African-American laborers and the union that represents them are alleging that three white supervisors on the largest public works project in Akron’s history “regularly” used racist language, assigned black employees “stupid work” that paid less and fired the workers when they complained about the harassment.

The Local 894 Chapter of the Laborers' International Union of North America filed the racial discrimination complaint Wednesday in Summit County Common Pleas Court on behalf of three African-American members from Akron and another from Copley.

The laborers were hired by Kenny Construction and the Obayashi Corp. to work on the $184 million Ohio Canal Interceptor Tunnel (OCIT) project, which involved boring a mile under downtown Akron to install a massive concrete-lined sewer pipe. The city contracted work is funded by state loans and local sewer customers.

The workers allege in the civil complaint that managers, supervisors and representatives of the project referred to the African-American laborers on the project as the n-word, "worthless," "yard dogs," "stupid," "them boys" and "the blacks in the back."

"The Kenny/Obayashi team is very proud of the work done on this project and the support our team has provided to and received from the Akron community," Jacque Fourchy, a spokesperson for Kenny Construction's parent company, Granite Construction Inc., said in an email. "The Company denies the allegations in the Complaint and intends to vigorously defend itself against these false, inflammatory allegations."

There was no response to a message left with Obayashi Corp.'s American headquarters in California seeking comment.

Obayashi is among the largest builders in Japan. Its website explains that "[a]t Obayashi, we think of fulfilling our corporate responsibilities as the best way to bring smiles to people. This is the goal of all of our business activities. As a good corporate citizen, Obayashi strives to meet the expectations and respond to the needs of all stakeholders.”

Joseph Guarino, who is representing the union and the African-American laborers, said he could not comment beyond the allegations in the complaint.

The discrimination suit says that beyond the “racial belittling,” black employees were assigned to "yard crews" and excluded from opportunities to work on the tunnel boring machine. Crews on the machine were offered overtime to work around the clock to make up time after the project fell behind schedule when the machine arrived late and struggled to move through a mix of soil and rock.

The suit alleges that positions on the boring machine were “largely reserved by management … as a privilege for the Caucasian employees.”

When the black employees spoke up about the alleged racist language and discriminatory employment, they said the company retaliated by terminating their jobs.

The lawsuit names three white foremen, including the supervisor for the boring machine.

The labor union and its members are demanding that the court require the companies, which formed a joint venture to perform the work, to provide two years of funding and training to “abolish racial discrimination and bias.” In addition, each of the four workers is asking for more than $25,000 in punitive damages for “personal injury, physical sickness, lost wages, lost overtime, emotional distress and other consequential damages.”

The city is not a defendant in the lawsuit.

When asked whether the city was aware of the allegations during the course of the work and what, if any, measures are taken to ensure that contractors keep job sites free of discriminatory behavior, Ellen Lander Nischt, press secretary for Mayor Dan Horrigan, said: “There is no allegation in the complaint that the city knew of or participated in the alleged behavior. I think that Kenny Obayashi should be provided the opportunity to offer the response to those very serious allegations.”

 

Reach Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.