In 1992, the United Steelworkers of America made a critical choice - to protect one member from losing his job at Kaiser Aluminum Corp.’s Trentwood factory while dismissing another’s complaint of racial harassment.
On Friday, a U.S. District Court jury in Spokane ruled that the choice was a $1.8 million mistake.
“It’s been a long haul, and I feel vindicated,” said Richard Conterez, who was awarded the money in a civil rights case that pitted the 51-year-old, American-born Hispanic electrician against the fiercely loyal labor union.
The jury found that the Pittsburgh-based Steelworkers and Local 338 at Trentwood failed to protect Conterez from racial attacks by fellow union workers. Rather, the union retaliated against Conterez for turning in a fellow worker to Kaiser officials in violation of the Steelworkers’ oath of brotherhood.
Steelworker officials argued that Conterez was a disruptive employee who never made a formal, written complaint about racial harassment. He put the careers of other workers in jeopardy by taking his grievance to Kaiser before exercising all options under the union constitution.
The jury didn’t buy it. It ordered Local 338 to pay Conterez $84,000 in damages, the International, $1.6 million. Another $83,000 is due Conterez for lost wages and reimbursement for medical and psychological treatment related to his experience with the union.
Steelworkers attorney Steven Crumb in Spokane said the union may appeal the verdict. He declined further comment.
The case, which was filed in late 1994, presented evidence of racism in Conterez’s department, a small group among the 1,400 Kaiser employees at Trentwood.
Conterez testified that during one lunchroom incident in April 1992, fellow worker Arthur Thompson unleashed a string of racial slurs to demean Conterez in front of his peers. The incident ended when Thompson allegedly made a fist shaped like a pistol and pointed it at Conterez’s head, saying, “I warned you.”
Conterez said he complained about Thompson to union grievance officer Winifred “Butch” Flanigan Jr. Getting no results from Flanigan, Conterez said, he turned Thompson in to Kaiser officials. The company suspended Thompson for three days and put him on probation for a year, court records show.
Soon thereafter, Flanigan moved to reprimand Conterez for reporting Thompson to Kaiser. At one point, Conterez claimed, Flanigan held up a sign in the lunchroom that read “No Mexicans allowed.”
Conterez, 51, left the company in 1994, saying he suffered from mental distress.
The Steelworkers denied Conterez’s claims. Thompson testified that Conterez called him a skinhead and accused the Vietnam veteran of killing babies in the war.
Flanigan said he never held up the lunchroom sign. He said the charge against Conterez was not racially motivated, but designed to uphold union loyalty.
However, court records show the Steelworkers signed a consent decree in March with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to rescind its charges against Conterez, provide annual employment discrimination training to officers and members and affirm the right to a “discrimination-free environment.”
That decree may get its toughest test soon because Conterez wants his old job back.
“I’m not going to let anybody run me off,” he said. “I have a right to work there.”