northwest Airlines in the United States District Court for Minnesota. These legal actions come in the wake of a 1989 class-action lawsuit filed in federal court that charged the company, along with five unions that represent Northwest workers, with racially discriminatory hiring and promotional practices. Northwest admitted no wrongdoing when the suit was settled two years later, but the company did agree to spend $3.5 million on programs promoting diversity and pay more than a half-million dollars to the class.

Since March of this year, Joe King and at least three other former employees of color have filed discrimination complaints with the EEOC (an exact count is impossible, because complaints are not made public by the agency until it has investigated the claim). Three other former employees of the airline have told City Pages that they intend to file with the EEOC charging racial discrimination.

Similar claims are made against large companies on a routine basis, of course. But a former head of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, Stephen Cooper, says that this recent rash of complaints should set off alarm bells at Northwest. "What it probably means is about the same thing as hearing a horn honk," Cooper, now an attorney specializing in discrimination cases, concludes. "It means 'You ought to pay attention to this.'"

Many past and present employees of the airline, most of them black, describe an atmosphere of discrimination at work that is subtle but pervasive. A number of those workers say they believe there are two different means of dealing with those who run into problems on the job: Black employees are terminated; everyone else receives a slap on the wrist. "[Northwest management] is flushing us out the back door one by one," observes Travis Mitchell, a former employee who believes he was mistreated, then fired late last year because he is black. "You don't have this many people filing cases and having problems unless there's something wrong."

Mel Reeves concurs. A longtime civil-rights activist, he is the editor of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, a weekly community newspaper focused primarily on issues of concern to the black community. Last year Reeves argued that the Minneapolis cops who shot Alfred Sanders, a mentally ill man, should be prosecuted. Recently, he questioned the firing of University of Minnesota women's basketball coach Cheryl Littlejohn.

Reeves worked as a baggage handler at Northwest from 1994 until last November, when he was fired after an altercation with an airport employee. He believes that his firing was a retaliation for raising questions about the treatment of Travis Mitchell and other black employees at Northwest. "They fired me because of my union activism and because of my activism in the community," maintains Reeves. He filed a discrimination complaint with the EEOC in March and has lobbied other terminated employees to do the same. Reeves has also circulated a petition among his former co-workers, arguing that the company's aim in getting rid of him was to "create a climate of fear and intimidation that prevents workers from speaking out in defense of their rights." He claims that more than 400 current employees signed the document, which was turned over to the company.

"These guys aren't running around using the N-word, but in some cases they might as well be," Reeves insists. "Every time I start talking about the things that Northwest has done to folks, I run into somebody else who's been discriminated against."

Northwest Airlines says that to protect the privacy of its current and former employees it cannot comment on individual charges of discrimination. Joe Taney, Northwest's vice president for ground operations at the Minneapolis airport, referred all questions to the company's corporate communications office.

Spokeswoman Peach notes that in an $11 billion company with 55,000 employees personnel disputes are inevitable. She also makes it clear that Northwest thoroughly investigates all charges of discrimination. "We're a public company," she adds. "There are many procedures and rules that we have in place and follow. That doesn't always mean the result is what the individual expects or wants. To bring race into it [is wrong], because the process is colorblind."

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