Giant facing $285 million bias suit 10 current, ex-workers allege 'pervasive' discrimination by chain

Class action status sought

Plaintiff's lawyer says firm understated problems last week

September 13, 1996|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

A lawyer representing 10 black Giant Food Inc. current and former employees yesterday said she will file a $285 million class action lawsuit against the grocery chain for "pervasive, systemic and institutionalized" racial discrimination.

The attorney, Jo Ann Myles of Greenbelt, said the Landover-based chain understated the extent of racist behavior last week when it announced that five current employees and two former employees would sue Giant for "isolated" and "repugnant" racist behavior at two warehouses.

"We are contending that discriminatory practices at Giant Food have been pervasive, systemic and institutionalized for a period of over 30 years and that the corporation's managers have known about this and done nothing," said Myles at a news conference attended by the workers, who would not comment.

Myles said the number of plaintiffs has grown by three since last week. The number will reach thousands if the suit is certified as a class action. More than 5,000 of Giant's roughly 24,000 employees are black, she said.

Myles said she planned to file the suit in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

Giant Food said it will fight the lawsuit. "We state categorically that we have never tolerated, nor will we ever tolerate any discriminatory conduct at Giant Food," the company said yesterday in a statement. "We are proud of our record."

In an extraordinary announcement last Wednesday intended to pre-empt publicity that would be generated by the lawsuit, Giant Food spelled out the allegations by black workers against itself at Giant's Jessup recycling warehouse and its Landover distribution warehouse.

The company said the allegations included two occasions when a noose-shaped rope was "directed at African-American persons," the segregation of two locker rooms in a Jessup warehouse, the posting of pictures of primates with the names of black workers and the denial of equal access to transportation and telephone privileges.

Giant officials denied the segregation of locker rooms and declined to comment on other allegations. The chain fired one worker and reprimanded two others, demoting and reassigning one of the two.

Yesterday's news conference provided details to some of the charges. On display were photographs of racial slurs that Myles said were scrawled on the inside of Giant trailers.

"This has been going on for over 30 years," Myles said. "It's only within the last three weeks that Giant has started cleaning up trailers."

David Rutstein, Giant's general counsel, said the allegations were too broad and far-ranging and the company could respond only to specific charges.

Myles also released a March 1991 memo saying that Giant had "recently investigated an incident involving a noose having been suspended" in a warehouse. The memo said the company found malicious intent" but added that "the sight of a noose is offensive to many associates."

Myles said the memo undercut Giant's claims that it learned only recently of incidents involving nooses. The two incidents identified by Giant did not include the one referenced in the 1991 memo. "This has been going on for years and the Giant management has done nothing about it," Myles said.

Rutstein said the incident involved the hanging of a noose by one white worker over the desk of another white worker. "An African-American staffer brought it to management's attention and you see the result," he said. "Giant reacted quickly."

Myles also argued that discrimination was not limited to Giant's warehouses. She said managers in the chain's stores unfairly discipline black employees and manufacture false disciplinary documents against them. She did not provide specific examples.

In a videotape, an unidentified white employee outlined several examples of discrimination. Myles said she would not identify the employee because one of the plaintiffs had received a death threat. The employee said segregation in locker rooms "was like something out of the 50's."

He said one locker room has two benches, showers and urinals. "In that one locker room it's mostly white employees," he said. "And it just seems kind of funny that in the other locker room, which doesn't have urinals, which doesn't have showers, which only has one bench, the supervisors seem to be putting all the black guys in that one locker room."

Rutstein denied any segregation. He said the locker rooms are similar in age, condition and facilities. One of them is 69 percent white. The other is 78 percent black. "The lockers are all assigned by seniority," he said.

The employee also recounted incidents when a white employee used a racial slur against a black employee and was not disciplined. He said a supervisor told him a racist joke.

The employee said managers tolerated drunkenness by a white employee but tried to test a black employee for steroid use because he was muscular. In another instance, he said, a white employee made a noose and said he was going to "hang himself" a black person and was not disciplined. And he said the company made getting credit union loans more difficult for blacks than whites by writing more critical evaluations of them.

Myles called Giant's disciplinary actions "a last-ditch effort." She said the plaintiffs had made "repeated and numerous complaints" to Giant management.

She said Giant offered to settle the case for an amount of money, which she would not disclose.

Pub Date: 9/13/96

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