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Stopping Racial Harassment

WE, THE ELECTRICAL, RADIO AND MACHINE WORKERS (UE), form an organization which unites all workers on an industrial basis, and rank and file control, regardless of craft, age, sex, nationality, race, creed or political beliefs and pursue at all times a policy of aggressive struggle to improve our conditions.

—Preamble to the UE Constitution

Stopping Racial Harassment


  • Racial harassment is a form of race discrimination which includes racial jokes and offensive comments based on a person's race or color.
  • The union exists to protect its members and to improve working conditions. Racial harassment cannot be an exception.

No Worker Should Have to Endure Any Form of Harassment.

Racial harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, EEOC, have more than doubled over the past decade from 2,849 filed in Fiscal Year 1991 to 6,585 charges in Fiscal Year 2000, about 11% of all charges filed with the agency.

In January 2000, a large case was finally settled against a Seattle Washington Auto Dealership. While this was only one case, it seems to be typical of what some workers are subjected to on a daily basis. The following is taken from the press release by the EEOC:

The litigation was initiated following complaints made by employees of Larson car dealerships alleging that management regularly used racially offensive language and made management decisions based on the race of employees and customers. According to the suit, the owner of the company and other managers allegedly referred to African-American workers as "boy" and "n-gger" on a regular basis. The racially hostile work environment was perpetuated through racially derogatory cartoons, jokes, and slurs that occurred over a prolonged period.

The auto dealership was made to pay $1.8 million to the group of workers who had been harassed.

What constitutes racial harassment?

The following is the official EEOC definition of racial harassment:

Racial harassment is a form of race discrimination which includes racial jokes, ethnic slurs, offensive or derogatory comments, or other verbal or physical conduct based on an individual’s race or color. Such conduct may create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment, or interfere with the individual’s work performance, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

An employer is not only guilty of violating the law if they commit an offensive act; an employer also has an obligation to stop any form of racial harassment. They can be found guilty if they allow an illegal act to take place and do nothing to stop it.

The Union's Responsibility

When a Joke
Is Not a Joke

Racial or ethnic jokes have a history. They originated in times when a race or group of people were socially under attack and lacked the power to respond effectively. These jokes, whether intended or not, are a reminder of that history.

Racial or ethnic jokes can:

  • Endanger a worker's job performance through stress;
  • Create an environment where more serious forms of discrimination and abuse can take place.

Every union steward knows that one of the most important parts of his/her job is keeping workers united. This is how we win grievances and achieve good contract settlements. The union cannot remain united if union members are harassed, intimidated or feel bad about coming to work because they are singled-out for harassment because of their race. If the union knows this is going on and does nothing, then the union has failed in one of its main jobs—to protect workers from discrimination.

When the UE was formed in the 1930’s, a large portion of the membership were workers who left the Machinists Union because that union maintained a secret ritual restricting membership only to "Caucasians" — workers with white skins. There was no way to organize the large industrial workplaces unless all workers, Black, white, Latino, men, women, English speaking and non-English speaking, skilled and unskilled were all united in the same union. That basic fact remains true today.

What Should be Done ...

... If the Employer is Committing Acts of Harassment?

Here’s an example: An African-American worker comes to the union steward and says that he is sick and tired of Ralph, his supervisor and another boss standing around near him telling each other racist "jokes." On several occasions he has told them to stop it, but they keep coming back to stand near him and loudly tell "jokes."

The Union steward has several avenues of attack. It is obvious that a grievance exists. Using the EEOC definition, offensive language is being used creating a hostile and offensive work environment.

First. Many UE contracts contain a clause that prohibits discrimination based upon race, nationality, sex, age, etc. A grievance can be filed using this section. The union’s approach to "discrimination" should be that under EEOC definitions, racial harassment is a form of racial discrimination. At a minimum the union can demand that the foreman apologize and be banned from making such remarks. It would be an unacceptable settlement to have the worker moved to a different work area. This would be punishing the worker, not the foreman.

Second. The union can file a charge against the foreman and the employer with the EEOC. Filing a grievance does not stop the worker or the union from filing a complaint with the EEOC. Even if the union wins the grievance the worker and/or the union still has a right to go to the EEOC.

Third. The union steward should make sure that other workers are supporting the worker who was being harassed. That worker should not have to stand alone against the harassment.

... If Another Worker is Committing acts of Harassment?

This problem is covered in depth by the UE Workshop called "Educating our Members, Dealing with Member to Member Harassment," which is available through the Education Department. Here are some brief facts:

  1. No member should have to put up with any form of harassment. Cming to work is often stressful enough.
  2. Racial harassment is wrong, both morally and legally. It is in violation of the union’s policy and principles. The union must tell any member who is racially harassing another member that they must stop immediately or they will be disciplined. If the worker won’t listen to the steward, then a group of workers should try to talk sense to the person.
  3. If the member does not stop, management must be notified so action can be taken. Remember, although no union person likes to turn in another union person to management, the union has a legal obligation to stop racial harassment once we know it is going on. The employer is legally charged with providing a workplace that is safe, healthy and free from discrimination. The employer has the authority to stop harassment.

The union exists to protect its members and to improve their wages, hours and working conditions. If a union member is being harassed the union has an obligation to defend that worker.

Creating a Workplace Environment Free from Racial Harassment

Some workers have grown up in environments that allowed racist language or racist graffiti to be used. We have to educate them why this is wrong. Trade unionists should not use racist words because:

  • They identify the racial or ethnic background as a negative rather than a positive aspect of a person;
  • They make the victim feel powerless;
  • They insult and degrade;
  • They create a climate which often leads to mistrust among workers and leaves the employer the only winner.