SUBJECT TO DISCRIMINATION OTHER THAN
WITH RESPECT TO WORK ASSIGNMENTS
or why the settlement of the Jacob Javits Convention Center civil
rights lawsuit will not end institutional race and sex discrimination
In January, 2007, Cokely et al vs New York Convention Center Operating Corp et al, the 6 1/2 year long civil rights lawsuit against New York City's state-owned Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, was finally settled.
The legal action was originally filed by well known civil rights litigation firm Leeds, Morelli & Brown on behalf of 83 minority carpenters, teamsters and housekeepers at the Javits back in April 2000.
Later, with the help of another law firm, Millberg Weiss, the case was expanded into a class action lawsuit on behalf of 463 current and 898 former minority Javits Center trade show workers.
Now, Cokely vs NYCCOC has ended, with a cash settlement for a limited number of employees.
Unfortunately, the settlement of the lawsuit does NOT end discrimination at the Javits.
Far from it - basically, the suit amounts to what can best be described as a form of legalized hush money for a handfull of Black and Latino trade show workers, with the systematically unequal distribution of work that is the underlying cause of the race and sex discrimination at the nation's 14th largest convention center going untouched.
I'll explain why that is below - but first, let's take a look back at WHY the lawsuit was filed in the first place.
We'll start with a history lesson explaining how the State of New York came to run the Javits Center, and where the job discrimination began.
The State of New York's New York Convention Center Operating Corporation built the Jacob K. Javits Center back in 1986.
The Javits Center was intended to replace the city's main trade show venue at the time - the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's small, obsolete and gangster-dominated New York Coliseum on Columbus Circle.
However, the Javits was under the thumb of cosa nostra before it was even built - it actually opened 2 years late and $ 40 million dollars over budget due to shoddy work and overcharging by S & A Concrete, the company owned by Genovese crime family underboss Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno that poured the columns and slabs in the huge convention hall.
As soon as the Javits opened it's doors, the mobbed-up workforce who set up and took down the shows at the Coliseum came down 11th Avenue to the Javits.
The "company men" - full time employees of the decorating contractors - who formed the core of New York's trade show workforce were largely composed of men who had ties to organized crime - specifically, to the Genovese family.
This had been the case for over 30 years.
Just to be clear, most of these guys were not criminals - many of them were friends or relatives of wiseguys who had no direct involvement with criminality.
But they worked side by side with paroled murderers, thieves and truck hijackers who worked the shows because their Parole Officers required them to have a straight job to keep from being violated back to prison (and because there were always a whole lot of valuables to steal at the shows).
Carpenters, "expos" (trade show stagehands) and teamsters who wern't connected with the Genovese family did get to work the shows too - but only when a lot of labor was needed on short notice.
On the smaller shows, it was only the company guys - and even on big shows, the company men got to work the whole show from the start of the move in through the maintenance call during the show right straight through to the end of the takedown, with local men only getting one day calls right before the show opened and just after the show closed.
Most relevantly for our purposes, thanks to the all-White demographics of the mafia, the company men, who got the bulk of the work, were disproportionately White and almost entirely male. Minority and female tradespeople had to compete with non mob connected White men for whatever scraps of work were left over.
This kind of institutionalized favoritism was far from unusual in the Carpenters, Teamsters and Stagehands unions.
On the contrary, it was the norm.
Trade show industry discrimination fit in very well with those unions' general system of work distribution - a few priviliged workers got ample work opportunities and made good money while the remainder of the membership had to make do with whatever job opportunities were left over.
In industries where casual labor employment is the norm and nobody has a steady job, this distribution of work is very important - it can be the difference between having a $ 100,000 year and a $ 20,000 year, between middle income status and raw poverty - so distribution of work is a vital issue, and getting full time hours is a great privilige.
For the decorating contractors, giving the choicest job opportunities to folks who were under the protection of the Genoveses was the price they paid for having a lock on trade show work in the city, and a guarantee against labor disputes disrupting the very tight and inflexible trade show move in and move out schedules.
Also, many of the foremen and supervisors for the decorating contractors happend to be family members of the connected carpenters, expos and teamsters - so this system of favoritism directly put money in the pockets of their relatives.
It didn't work out so well for the exhibitors (the businesspeople who had booths at the trade shows). They had to pay bribes to get their booths put up on time and they had to deal with widespread and chronic theft of their wares by the criminal element among the trade show company men.
And these thefts were no small potatoes - at one boat show, somebody actually stole a 60 foot yacht right off the floor of the Javits Center, and at computer shows it was the norm to have dozens of PCs and Macs disappear.
Despite the squads of security guards, the in-house force of special police and the elaborate video surveillance system at the Javits Center, inevitably, when thefts occured, "nobody saw nothin".
The exhibitors could recoup all of these costs as business expense tax deductions - but it still ate into their profits. By the mid 1990's, the culture of criminality at the Javits Center became intolerable - the exhibitors could no longer profitably tolerate the widespread theft, so they began to complain.
As a result of the complaints, the trade associations who put the shows on began to take their shows to other cities - including venues like Orlando, Cleveland and Atlanta, where the trade show industry had very weak or nonexistant unions and minimal organized crime activity.
This caused the largest decorating contractor in the country, Freeman Decorating Company [FDC], to react.
The Dallas-based firm, which ran trade shows over the nation, quietly let the State of New York know that they would no longer run shows out of the Javits if the pilferage problem wasn't solved.
Without FDC, the last big Javits Center shows - the Auto Show, the PC Show, the Boat Show and the Fancy Foods Show - would be gone, and the center would basically be out of business.
This led Governor George Pataki, working closely with the FBI-installed reform general president of the Teamsters, Ron Carey, to launch a campaign to drive the gangsters out of the Javits Center.
This fit in nicely with a broader campaign to destroy organized crime-dominated protection rackets in a number of industries in New York City - specifically trucking and construction related businesses.
The objective of those campaigns was to reduce the amount of bribes that large corporations had to pay to gangster linked small businesses as a price of doing business in the city as well as breaking up the cartels of mafia tied small businesses who kept prices up and limited competition in those sectors - and, along the way, to break the power of the unions in those industries.
Pataki ended up sending in a 200 officer-strong force of state troopers to take control of the Javits Center, rip up the Carpenters, Expo and Teamsters union contracts and drive the gangsters out of the center at gunpoint.
And I mean drive them out quite literally - 260 expos, carpenters and teamsters were banned for life from ever setting foot in the Javits Center again, on pain of arrest.
That ban fell equally upon the just and the unjust - all the guys with mob ties got the boot, with hijackers and made men as well as honest workers who merely took advantage of their friendships or family ties to mobsters to get a steady job all kicked out of the building.
Also, all 400 expos in Stagehands local 829 - mobbed up or not - was barred from working at the Javits Center as expos. They could only come back to work if they joined either the Carpenters or Teamsters unions (about half of local 829's members ended up having to drop their membership in the union).
The state then took control over the labor force at the Javits Center.
The decorating contractors would still supervise the workers but they would be per diem employees of the New York Convention Center Operating Corporation, the State of New York-owned corporation that had owned the building since 1986 and would now actually run it.
The Carpenters and Teamsters unions were told that their members could apply for those jobs - along with any random person who showed up at the Javits Center on the weekend of July 25, 1995.
Stagehands local 829 picketed the open labor call - but the Carpenters and the Teamsters unions told their members it was OK to cross local 829's picketline.
With everybody else scabbing on the stagehands, many expos ended up having to scab on their own union's picketline to try and get their jobs back.
The new trade show workforce would go in non union - they would be hired as carpenters or teamsters, but they would not be covered by a union contract, since Pataki ripped up the agreements the New York District Council of Carpenters and Teamsters local 807 had with the decorating contractors.
It would be 3 long years before Javits Center carpenters and teamsters had a union contract - and even then, the new contracts were far weaker than the agreements that cover trade show work in other venues in the city.
Pataki and the NYCCOC promised that, among other things, the "New Javits Center" would be free of race and sex discrimination.
This was part of a publicity campaign against the trade show unions that had been going on for months before the takeover, apparently intended to justify the state going to such lengths to carry out the narrow selfish commercial interests of a handfull of private businesspeople.
Pataki had to sell this campaign to the public - and, in a heavily Black, Latino and Asian city like New York, putting a civil rights cover on this armed expedition against union members would be a good way to win popular support for State Police unionbusting at the Javits Center.
Admittedly, the workforce they hired in the last weekend of July 1995 was a lot more diverse than the people they were replacing.
Many of the new carpenters and teamsters were Black, Latino or Asian men and, even more suprisingly, the once overwhelmingly male workforce now had a large number of women.
Of course, the jobs they were taking were not as good as those of the White men they replaced.
Many of the carpenters were hired as 1st or 2nd year apprentices ("AP 1's" and "AP 2's" in Javits Center jargon) - previously, all Javits Center carpenters got paid full journeman pay, even if they were still apprentices.
Also, higher paid 3rd year and 4th year apprentice carpenters (including this writer) were paid at the lower 2nd year apprentice pay scale. The apprentices would do work that was once done by much higher paid expos, along with jobs that were usually done by journeylevel carpenters.
The teamsters had a similar setup - most of the new hires came in as "helper checkers" and they were paid less than full teamster wages. They also did jobs that had once been the work of the expo.
Premium pay for evening and overnight work was abolished. In the old Javits Center, any work between 4:30 PM and 7:30 PM was paid at time and a half and any work between 7:30 PM and 8 AM, plus all work on Saturdays, Sundays or holidays, was doubletime work.
Now, the first 8 hours of your shift were paid at straight time, no matter what time of day your shift started. Anything after 8 hours, and any work on Saturday, was time and a half. Sunday and holiday work remained doubletime.
In an industry where short work weeks are a way of life for all but the most well connected workers (a typical trade show work week for a local man might involve 10 hours work on a move in, 4 hours on a move out and that's it for the week), this move basically pauperized much of the trade show workforce, who depended on premium pay to earn a living wage from their limited hours.
And it gets worse.
Unlike the old Javits Center, where the unions dispatched part of the workforce, all of the New Javits Center's workforce were company men, called for work by the three person dispatcher staff of the labor hall.
All Javits Center workers were company men now - but some company men were more equal than others.
Within a few weeks after the Javits Center came under new management, a system of unequal distribution of work was put into place - very similar to how the wiseguys had handed out the jobs at the old Javits Center.
The decorating contractors were allowed to hand pick a small elite of workers who would have more-or-less steady jobs.
In the case of the carpenters, the contractors and the general foreman of the Javits Center unoficially hand picked 130 workers, who's names were written in a notebook maintained by the carpenter general foreman of the Javits Center.
Those workers would get first pick on work hours.
This was all done off the record with no official agreement with the Carpenters Union allowing them to do this. "The Book" itself officially didn't exist (this writer only found out about it when one of the guys who's name was in the book told me of it's existance)
After they got work, there was another group of about 320 carpenters who would get called next - and another group of about 500 carpenters who would only work on the really really big shows (like the Auto Show or the PC Show) where lots of labor was needed for a short period of time.
The disenfranchised carpenters would be allowed to come into the labor hall and shape up for opportunities to fill in for carpenters who had been called into work but didn't show up.
Initially, the shapers were selected based on a sign in sheet - first signed in would get to fill the first vacancy.
Later,that was replaced with a lottery system - everybody would write their names on a piece of paper and put it in a wooden ballot box. When they needed people, they would draw names and those who's names were called got to work that day.
The teamsters had a similar system of workplace favoritism. Unlike the carpenters system, the work favoritism rules for teamsters were actually agreed to by Teamsters local 807!
A small priviliged elite of 60 teamsters got to work on every show, and they had their names enrolled on an official Teamsters local 807 Seniority List.
The remaining 240 teamsters would get whatever work was left over.
Like the carpenters, they could also come in to shape up to replace teamsters who didn't show up for work.
Now, this new favored elite of 130 carpenters and 60 teamsters were not necessarily the same priviliged workers who got steady jobs from the Genoveses in the old Javits Center.
The 190 priviliged workers were still largely White males - but now there were also some men of color, White women and even a couple of Black women among the elite.
Of course, in a much more integrated workforce, it was that much more glaring that the guys on every call were so heavily White - and the folks on the bottom of the heap, the "shapers" who never got a call and just hung out in the labor hall every show hoping to pick up a couple hours here and there, were so overwhelmingly Black and Latino and so disproportionately female.
Considerng the fact that there were only 219 Black, Latino and Asian carpenters at the Javits (out of a total workforce of 950) it was remarkable that, on any given day, almost all of the shapers on the carpenters side of the labor hall were minority!
It was truly rare to see a White face among the folks sitting on those hard concrete benches in the labor hall waiting for a job, even though 2/3rds of the Javits Center's carpenters were White!
Also, with all the women now at the center, there were new and different forms of work discrimination.
Like women carpenters being told they should quit their jobs and find a husband.
Or women carpenters who had sex with foremen getting steady work and those who didn't having to sit in the labor hall and shape up.
Or women carpenters who had done concrete formwork in outside construction being told they weren't strong enough to hang up a nylon banner!
For Black, Latino and Asian workers of both sexes, there was also the usual sort of petty racial comments and grafitti you'd expect in a once White dominated workplace that had been suddenly racially integrated.
However, by far, the worst race and sex discrimination was economic - the workers who got the most calls were predominantly White and largely male, and the shapers were largely Black, Latino and Asian and disproportionately female.
Beyond all the slurs and the insults, the core of this dispute was economic - as Leeds, Morelli and Brown would later calculate, over the first 10 years that New York State ran the Javits Center, White trade show workers made over $ 1 billion dollars more in wages and benefits than their minority counterparts.
Beyond that astronomical economic discrimintion that faced all minority trade show workers, the housekeepers had their own issues.
These workers, who do the janitorial work related to the shows along with setting up and taking down chairs in the special events hall, had the same sporadic employment of other trade show workers and got a lower hourly wage.
Also, every single one of them was Black, Latino or Asian and most of them were women.
Now that everybody in the Javits was a state employee, they thought they should have the right to apply to be reassigned as trade show teamsters.
After all, they were per diem state employees, just like the teamster helper checkers - and both groups were members of the same union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
The housekeepers were merely in a diffrent local - Teamsters local 237, a city employee local.
The trade show teamsters were in Teamsters local 807, a truck drivers local.
Both groups did unskilled labor - the only difference being the teamsters made more money than the housekeepers.
The housekeepers thought this was totally unfair and should be changed.
Javits Center management didn't see it that way.
They wanted to keep the housekeepers permanently confined in their low paying jobs, and denied them transfers. Even the housekeepers who did set up work (that is, the ones who were already doing trade show teamster work) weren't allowed to switch over and were forced to keep getting $ 13.80/hr housekeeper wages to do $ 25/hr teamster work.
By the spring of 2000, the labor abuses suffered by the minority and female trade show workers had become intolerable.
After 5 years of discrimination, many minority workers had voted with their feet against the Javits Center - 280 minority carpenters (including this writer) 241 minority teamsters and 277 minority housekeepers, a total of 898 workers of color, quit their jobs at the Javits Center.
At least the carpenters could stay in the trade if they left the Javits, all they had to do was go work in outside construction and/or trade shows in the hotels.
For the teamsters, leaving the Javits Center basically meant leaving local 807 - for many, this meant taking far lower paying non union trucking industry jobs. But, 241 of them - virtually every minority teamster hired in 1995 and over 80% of the entire teamster workforce at the Javits - did just that.
83 minority workers decided to not walk away - instead, they decided to fight back for themselves and their 390 coworkers of color.
Significantly, none of these workers turned to their unions for help. It was a generally held view that the unions were in on the sytem and would not oppose it.
And that opinion was basically accurete.
The minority teamsters, the first workers to act (one of the teamsters came up with the idea of calling in a civil rights law firm - he picked Leeds, Morelli and Brown because he was familar with their employment discrimination lawsuits), didn't even bother to try and get help from Teamsters local 807.
The former leaders of Teamsters local 807, convicted murderer and reputed Genovese family associate Robert Rabbitt, Sr and his son Michael, had been ousted by FBI installed Teamsters General President Ron Carey back in 1995, shortly before the state takeover.
Local 807's post-1995 FBI sanctioned union officers had never taken any steps to fight discrimination at the Javits.
Worse yet, alone among Javits Center unions, they had formally consented in writing to the discriminatory "seniority list" system which guaranteed work for 60 largely White and almost entirely male priviliged teamsters before any of the other 240 mostly minority teamsters got to work.
Also, in the city's other trade show venues, the hotels, the Passenger Ship Terminal, the armories and Madison Square Garden, local 807 had allowed the old system of favoritism to continue unchanged.
And, the leadership of local 807 was largely White - which further reinforced the feeling among minority teamsters that the Teamsters Union would not help them.
Later on, carpenters would join in on the lawsuit - and they didn't approach the New York District Council of Carpenters to help them either.
A wise choice on their part.
The District Council of Carpenters hadn't gone along with the new post-takeover job referral system as easily as local 807 did, but they hadn't put much energy into fighting it either.
And they had good reason not to - the District Council's leadership was ousted shortly after the Javits Center takeover.
The president of the NYC Carpenters went to jail on state embezzlement charges (basically, a jury convicted him of having both of his mistresses on the union payroll), and the government, along with the NYC Carpenters parent union, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners of America, totally reorganized the council and installed a new leadership.
These guys were not about to fight against the government.
Also, the Javits Center discriminatory job referral system was very similar to the out of work list used in the union's far larger building construction sector. A small pool of connected workers, called company men, who made up about 20% of the 20,000 union carpenters in the city, got to work more or less full time jobs, and the remainder of the carpenters, the local men, had to compete for whatever work was left over.
Like the Javits Center, the vast majority of company men in the NYC Carpenters construction sector were White males - and minority and female carpenters had to compete with non connected White local man carpenters for the scraps.
The post 1995 NYC Carpenters Union leadership had made the job referral system even more discriminatory - they had allowed contractors to totally avoid hiring local men and have all company man workforces on many jobs.
This led to an even more unequal distribution of work, and actually forced many carpenters into working for under the table off the books wages and no benefits in return for steady employment.
This system came to be known as "working for cash" and paying off the books below union scale wages became a way of life for many union contractors during these years.
In light of that broader reality, it was highly unlikely that the District Council would be interested in challenging discrimination at the Javits Center.
Breaking the system of job privilige at the Javits would undermine the broader system of work favoritism in the Carpenters Union, and there was no way the District Council wanted to have that happen!
Ending the company man system would alienate the company men, who have very close ties with the union officials, and it would upset the contractors, who's interests are always priority one for the union, over and above the needs of the workers (especially the underpriviliged local men).
And, to top that off, the NYC District Council of Carpenters has an almost entirely White leadership (despite the fact that over 1/3rd of the membership - and over 50% of the apprentices - are minority).
This was all the more reason for minority trade show carpenters, most of whom also worked as local men in outside construction and knew very well about the systematic discrminiation on that side of the union, to doubt that the Carpenters Union would fight for them at the Javits.
The housekeepers, who joined the suit last, also felt that their union, Teamsters local 237, would not back them up.
Local 237 was, ironically enough, the only minority-led local at the Javits Center. It's president, Carroll "Carl" Haynes, is the highest ranking Black man in the Teamsters, due to his status as chief of the largest local in the IBT and his posts on the boards of Teamsters Joint Council 16 and the International Executive Board of the Teamsters.
Of course, the largely Latino and mostly immigrant trade show housekeepers had good reason to doubt that the American Black and Puerto Rican leaders of 237 were going to look out for them.
And not just the obvious ethnic rivalry factors.
Local 237's trade show jurisdiction was a minor stepchild bargaining unit in a 20,000 member local who's main priority was with the New York City Housing Authority janitors and maintenance workers, who were a majority of the union.
The next priority for 237 was dealing with the New York City special police officers (hospital police, welfare police, traffic enforcement agents, sanitation enforcement agents, school safety agents, Javits Center special officers, DEP watershed police, Co Op City police, Starrett City police ect) who were the next largest group of 237 members.
Next after the special cops were the lawyers for city agencies, who have their own autonomous division of local 237, the Civil Service Bar Association.
The needs of a small group of state per diem housekeepers were very low on local 237's list. Especially since the majority of the housekeepers were Spanish speaking immigrant Latinos and the core of the membership, the NYCHA workers and the special police, were English speaking US citizen African Americans or Puerto Ricans.
Also, fighting to get housekeepers promoted into trade show teamster jobs would put Teamsters local 237 at odds with Teamsters local 807 - something that the Haynes machine in local 237 would be reluctant to do, since the leaders of local 807 were allies of Haynes in their parent union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Since it was clear that the unions were useless, the workers had no choice but to hand over control of their fate to the lawyers.
This was a problem, for a couple of reasons.
One, in general, due to the nature of the civil court system, lawyers are oriented towards secret backroom deals. This is as true of civil rights lawyers as it is of any other attorneys.
Also, the tendency among attorneys who represent workers is for the lawyers to keep the actual workers involved uninformed of the backroom deals being made about their cases until after they are carried out.
Beyond that, the way American civil rights law is written, job discrimination is legal, unless it specifically involves race or sex.
So it's perfectly legal for bosses to give special treatment to some workers and keep others in an underpriviliged status, as long as the reasons for discrimination aren't race or sex based.
Consequently, the core of the Javits Center case, favoritism in handing out jobs, could not even be touched by this lawsuit.
That's why this suit, like most contemporary employment discrimination cases, was focused away from the general system of uneqal distribution of work.
Instead of dealing with institutional economic racism, the lawsuit, and most of the publicity around the case, were oriented towards bizarre lurid tales of KKK and nazi graffitti in the bathrooms, teamster foremen calling Black men "my monkeys" and Black women "bitches.... who should be mopping floors" and a White electrician urinating into the Gatoraide bottle of a Black teamster.
As horrible and disgusting as all of that was, none of that sick conduct was nearly as important as the $ 1 billion dollars in wages and benefits that went to White workers due to denial of work to minorities.
The horror stories also tended to work against the credibility of the minority trade show workers - especially since at least one of the fantastic stories is believed by some minority Javits Center workers to have been fabricated.
It also didn't help matters that Leeds Morelli and Brown basically encouraged workers to exaggerate those kind of gross racial or gender insults, rather than focusing on the far more important dollars and cents job discrimination.
In typical ambulance chaser law firm style, workers who signed up for the lawsuit were sent to psychiatrists and doctors preselected by LMB and were told to claim that any sort of physical or mental issue they may have had was directly related to the stress of being insulted at the Javits Center.
Workers who didn't want to go along with the program and claim that every problem in their life was due to Javits Center discrimination were agressively encouraged to get with the program, sign the papers, go to the doctors and therapists hand picked by the firm and generate the kind of evidence that LMB needed.
Workers who didn't want to be represented by Leeds Morelli and Brown were basically told that they were sellouts and that they should sign up with the case because "everybody else is part of the lawsuit and majority rules".
This writer was one of those reluctant minority workers, and I declined to participate in the lawsuit at the time due to LMB's dubious tactics and the sleazy high pressure sales techniques used by LMB staff to persuade potential plaintiffs to sign on to the lawsuit.
Beyond the whole truth, morality and purgery thing, there was the whole question of the goal of the lawsuit.
Leeds Morelli and Brown's intent was NOT to abolish the system of instutionalized racism and sexism at the Javits Center but instead to force the Javits Center to pay out money to those who were currently being discriminated against.
Beyond those general problems with getting workplace justice through Corporate America's court system, there were some specific issues with Leeds, Morelli and Brown.
As I allueded to above, Leeds, Morelli and Brown is basically an ambulance chasing law firm - they agressively market their services to working class minorities and women who face job discrimination.
Workers are often signed up to participate in these lawsuits by folks who's job title is "paralegal" but who basically function as salespeople. Many of these "paralegals" are themselves former plaintiffs in LMB civil rights suits who got fired from their original job and now work for the firm. The "paralegals", as I pointed out above, tend to try and manipulate and guilt trip workers into joining the lawsuits.
LMB has a stable of doctors and therapists on retainer who will examine the plaintiffs and will swear under oath to dubious claims that the workers were "traumatized" by the discrimination and that they have numerous physical and mental symptoms which would not otherwise exist if they hadn't been discriminated against.
Once the plaintiffs are enlisted and the necessary testimony has been generated, LMB then uses it's ties with the media to get negative stories about the company targeted in the suit into local media.
Once those stories are in print, LMB tries to lean on the firm to settle the case quickly and quietly (and with a handsome fee for the firm thrown in).
This strategy works great with consumer product firms who have lots of minority customers who's business they don't want to lose - like Coca Cola, Met Foods Supermarkets, Nextel Communications, Prudential Insurance, Penguin & Putnam Publishing (all companies that LMB pressued into settlements to stop bad publicity).
That strategy also worked really well financially for the firm - in the Nextel, Prudential and Pengiun & Putnam cases, the workers got tiny settlements, and LMB got millions in legal fees from the targeted firms.
But the Javits Center was not a consumer product company in fear of losing minority customers due to bad press.
The Javits Center's customers were businesspeople (most of whom were White) and corporations, (most of which were White-owned and managed).
Bad press about on the job racism would not interest these clients in the least.
It might even garner sympathy from firms that had themselves been targeted for civil rights suits.
There were only two Black-run trade shows at the Javits Center at that time - the Black Expo and Kwaanzafest. They were tiny shows by Javits Center standards - they only required one of the Javits Center's 10 exhibit halls and had so few booths that the decorating contractors only needed 4 carpenters to put up and take down those shows.
Losing those shows would not in any way affect the Javits Center's bottom line.
The Javits later did lose Kwaanzafest to the Pennsylvania Hotel - a venue that has cheaper rates and is right next to the 34th St subway stations, unlike the Javits, which is almost a half mile down W 34th St from the subway - but losing that tiny event was far from crippling for the Javits.
Also, the Javits Center is owned by the State of New York, a government that has vast powers to retalliate against it's employees. Powers that were soon unleashed.
New York State's attorney general at the time, Eliot Spitzer masterminded the attack on the plaintiffs.
If his name sounds familiar it should.
That multimillionare real estate developer, supposed great "friend of labor", much ballyhooed "reformer" and self proclaimed "Sheriff of Wall Street" used union money and volunteers (along with a record breaking $ 29 million in campaign contributions from leading Wall Street financiers and major corporations) to get himself elected governor last year.
All of the Javits Center unions enthusiastically and with great energy supported Spitzer's campaign (despite the decade of ferocious attacks he unleashed against Javits Center workers).
Attorney General Spitzer brought in Proskauer Rose, a $ 300 an hour Wall Street law firm, to fight the lawsuit.
Firms like Proskauer Rose are in a whole different league than Leeds Morelli and Brown. They don't really do that much litigating - basically, they're management consultants to Corporate America, and help the bosses figure out how to manipulate the legal system to beat their competitors and keep their workers in line.
Proskauer Rose, as a part of it's corporate law practice, has a department that specializes in legal union busting and lawful harassment and firing of workers who stand up for their rights. Those lawyers were brought in on this case.
Spitzer and the Proskauer Rose lawyers couldn't fight the case on it's merits - for the crudely simple reason that the plaintiffs had in fact been victims of systematic race and sex discrimination. All of the sleazy ambulance chaser tactics of Leeds Morelli and Brown could not conceal that fundamental fact. If it came down to a courtroom, LMB's experienced litigators would easily win the sympathy of a Manhattan jury and a large verdict was all but inevatable.
Spitzer and the Proskauer Rose team could do all kinds of legalistic foot dragging - they could file all kinds of motions and demand changes of venue and whatever else, but, sooner or later, they'd face a judge and jury, and the State of New York would almost certainly lose the case.
The answer to that dilemma was pretty simple - basically, the defendants would have to intimidate the plaintiffs into silence.
That's a felony if you or I do it.
Proskauer Rose's unionbusting lawyers figured out a way to intimidate witnesses legally.
Following Proskauer Rose's advice, Spitzer and the State of New York launched a direct attack on the plaintiffs - using the state's police power as a club.
In December 2000, 15 of the plaintiffs were arrested by the New York State Police on bogus "unemployment fraud" charges
Basically, they had made minor paperwork errors on their unemployment claims, something that happens to sporadically employed construction workers all the time.
Those claims are normally settled by the Department of Labor with, at worst, minor financial penalties being imposed.
But these workers were treated like criminals - many of them were led out of the Javits Center in handcuffs and one carpenter wasn't even allowed to wrap up her tools before she got dragged off the floor (her unattended tools were stolen).
Spitzer also arrainged for the New York Daily News to print the names of all 15 of those workers in the paper - branding them as "criminals" even before they had been arraigned!
Leeds Morelli and Brown was caught totally unprepared - they had not expected this kind of massive resistance and had no way to fight back. As a civil law firm, they were unequipped to handle false criminal cases being used to retaliate agiainst their clients.
And, pathetically but not suprisingly, the New York District Council of Carpenters, Teamsters local 807 and Teamsters local 237 didn't lift a finger to defend the workers in their time of need.
It took until July 2001 for the 15 workers to get those bogus charges dismissed.
Seeing the blood in the water, and the fact that there was no organized resistance, Spitzer ordered even more retalliation.
3 teamsters were fired on trumped up charges.
One of those teamsters also got set up to get arrested.
The teamster foremen at the Javits Center knew that individual was a hot tempered and very insecure guy who could easily be goaded into a fight.
So they had another worker bump into him at the labor hall and insult him, in front of a room full of their coworkers. Since he couldn't back down from a challenge in front of his friends, he felt he had to hit the guy.
And as soon as he threw one punch, 3 state troopers and 3 Javits Center special officers lurking in the labor hall fell upon him and he was immediately arrested and fired on the spot.
In December 2001, Spitzer, the Proskauer Rose unionbusting team and New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau used the September 11th terrorist attacks to victimize the plaintiffs.
The Javits Center (which had a clear view of the towers - the plane crashes, the fires and the collapse were all within plain view of the 34th St side of the building) collapsed into panic when the towers fell - a show was abandoned mid move in as workers and exhibitors fled in fear for their lives.
The Javits was then commandeered as a command post for the World Trade Center recovery operation. A handfull of workers were used to take down the exhibits and put in bunks for the state troopers and soldiers in the days after the attack, but that was it for labor calls for the next 5 months.
Leeds Morelli and Brown was impacted by the terrorist attack too - like many New York law firms, their Manhattan offices were in WTC Tower 1, and were destroyed in the collapse (fortunately, all of LMB's lawyers and support staff successfully made their escape from the towers that day and were uninjured)
But the attacks had left the Javits Center workforce unemployed. Carpenters could always find work in the hotels or in outside construction, but the housekeepers didn't have that option and the teamsters had very few jobs available for them in local 807's other jurisdictions.
So, 36 of them applied for Red Cross displaced worker benefits (along with over 200,000 other workers and small business owners who were unable to work because of the terrorist attacks).
A few months later, when the Javits was about to reopen as a convention center, Spitzer, the Proskauer Rose guys and DA Morgenthau decided to persecute those workers.
All 36 teamsters and housekeepers who had applied for Red Cross benefits were arrested on bogus "fraud" charges and immediately fired.
Again, LMB was not equipped to defend them and Teamsters locals 807 and 237 abandoned them and left them to face the court system alone and unaided.
Eventually the charges were dismissed but the damage was done and the message was clearly sent.
To make matters worse, Leeds Morelli and Brown attorneys did their best to prevent any kind of organized resistance by minority Javits Center workers to the retaliation.
After the case was filed in April 2000, there had been attempts by Javits Center workers to publicize their abuses - most prominently, some minority workers wore blue and red buttons that called for "Justice at the Javits Center". Attempts were made to get media coverage of the racism and sexism at the Javits and other efforts were made to reach out to other workers and to the working class public at large.
The lawyers did their best to put a stop to all that, and to encourage the plaintiffs to keep their mouths shut and let the lawyers do the thinking.
This pretty much guaranteed that when the first attacks began in December 2000, eight months after the case was filed, that no effective resistance would happen.
By the time of the December 2001 attacks, Javits Center minority worker resistance had pretty much been wiped out - due in large part to the worker passivity that was agressively encouraged by the lawyers.
The attacks went unanswered, and the lawsuit plunged into dormancy - with the occasional motion filing here and hearing there - for two years.
In December 2003, Leeds Morelli and Brown decided to broaden out the case from the narrow pool of 83 plaintiffs to include all former and current minority Javits Center workers.
This was because their case was currently stalled - and there was a lot of resentment among the minority workers - both the 83 plaintiffs and the 1,278 non plaintiffs.
In part this was due to the revelation on an NBC Channel 4 newscast that LMB had made backroom deals with Penguin & Putnam, Nextel and Prudential cases where the firm got millions of dollars in fees and the workers got peanuts. This news created a lot of tension - especially in light of the fact that, at that point, the lawsuit had dragged on for over 3 1/2 years with no settlement in sight.
Also, a group of disgruntled plaintiffs had begun organizing to demand their own settlement seperate from the rest of the lawsuit. Those workers had come to the conclusion that the lawsuit's lack of success was due to corruption on LMB's part.
These workers matter-of-factly accepted LMB's corruption as a fact of life that was beyond their power to change, and they wanted to make a backroom deal of their own, at the expense of the other plaintiffs (especially the lead plaintiffs, who they deeply resented and envied).
Like LMB, they didn't even see changing the system of discrimination at the Javits as being even remotely possible - they resigned themselves to the fact that the Javits was institutionally racist, and they just wanted to cash out.
There was also a bit of ethnic prejudice among these plaintiffs.
The dissidents all happend to be African Americans or Black West Indians who had been carpenters or teamsters, and they did not appreciate having to share the lawsuit with Latino housekeepers.
The cynicism of a number of these plaintiffs was due to the fact that they were former Javits Center workers who had been fired, were no longer union members and had to get by on low wage non union jobs - they didn't care about the folks who still worked at the Javits, they just wanted to get a cash settlement.
Unfortunately, these discrimination lawsuits do tend to fuel that kind of mentality among workers - you can't do anything to end workplace discrimination, and you certainly can't mobilize your co workers to change anything. So the only possiblity is for you to get paid as an individual, and the hell with the collective interests of your coworkers.
This tension among the plaintiffs forced LMB to initiate a class action lawsuit (to deal with the needs of the vast majority of Javits Center minority workers who were not part of the lawsuit). They had to bring in another law firm, Millberg Weiss, to make the suit into a class action case.
They also had to call a mass meeting of the plaintiffs, to deal with all of the justifiable anger and resentment that the Javits workers felt towards LMB. They didn't want to do that, since mobilizing workers is 180 degrees opposite of how they usually operate (and they made sure that workers who vocally opposed their handling of the case - like this writer - were barred from attending the meeting) but they really had no choice in the matter.
Leeds Morelli and Brown and Millbank Weiss then set about organizing a class action lawsuit, and trying to broker a settlement with the State of New York. With workplace resistance largely broken (due to the firings and arrests - and LMB's efforts to keep workers from resisting on the job or publicizing their persecution) the state was much more amenable to settling.
Especially since a settlement would certainly involve the lead plaintiffs, the workers who had originally fought back against Javits Center racism, agreeing to leave their jobs at the Javits Center in return for a remarkably small sum of money.
It took two and a half years, but a settlement was finally reached in June 2006.
It was a three tiered settlement.
The lead plaintiffs got relatively large payouts.
David Cokely, the teamster who claimed his Gatoraide got peed in and who was the lead named plaintiff, got $ 300,000 and other lead plaintiffs got similar amounts. Cokely and some of the other lead plaintiffs had to quit their jobs in return for the payouts.
There was a second tier of plaintiffs - workers who were not lead plaintiffs but who had signed on to the case. They got payouts in the $ 10 - 20,000 dollar range, staggered out into two payments (one for the discrimination, one for the lost wages).
Then the third tier, minority trade show workers who were not part of the case but were members of the protected class, got the last settlements. Some recieved modest lost wage payouts, while others got nothing at all.
Basically, if a worker had only suffered from economic racism or sexism, and had not claimed that they'd been pelted with racial or sexist slurs, they didn't get a payout, even if they'd been economically discriminated against compared to White male trade show workers with similar experience and skills.
More importantly, the institutionalized favoritism that bred sexism and racism at the Javits Center and created a $ 1 billion dollar system of discrimination, remained untouched.
The teamsters still had a seniority list with 60 favored workers on top and 240 underemployed workers on the bottom, the carpenters still had 130 people who had steady jobs, 320 people who worked occasionally and 500 who only got work a couple of times a year and the housekeepers remained on the bottom of the economic heap as the lowest paid trade show workers.
The system remains intact - some of the current generation of minority trade show workers got what amounts to legalized hush money, but economic discrimination remains a fact of life at the Javits Center.
Worse yet, the whole lawsuit experience basically demobilized worker resistance at the Javits Center. Rather than uniting the underpriviliged workers, it divided them. It also convinced workers that fighting back will only get you retalliated against, and nobody will help you when the state takes your job and puts you in handcuffs. The settlement further divided workers - named plaintiffs vs the other plaintiffs vs non plaintiff protected class members - and encouraged petty jealousy over who got paid how much and who didn't get paid anything.
6 1/2 years in court has left Javits Center carpenters, teamsters and housekeepers even weaker than they were at the beginning. Sadly, it will probably be a very long time before these workers will be able to fight back.
But what's the alternative?
What could have been done besides relying on the ambulance chasers?
And, more importantly, what can be done now?
The sad reality is, the Javits Center minority workers would have been far better off if they'd used their power on the job, rather than passively relying on attorneys.
The trade show industry's structure makes it very vulnerable to wildcat strikes and work slowdowns.
Shows are done on rigid schedules - if the show is supposed to open at 9AM on a Friday and move out at 4PM Sunday afternoon, it has to open and close at those times.
If the show opens late, the exhibitors will be enraged (and are likely to demand a partial or full refund of the substantial fees they pay to the associations and the decorating contractors).
When the show closes, the venue expects the entire show to be dismantled immediately - in many cases, the entire show has to be taken down, crated up and made ready to be loaded onto the trucks within 4 hours of closing, so the next show can be moved in. The venues will hit the association putting on the show and the decorating contractors with substantial penalties if the show is still up after that time.
Also, the associations typically take their shows across the country - the freight being unloaded today at the Javits Center was probably at the Las Vegas Convention Center last Tuesday, and, when the show breaks here, will have to get to the Atlanta World Congress Centre by next Wednesday. If the freight doesn't leave here on time, that next show won't be able to move in.
Also, everthing at these shows comes in and out on trucks. Many of the interstate carriers are non union, but the local drivers who take the freight from the decorating contractor warehouses in New Jersey to the Javits are all local 807 teamsters, who would be reluctant to cross a picketline.
Any work stoppage could totally disrupt this tight schedule - even something as simple as a work slowdown could really hit the contractors in the wallet.
If the Javits Center minority teamsters had used their own power to disrupt show schedules by walkouts and work slowdowns, (and enlisted the aid of the carpenters and housekeepers to further screw up the schedule and stop the shows from moving in and being taken down) instead of running to ambulance chaser lawyers, they might have had Justice at the Javits Center 6 1/2 years ago, instead of half a decade of retalliation and delay followed by legalized hush money for some and continued discrimination for all.
Also, instead of filing a narrow civil rights lawsuit that only covered the discrimination faced by minority and female workers, this could have sparked a broader struggle against unequal distribution of work in the trades. And it could have trancended race and sex - remember, the majority of the underpriviliged Javits Center carpenters are White males - they also have to sit home struggling to pay their bills while a priviliged elite work every call and make over $ 100,000 a year.
Unfortunately, the lawsuit totally went in another direction - instead of unifying it divided, instead of fighting for justice for all, it delivered cash payouts to some, and instead of showing workers our power to get what we need by withdrawing our labor it made us passive victims who's fate was decided behind our backs.
It doesn't have to be like that - and, hopefully, a few years from now, when a new genration of trade show tradespeople fight for justice, they'll use their own power on the job to get Justice at the Javits Center.
- commentary by GREGORY A. BUTLER
for GANGBOX: CONSTRUCTION WORKERS NEWS SERVICE