Black Union Elevator Mechanics File Lawsuit against Mitsubishi Electric

Oct 5 '20 | By Ray

Four Bay Area Black union elevator mechanics, LeiRoi Bowie, Gabriel Ross, Lavell Roberson and Craig Martin filed a lawsuit in Alameda County Superior against Mitsubishi Electric claiming for years, their white supervisors would refer to them and other black workers as “undesirables and lazy,” denied them overtime opportunities, assigned them to menial tasks, used racial slurs, subjected them to “Ku Klux Klan” graffiti, including lynching jokes, and placed a noose - a horrifying signifier of black lynching’s - in their designated work area.  

The four Black mechanics worked on elevators at construction sites throughout the Bay Area for Mitsubishi Electric, which is based in Cypress in Southern California. Those construction sites included Apple in Cupertino, the Hillsdale Mall in San Mateo, a Google building in Redwood City and Harrison Street buildings in Oakland, among others.

“I was terrified,” said LeiRoi Bowie, after he found a noose hanging in his assigned elevator in 2019 while he was working at a construction site in Oakland . “I knew someone was sending a message about what happens to people like me when we step where we don’t belong,” he said.

“I made a complaint to the head foreman and his response was ‘What do you want me to do about it?’ That was the type of attitude they gave about the situation,” Bowie said, adding that he had to call another foreman, then it went to the human resources department and his union. “But as far as that day, I didn’t feel like we got anywhere.”

According to records, one person said to be involved told Bowie it couldn’t be a real noose “because a noose has 13 loops, the scarier part was when my superintendent came to the job he said the same thing,” said Bowie.

While an apprentice admitted placing the noose next to the elevator, the lawsuit says a witness corroborated that supervisors were also involved in the placing the noose. The apprentice responsible for the attack also threatened Bowie to ‘keep his name out of his mouth’ when he went to report the noose, according to the lawsuit.

The four black tradesmen were not only subjected to the racial images and graffiti in their general work area, but in the port-a-potty, a common place were racist love posting graffiti, and also on the men’s personal equipment as well.

The lawsuit which includes months of documented photographic evidence of racist graffiti, including ‘a hanging man’ drawn on an elevator entrance where Gabriel Ross was working in October 2019, a swastika a month later, the words “KKK” in the hallway in January 2020, and a ‘satanic stars and KKK’ written on his personal toolbox. All three incidents occurred at 385 14th Street in downtown Oakland.

The images were not isolated to one job site location. This July, Ross saw a drawing of a person bent over and the “BLM” written with an arrow pointing at the person’s buttocks in the bathroom at 75 Howard Street in San Francisco.

“You see it (racist graffiti) so much it becomes part of your daily work. It becomes normal. It’s always been around and I feel like it’s always going to be around,” said Bowie.

Another white apprentice, who admitted to drawing some of the racist images, was not immediately fired, but instead was only temporarily reassigned by Mitsubishi electric to another project. The apprentice was later brought back to continue work on the same job site as Ross, according to the lawsuit.

Ross also says the apprentice who was responsible for the racist attacks threatened him and called him a “rat motherfucker” for reporting his conduct to HR. Ross said he felt like he was being attacked for complaining about the incident, even though he was the victim. 

“It’s obvious they didn’t care or take it seriously,” he said. And when Ross saw the noose at Bowie’s site a year later, he felt like things were quickly escalating.

“It is a direct attack on us as Black men. For me to have my friends attacked like that. I felt it myself. I felt like my life was in danger, like his life in danger,” Ross said. “The graffiti was one thing and they dealt with that lightly. I’m like what’s next?”

The lawsuit also alleges that one white Mitsubishi supervisor in charge, had a large Confederate flag sticker posted on his toolbox, inscribed with the words “RIGGIN,” which he would ask employees to read backwards.  The supervisor would also regularly draw Confederate flags on elevators and tables, according to the black mechanics.

Ross said he sent a photo of the supervisor’s toolbox to the company’s HR director to no avail. “The sign had been there for many years and she was aware of it, yet failed to discipline Mr. Florence for his conduct,” the lawsuit says of the HR director.

The lawsuit also describes a pattern of verbal harassment, and racially charged derogatory statements made Mitsubishi employee towards the four Black Tradesmen.

The lawsuit details accounts of a Mitsubishi Superintendent who regularly used the “N-word” on job sites despite employee complaints. In on account mechanic Lavell Roberson was subjected to the superintendent’s racist remarks. According to the complaint, at one point, he asked Roberson “How do you get a Black guy out of the tree? Cut the rope.”

Union mechanic Craig Martin says he was also regularly harassed by co-workers cracking racist jokes at his expense while trying to impress an adjuster. Like the time a Mitsubishi employee named in the lawsuit said to Martin, “Man, if maybe you didn’t stay in the ghetto you wouldn’t be so dumb,” or “Where did you learn to do elevators, in the hood?” Or another time when in front of a food truck he told Martin “go get that chicken, you like that chicken man.”

The lawsuit says the adjuster and the superintendent discouraged advancement and denied Black mechanics training opportunities, repeatedly referring to Black mechanics as “undesirables.” When Roberson expressed an interest in a superintendent position, the superintendent told him “shut that down” and blocked his application, the complaint says.

New white hires from out of state were also given housing accommodations, a benefit not offered to Black out-of-state hires like Roberson. Though the superintendent specifically promised this benefit to Roberson he revoked it after meeting Roberson in person according to the lawsuit.

Craig Martin, who is 50 year old, suffered a stroke roughly two years after starting with Mitsubishi Electric, which he attributes in large part to the stress he underwent in a hostile and racist work environment.

Martin says a few days after he returned home from the hospital, his supervisor showed up at his home with his last check and a termination notice. He was allowed to return to work only after he complained to his union.

“Imagine the emotional toll that takes to be told that you’re fired when you’re recovering from a stroke brought on by the stress of the harassment you’re going through in the workplace,” said Attorney Larry Organ with the Civil Rights Law group representing the four Black Tradesmen. “All they wanted to do was get a paycheck and not be harassed,” he added.

In 26 years as a civil rights attorney, “I’ve never seen this spectrum of hateful conduct that is actually documented with pictures so that we know what happened. It just shows you what’s going on right now even here in the Bay Area,” he said. “It’s very discouraging that this is going on in the Bay Area and it highlights the level of empowerment that people with racist views have. 

“Our clients complained to supervisors, managers, and HR for several years and the conduct was out in the open. These are things people could easily see and yet they didn’t do anything.”

“The elevator mechanic trade is predominantly white,” said LeiRoi Bowie. And according to labor data this is overwhelmingly true, less than 5% of elevator mechanics nationwide are African-American/Black native born.

Although being subjected to threats and unparalleled racial harassment all four of the Black Tradesmen remain resolute in their efforts to thrive in their trade. “I’m not going to let somebody drive me out of something I love,” said Gabriel Ross. “I love being in elevator construction. I love it so much I had my son take the test.”

“I’m not going to fall back, I’m going to fall forward,” he said. "I look out for the younger guys. When I spoke up to HR, it was for them, not just for me. Mitsubishi didn't stop the conduct or make any attempts to change the culture. Today, we're taking a stand. You can't treat human beings the way and get away with it," added Ross.

Ross’s 22-year-old son is preparing to enter the industry; and this lawsuit motivates him to fight even harder to change the culture, so his son won’t ever have to encounter a noose at a job site and racial intimidation.

For Bowie, it’s a matter of not backing down in the face of overwhelming pressure to just give up on his trade and leave the industry.

“I like the Mitsubishi product. I just don’t like the people I work with due to their racist nature and their attitude. I don’t want to show my kids that when times get tough you quit. I want to send the message that is isn’t cool and won’t be tolerated,” he said.

“I like what I do. I like constructing elevators,” he added. “I like problem solving. I like the knowledge I’ve obtained throughout the years. You walk into an elevator shaft and there’s nothing there. And months later you have this whole machine transporting people to other floors.”

As we have reported in depth, the types of discriminatory actions alleged in this lawsuit are far too common in the construction industry. In an inherently dangerous field like elevator construction, going to work every day as a Black man in a hostile work environment is extremely stressful. It’s even more distressing when your employer seems indifferent to a workplace culture that sanctions racist behavior. As Black Tradesmen we stand united in efforts to expose, deconstruct, and eliminated racism, and racist perpetrators plaguing the construction industry, that out Black forefathers pioneered for over hundreds of years.


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