Fouling the Air

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

Because her father was sick and she needed flying privileges to pay visits to his Omaha home, Webb returned to Northwest in spring 2000. Trouble followed almost immediately. Late that summer Harris Faulkner, a news anchor at KSTP-TV, booked a flight on Northwest Airlines. One of Webb's supervisors wanted to meet the on-air personality, and Webb, who knew Faulkner from her work at the television station, arranged an introduction. According to Webb, the grateful manager then instructed her to upgrade Faulkner's ticket from business class to first class. Webb says she was also told that in the future, if there were sufficient seats, Faulkner should be bumped to first class.

About a month later, on September 30 of last year, Faulkner flew Northwest again and Webb upgraded her ticket to first class, free of charge. A co-worker turned her in for the infraction and an investigation ensued. Webb was fired on October 17, 2000, despite her insistence that a supervisor had ordered the ticketing change. (Faulkner did not return calls seeking comment.)

According to the termination letter, sent by Gilbert Schuckman, manager of passenger-service operations, Webb was being fired for upgrading the ticket and for providing "false and/or misleading information" to investigators. The company accused her of lying about the time and circumstances of changing the ticket. Webb maintains that any discrepancy in her testimony was simply a lapse in memory. "I didn't lie," she protests. "I didn't remember."

Earlier this month Webb filed a complaint with the EEOC charging discrimination; in it she writes that "management has been looking for any excuse to terminate my employment ever since I filed internal complaints of racial harassment."

 

In retrospect Webb believes that her fate was sealed the moment she signed her name to the last-chance agreement in 1998. "You can come to work and sneeze and it's, 'Okay, you sneezed on the job. Goodbye,'" she says.

Such agreements are commonly employed at Northwest. Webb, Travis Mitchell, and Jeff Cohen--a baggage handler at the airline who was terminated in February--all told City Pages that they were bullied into signing a last-chance agreement. "I signed it because I was under duress," says Cohen, who is black. "My livelihood was hanging over my head."

Attorney Stephen Cooper says that such documents are typical, particularly in large companies with a unionized work force, like Northwest. In his experience corporations use the arrangements to protect themselves from future litigation, as a way to induce employees to drop pending grievances, and as a method of disciplining workers. "It's a spanking," he adds.

What's more, an agreement often deters a fired employee from seeking out legal advice. "The main person it persuades is the person that's been fired," Cooper argues. "A lot of times it's a very effective psychological tool that prevents anybody from actually going to see a lawyer."

Those employees who do not sign a last-chance agreement or are not scared off by the presence of one still face long odds if they hope to prove that a company has played dirty pool. According to records provided by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, 27 complaints of racial bias against Northwest have been investigated in the past decade. In not one instance did the agency find that the complainants had established probable cause. Elaine Hanson, enforcement supervisor at the department, says that about 70 percent of complaints make it through the agency's initial screening process. But of those cases, only 16 percent are turned over to the Minnesota Attorney General's Office for potential legal action. Filing with the EEOC can be an equally futile gesture. Nearly 80,000 claims were filed in 2000, and the agency determined that there was "reasonable cause" to believe discrimination took place less than nine percent of the time.

Anyone who files a lawsuit claiming discrimination will confront an uphill battle, as well. Laura Cooper, a professor of labor law at the University of Minnesota, says that bias suits are notoriously difficult to win. "The basic problem with discrimination law is that the burden of proof is on the person that claims discrimination," she notes. "Decisions in the business world are always multifaceted and it's very hard after the fact to prove an improper motive."

In fact, according to Cooper, employees who are unionized, such as those at Northwest, often have a better chance of fighting job terminations through the labor grievance process than in the courts. "Typically, people's rights under a union contract are more significant than whatever rights they may have under anti-discrimination laws," she says.

Most of the black workers who are contesting their dismissal at Northwest were members of the International Association of Machinists Local 1833. They remained unconvinced, however, that their union took the issue seriously. "The union hasn't done jack shit," declares Joe King. Kip Hedges, president of the local, says that he cannot comment on individual cases. "They have grievances pending and I wouldn't want to do anything to mess them up one way or another," he explains. Hedges twice promised to get back to City Pages to discuss the issue of racial discrimination and whether it is a problem at Northwest. He never called back.

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