Telephone Workers Fight Discrimination at Ameritech

Backed by their union, members of Communications Workers of America Local 4100 in Detroit have been fighting discriminatory practices at Ameritech, the Chicago-based telephone company that serves much of the midwest. At the center of the fight is a rank and file organization of African American technicians and service representatives known as AAA-EE (Triple A, Double E), which stands for An Alliance of Ameritech Employees for Equality.

Last July, AAA-EE and Local 4100 sued Ameritech for systematic racial and disability discrimination and for management's various retaliatory measures. What began as a series of protests over discrimination against Black workers has grown into fight over what AAA-EE President Gary Culver calls "the redlining of Detroit."

Ameritech’s racial employment pattern in the metropolitan Detroit area illustrates the point. In Detroit’s inner-city garages, from which the technicians are dispatched, the proportion of Black technicians runs from 40 percent to 85 percent. In the surrounding, mainly-white suburbs, African Americans are no more 10-15 percent of the workforce.

Furthermore, predominantly white suburbs adjacent to the city are served by more remote suburban garages to avoid sending Blacks into these areas, the lawsuit alleges.

The policies that pushed Local 4100 members to action began around 1994. Under Kurt Brannick, a high-level supervisor overseeing technicians in Detroit garages, Black supervisors were replaced with whites and an aggressive campaign against Black technicians launched.

Blacks were singled out for discipline, stalked by supervisors while on the job, and dismissed in disproportionate numbers, according to the AAA-EE.

CO-ED DISCRIMINATION

An employee performance program known as Co-Ed that was supposed to train workers having problems with the job "was punitively used to follow, over-supervise, over-scrutinize, harass, discipline, and discharge African American employees," say the aggrieved workers.

Local 4100 protested the Co-Ed program on general grounds, but the company pressed ahead.

Back workers who had been injured and forced to work were placed on the Co-Ed list of low performers and then subjected to discipline or discharge.

One such worker was Daniel Davis, who was placed on the Co-Ed list after two injuries. Davis' supervisor followed him around and then suspended him for minor problems, costing him ten days' pay.

In a different case, a white supervisor at a Detroit garage suspended 22 workers, 21 of whom were Black.

Investigation revealed that the personnel folders of Black workers were consistently much thicker with disciplinary charges than those of whites. Zie Rivers, the president of Ameritech’s Network Division, admitted that he could tell which employees were Black or white just by looking at the size of their folders. Despite this admission, no disciplines or discharges were reversed.

The union filed grievances over many of these cases, but these were held up and no changes in policy were forthcoming.

AAA-EE accuses the company of wanting the break the union by dividing the members. It calls for the restoration of "union solidarity in the workplace."

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CWA JOINS LAWSUIT

Culver says that AAA-EE at first suspected that the union didn’t want to raise these racial issues. But Local 4100 President Doug Jager and Vice President Renzie Williams agreed to co-sponsor the lawsuit and pursue the grievances aggressively. In the case of the 22 suspended workers, CWA District 4 filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB when Ameritech refused to turn over files.

In the fight over these and other cases of discrimination, the AAA-EE uncovered a pattern of inferior telephone service to the city of Detroit.

TORNADO

Detroit’s residential areas receive poorer service and rely on older equipment, says Culver. While new equipment and lines were being installed in the suburbs, old facilities were patched up in city neighborhoods.

This was brought home when a tornado hit Detroit in 1997. AAA-EE members noticed that the trucks and equipment coming to help from other cities and states were new and shiny compared to those used in Detroit.

In one case, Ameritech replaced Detroit-based Black workers and their old trucks with whites using newer equipment when TV crews came to shoot high-profile emergency repair operations.

In downtown Detroit today, Ameritech workers are installing new fiber optic cables--not to serve the residents, but the new sports stadiums and gambling casinos that are supposed to be the city’s economic salvation.

AAA-EE also says that Ameritech closed its last cellular service center in the city while keeping two suburban centers open across the street from each other. The closing cost hundreds of Black workers their jobs and subjected Detroit residents to inferior and more costly service from subcontractors.

THIRD WORLD CITY

"They treat Detroit like a Third World City," Culver says. Local 4100 and AAA-EE have been lining up community support, including local church groups, to make their point about discrimination against African American workers and Detroit’s mostly Black residents.

So far, Ameritech has not answered protests from various Detroit organizations and from Congressman John Conyers.

Culver says his group is continuing the fight by recruiting members in Flint and other largely-Black Michigan cities.

The Ameritech story is one of a growing number of fights and lawsuits over similarly discriminatory policies at major corporations like Texaco, Detroit Edison, and Mitsubishi. What makes it a little different is that in this case, the union had the good sense to put itself on the right end of the lawsuit.