Over 50 people came together Thursday morning to protest racist treatment by United Electrical Contractors, the firm subcontracted to perform electrical work on The Standard, a new student housing building on South Main St in Ann Arbor. Six employees sued UEC on Jan. 20 over racist treatment of Black and brown workers at the site.
The complaint says UEC management exhibited “obscenely racist behaviors and practices.” The suit alleges managers used racial slurs such as the n-word, expected people of color to walk to job sites while white coworkers were given rides and fired of people of color before white employees when the company laid off employees due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When some of the men brought these concerns to their managers, higher-ups allegedly told them to be “tougher” or disregarded their concerns completely.
Ryan Husse, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Richard Mack, the attorney for the six men and Reverend Charles Williams II, chairman of the National Action Network of Michigan, organized Thursday’s protest to push back against Landmark Properties’ inaction when presented with the allegations. The protest marched to the Landmark office on S. Main St. before heading to The Standard where UEC employees could be seen looking on while they worked in the building.
After Landmark was notified of the allegations of racism against UEC last year, protestors alleged the contractor did not take any action against the claims. Mack addressed the protestors and said many other employees with similar stories of racism have come forward since the lawsuit was filed. He said he hopes the protest will send a clear message to any contractor considering hiring UEC in the future.
“We want every contractor to know that … if you hire this company to let these atrocities take place, we want you to participate in solving the problem or else you become part of the problem,” Mack said. “Shame on all contractors that turn a blind eye.”
Kelly Gray, director of public relations for Landmark, said the company does not tolerate discrimination or harassment on its projects.
“Landmark Properties is aware of and is actively monitoring the allegations and pending proceedings to United Electric Contractors,” Gray said. “At this time, neither the statements from the claimants nor our own investigation indicate that the alleged conduct occurred on our project site. We continue to review information surrounding this matter as it becomes available.”
In a public statement addressing the lawsuit, UEC president Scott Fleger denied the allegations, saying these claims had not been brought forward previously and were a ploy to harass and harm the company.
“We have reviewed the complaint released today, which includes new, unfounded allegations as part of an ongoing harassment campaign by a union, designed to interfere with our company’s operations and relationships,” Fleger wrote.
Jimmy Greene, President of Associated Builders and Contractors — a trade association that represents the non-union construction industry, including UEC –– also released a statement denying the allegations.
“I am the first and only Black CEO Associated Builders & Contractors has ever had, and I can tell you that’s based on merit and not color,” Greene wrote. “But I can also assure you that I would never defend any company or any individual in this association guilty of such practices for obvious reasons.”
Vance Murray, one of the six former UEC employees who initially sued the company, also spoke at the protest. Murray said Black workers did not receive reimbursement for gas they used driving to worksites even though white employees did and did not receive the same standard of occupational training.
“I’ve seen several other Black employees not offered to work with more knowledgeable employees to teach them and then when they’d do the job wrong, they were disciplined or possibly fired,” Murray said. “I’m not going to tolerate it. I’m here to speak on it. I want the public to know.”
Eric Burch, another plaintiff in the federal lawsuit, spoke to the protestors about his experience working for UEC. He said UEC management asked Burch’s nationality on his first day on the job, telling Burch that it “mattered a lot” where he was from, using slurs to communicate the point. Burch also said his foreman told him to “get back to the plantation” and frequently called him the n-word. After Burch brought this behavior to his supervisor, he alleged he was demoted to a job site much farther away and his 30 minute commute was now over 90 minutes.
“I heard the n-word so many times there that it became a part of the air,” Burch said. “It was the n-word, I hate LGBTQ, I hate black people, I hate people that didn’t vote for Trump. (Other employees) were putting Trump signs on our cars. It was just a lot to endure there.”
Jordan Shank, the only white plaintiff in the lawsuit, alleged he was treated unfairly by UEC after he was hurt on the job site. Shank also spoke out against the unfair treatment of his coworkers and said he was punished for his candor. He told the protestors Thursday that when he stood up to a foreman who called Burch racial slurs, the foreman threatened to beat him up multiple times.
In an interview with The Daily, Shank said he hopes his niece, who is multiracial with a Black parent, will not experience the same racism as his coworkers did in her future career.
“I don’t want to see that happen in the future,” Shank said. “I don’t want her to have missed opportunities in the workplace.”
Tyler Richardson echoed Murray’s sentiments, saying he was not given a debit card to pay for gas to and from worksites as his white coworkers had, despite asking multiple times. He was also assigned to train with an employee that confessed he had never trained anyone before, leaving Richardson inadequately trained. Richardson also said he never received diversity training, despite Flager’s statement that this was required of employees, and Richardson never received safety training manded by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
In an interview with The Daily, Richardson said fellow employees would target anyone who did not agree with their political views.
“I would always hear a lot of like, political comments geared towards you know, ‘Trump, if you’re not with him, then you’re against us,’” Richardson said. “‘You’re a problem.’ And they would go after everybody who was not with them in that aspect of things.”
Mack hopes they can establish a dialogue with UEC to get justice for the six men.
“It’s so rampant that we don’t feel like a simple lawsuit is enough,” Mack said. “We need companies like Landmark, who’s hired United Electric, to help us to fix this problem.”
In an interview with The Daily, Ann Arbor City councilwoman Jen Eyer, D-Ward 4, who helped get the word out about the protest said she was concerned for the safety of the students who move into The Standard if training varies from employee to employee.
“Think about how (Tyler) was never given training,” Eyer said. “(The Standard) is going to be inhabited by students. What if it wasn’t wired correctly? Are the smoke alarms going to work if there’s a fire? Is it going to catch fire? If I were a U of M student, I wouldn’t trust it. I wouldn’t want to live here.”
Several members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization were also present, including Amir Fleischmann, Rackham student and Contract Committee co-chair of GEO. Fleischmann told The Daily it was important for GEO to come due to their strong connection to labor issues and their relationship with IBEW.
“The protest aligns very well with a lot of the issues that GEO cares deeply about, including both racial justice and rights for organized labor,” Fleischmann said. “Most importantly, we wanted to support the six workers who have faced discrimination on the job due to (the) disgusting racism that they’ve experienced.”
In his concluding statements, Williams told protesters the fight is not over.
“Let me tell you something: If you think you’re sick of seeing us now, you ain’t seen nothing yet,” Williams said. “Wait till the weather breaks, because we will be at every job site, we will be at every worksite, we will be at every City Council meeting, every regents’ meeting. Everywhere you’re trying to get a contract, you will see the United Six, the National Action Network, and labor standing up together saying ‘hell no.’”
Correction 1/28: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the lawsuit was against The Standard, not United Electrical Contractors.
This article has been updated to include a statement from Kelly Gray, director of public relations for Landmark.
Daily Staff Reporter Isabella Kassa can be reached at email@example.com