Fouling the Air

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

Joe King believed he would spend the rest of his working life employed by Northwest Airlines' ground-services division at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. For three years the 48-year-old, toothpick-thin black man, who had previously worked in construction, moved oversize cargo onto Northwest's departing planes--everything from golf clubs to wheelchairs. "Cats, dogs, whatever," King explains with a laugh. "I've dealt with eagles, you name it."

The physically demanding job paid $10.50 an hour, a raise was imminent, and there were plenty of perks, such as a flexible schedule, and the airline's generous travel program--allowing employees and their immediate family to travel anywhere in the United States for $20.

Together, Joe and his wife Diane, who works for a delivery service, were beginning to enjoy the spoils of a middle-class life in the Minneapolis suburbs. Their two kids attend good public schools, and last year the family began looking at lots on which to build a home. But in less time than it takes to deplane, the Kings' American dream was grounded. On July 6, 2000 Cheri Lindgren, manager of customer service at Northwest, handed Joe King his walking papers. According to a letter from Lindgren, the reason for his termination was "unsatisfactory attendance." (Lindgren did not return calls seeking comment.)

King tells a different story. He says that management had assured him that as long as he provided the proper documentation, he could take days of medical leave to care for his wife, who suffers from chronic migraine headaches. Since this type of leave was available to all employees, King believes he must have been fired because his wife is physically disabled, because he is black, or both. "If I'm wrong, I'm a big enough man to admit I'm wrong," King insists. "But I'm not gonna let anybody take advantage of me."

For more than a decade Diane King has been plagued by the headaches. She says their arrival is impossible to predict, but when the pain hits it is debilitating. Vomiting and screaming ensue. Light and noise exacerbate the pain. When nothing else works, Joe drives her to the hospital for a knockout shot of Demerol. "It's like a lion in a cage; that's how bad it is," Diane says wearily. "I cannot perform. I cannot function. I'm just like a vegetable."

 

In May, King filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employ-ment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, charging that Northwest had violated his civil rights. The complaint states that while non-black employees were able to keep their jobs after missing work for family or medical-leave problems, he was terminated. "I believe this is a violation of my rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964," King's complaint reads. "Other employees...who missed work for the same or similar reasons were not terminated." Additionally, King asserts, he repeatedly turned in doctors' notes documenting his wife's health problems, only to have them disappear before reaching his personnel file. "I keep telling them I was born at night, not last night," King scoffs.

Buster Harris, a 32-year employee at Northwest, was King's immediate supervisor. He sympathizes with his former employee, noting that a man of Filipino origin who works as a baggage handler at Northwest was absent without explanation for 17 days. When he produced medical documentation to explain his absence, however, the employee managed to preserve his place on the payroll. "They take a doctor's word from the Philippines, yet Joe King's doctor here in the United States writes up the paperwork and they don't take his word for it," Harris says, incredulous. "[Joe] was always at work on time, all the time. I think Northwest should have about 60 or 80 more like him out there. Then they'd be fine."

Since filing his complaints, King has met with Kenneth Udoibok, a Minneapolis-based attorney, and hopes to eventually file suit against the corporation. Udoibok would not comment on King's allegations, saying he has yet to decide whether to represent him on a pro bono basis.

In the ten months since his termination, King has not found employment. He has applied for warehouse work and construction jobs, but without luck. In the meantime the bills have piled up and his credit rating has bottomed out. Family plans to build a home have been put on hold.

"I really don't want to go through this shit, because I don't have the money," he says. "My financial situation is not good at all. My lifestyle and my family life and everything has just taken a beating. It's just kind of scary."

 

Northwest is no stranger to discrimination claims. In recent weeks the airline has twice been slapped by the EEOC, a federal agency charged with enforcing federal civil rights laws. On April 12 Northwest reached a settlement with the commission on a race discrimination case stemming from a series of incidents at the Detroit Metro Airport in 1995. The allegations read like newspaper headlines from the Kennedy/Johnson era. At Northwest's Detroit cargo facility a hangman's noose was allegedly strung up in the workers' lunchroom. Complainants also reported that a militia poster featuring a racial slur, a Ku Klux Klan symbol, and a likeness of Sambo, was on display. "The facts in that case were highly contested," maintains Northwest's director of media relations Kathleen Peach. "We did choose to settle it rather than have it drag out and continue to take up our time and resources."

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."

 

In October 1998 Hattie Webb, a Northwest ticket agent, was checking in passengers for a flight to Phoenix. When she began asking one customer a set of federally mandated security questions, the elderly white man bristled. "I ain't answering no questions from no coon," he said.

Webb turned the unruly customer over to three officers from airport security, all of whom were black. The passenger treated them with equal disdain. "You niggers better not steal any of my clothes!" he shouted, as they searched his bags.

Eventually Webb's supervisor, who is white, arrived on the scene and attempted to defuse the situation. She talked to the passenger, even shared a laugh with him, according to Webb. The supervisor eventually managed to placate the belligerent passenger. Then she gave him a better seat on the flight. "I was in shock," Webb recalls. "I was in total shock. What could be funny?"

Webb wrote up a report detailing the incident and turned it over to management. She also filed a complaint with the company's Equal Employment Opportunity office, alleging racial harassment.

The episode sent shock waves through the company. Meetings were called in the fall of 1998 to reassure upset workers that the company was looking into the incident. An investigation to see if any disciplinary measures needed to be taken was conducted by a Northwest attorney, Renee Raming. A trial-like hearing was held, in which witnesses were called and minutes taken.

After the initial investigation was completed in early November, Webb left for a long-planned vacation to the Bahamas, relieved that the issue was being addressed. "I'm thinking, 'Wow, they're really going out of their way to make sure every stone was turned,'" the 50-year-old recalls. "I'm thinking, 'Thank God it's over.'"

On November 30, in a letter addressed to Webb, Lorie Humphrey, Northwest's director of human resources, corroborated the employee's claim that she had been treated in a "racially offensive" manner by a customer. Humphrey also noted that an investigation into the incident revealed that Webb's supervisor had "mishandled the situation," and she would be disciplined for inappropriate behavior.

A couple of days later, Webb was summoned to a meeting in the labor relations office at Northwest's corporate headquarters in Eagan. Awaiting her arrival were several in-house attorneys, company managers, and a stack of tickets that Webb had processed during the past three years. "All their heads of state were sitting in that room," Webb recalls. The company had conducted an audit of every ticket in search of mistakes. Over the next six hours, according to Webb, she was asked to explain every discrepancy that had been found. Many of the tickets in question, Webb maintains, were from the two-week pilots' strike in August and September of 1998--a time in which chaos was the order of the day.

"I was totally drained and in shock," she says of the confrontation. In her 11 years as a Northwest employee, Webb had never heard of anyone being audited for a period of more than three months. She came to the conclusion that the investigation was retaliation for her complaints about racial harassment.

Soon after the interrogation, Webb was given an ultimatum: Sign a "last chance agreement" or face termination. By signing the agreement she would be acknowledging that grounds existed for her dismissal and she would be placed on probation for two years. During that time, any slip-up would be deemed sufficient grounds for dismissal. After a day of agonizing over the decision, Webb signed the document.

What followed, Webb says now, was "two years of hell." From that moment on, her every move was scrutinized. If she went to the bathroom, management wondered where she was. She recalls one incident in which a white co-worker input a change incorrectly on Webb's terminal; a weeklong investigation ensued before she was cleared of any wrongdoing. "If I didn't have a migraine when I came to work, I had one when I left," she recounts. Her requests to be transferred out of the ticket-counter area were ignored. Finally, in October 1999, Webb took a leave of absence from Northwest and went to work for KSTP-TV (Channel 5).

During this time period, Webb received multiple commendations at Northwest. On December 9, 1998, just five days after she signed the last-chance agreement, Webb was issued a "Certificate of Commendation" from the director of customer service for "excellent work performance." Another commendation was awarded to her on February 22, 1999, and two more certificates were handed out in April of that year.

Despite the accolades, Webb says, she was treated more harshly than other employees. A 20-year veteran of the company who worked with Webb at the ticket counter backs up the claim. "She did her job; a lot of times she did more than what she should have done," says the employee, who spoke confidentially for fear that she would lose her job. "If they don't want you there, they'll find a way to get you out of there. That's just how Northwest is. If someone has a vendetta against you--basically, you're screwed."

This employee does question whether race had anything to do with the disparate treatment, however. She speculates that the derision may have had more to do with jealousy, noting that Webb, through her work at KSTP, was acquainted with many high-profile people who passed through the airport.

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.

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.

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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