Fouling the Air

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

Many workers at Northwest are hesitant to discuss the racial climate at the company, but there is evidence that the fired employees are not alone. Thomas Johnson, a 12-year veteran of the ground-services division at Northwest, claims that blacks in particular receive disparate treatment, especially when they break the rules. "My advice to my fellow brothers is to recognize that the double standard exists, and to try and govern yourself accordingly--if you believe that the job is worthwhile," says Johnson. "For all intents and purposes a number of us get along okay with the company, but again I'm conscious of the fact that a double-standard issue exists. But I live with that reality in this country every day, so what else is new?"


When Joe King was fired on July 6, 2000, he lost his cool. The meeting took place in customer-service manager Cheri Lindgren's office. A second manager was present, along with King's union representative. According to King, the boiling point was reached when he pressed to find out what had happened to his medical records. Lindgren allegedly told him to "sit down and shut up." King exploded. "Who the fuck you think you're talking to?" he demanded. "Nobody talks to me like that but my father, and he's dead, and my mother, and she don't live here." Then he walked out.

David Hollenbach

The next day a letter was sent to King stating that if he was ever reinstated to his job, he would immediately be terminated again for his "profane/abusive language and insubordinate behavior." King now finds dark humor in the situation. "They're gonna kill me two times," he chuckles.

Despite, in effect, firing him twice, Northwest offered to give King his job back last October. But there was a catch. He could return to work only if he signed a last-chance agreement. As in Hattie Webb's case, by signing the document King would have been acknowledging that grounds existed for his dismissal. And he would have been placed on probation for a period of two years.

King refused to sign. "Why would I? I know I've done nothing wrong," he declares. "It's a matter of principle." King believes the last-chance agreement was simply a ploy to pave the way for his permanent dismissal. "Everyone I know who has signed one of those last-chance agreements at Northwest Airlines is no longer working there," he says.

The only other option King sees is to press his case with the EEOC and, possibly, in court. With no job and his unemployment benefits long gone, either could prove a stressful option. All King really wants to do is build a house, work as a baggage handler, and take care of his ailing wife: "I want my back pay, and I want my job back, and I want this false information taken off my record."

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