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Whites only' sign stirs a suit
Black workers take action after notice allegedly put on bathroom door at Alabama Tyson plant

August 19, 2005

WASHINGTON -- The way African-American workers tell it in the lawsuit filed last week, the "Whites Only" sign was posted on the door of the freshly renovated bathroom at Tyson's poultry plant in Ashland, Ala. Only white employees had the keys.

After some complaints, the sign was removed, but the bathroom was kept locked, and the refrigerator and cabinets in a new employee lounge were padlocked. Only white workers had keys.

"When I was young, my mother used to tell me stories about segregated bathrooms," Henry Adams, a plaintiff in the suit, wrote in a statement. "I never thought that her reality of 71 years ago would become my reality today."

Adams and 12 other African-American workers at the plant filed a discrimination suit last week against Tyson Foods Inc., the world's largest meat producer.

The regional office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is also suing Tyson for violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits workplace discrimination. The nonpartisan Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law also stepped in on the workers' behalf.

"While this country has made great strides in addressing issues of racism, unfortunately, there are still people who have not yet gotten the message that segregation in the workplace will not be tolerated," Bernice Williams-Kimbrough, district director of EEOC's Birmingham office, wrote in a statement.

Tyson officials said they investigated the allegations and found they have no merit.

"We're surprised and disappointed by this legal action," Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for the Arkansas-based company, wrote in a statement. "The presence of any sign suggesting whites only or segregation of any kind is, without a doubt, a violation of our corporate polices and contrary to our corporate culture."

He said the company has "zero tolerance for racism."

In the lawsuit, black workers said an "Out of Order" sign was posted and the bathroom kept locked soon after it was renovated in the summer of 2003. Meanwhile, some white workers, including a supervisor, had keys and used it. Soon after, the "Whites Only" sign appeared, the lawsuit says.

A lawyer for the workers said a white employee reported that a supervisor told him to post the sign. It was removed, but black workers who complained said they faced retaliation, from suspensions to firings. A break room once used mostly by blacks was closed that summer. In a new lounge, the refrigerator and cabinets were locked and only whites had keys, the suit says.

Over the years, black workers were also subjected to racial slurs and comments, according to court papers. In one case, the lawsuit said, a picture of two monkeys with black workers' names underneath was posted on the locker of a black employee.

Lawyers for the workers said the racist sign pushed them to take legal action.

"They couldn't be quiet anymore," said Audrey Wiggins, a staff attorney with the Lawyers' Committee.

The workers are asking the court to force Tyson to set corrective polices. They are also seeking unspecified punitive and compensatory damages.

Wiggins said the suit should send a message that "the 21st-century workplace won't tolerate this kind of situation."

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