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Racial discrimination claimed in suit against operating engineers' union

The union's hiring process ensures "white operating engineers enjoy the best jobs and earn the most money," the lawsuit says.

Operating engineers run heavy equipment, like this excavator.

Operating engineers run heavy equipment, like this excavator.  Photo Credit: Daniel Zuchnik

A large engineers' labor union is being accused of racial discrimination in a lawsuit filed last week by six of its members.

The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 15, which has at least 5,000 members in the tristate area, has allegedly “manipulat[ed] the procedures for hiring” to ensure that “white operating engineers enjoy the best jobs and earn the most money,” according to the suit filed Dec. 11 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

An operating engineer, or an individual who operates heavy equipment like cranes and excavators, could earn $150,000 or more a year with steady work, the lawsuit says. But the six plaintiffs — five African-American men and one African-American woman — earned far less than that in 2017, according to the suit. One earned $45,000 and another earned just $20,000.

The discrepancies in salary allegedly happen because the union’s business representatives, who are all white, instruct contractors to use specific engineers or assign the jobs to the engineers of their choosing. This has led to white engineers getting longer and higher paying jobs, such as the major construction project at LaGuardia Airport, the lawsuit says.

Additionally, white engineers are moved from one long-term project to another even before the prior job is over, preventing any period of unemployment, the plaintiffs say.

“For this reason, non-white operating engineers are often assigned to work the last month or two of multi-year projects, while white operating engineers move on to the next multi-year project,” the suit says.

All of the plaintiffs have filed with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and received Notices of Right to Sue, according to the lawsuit.

They are asking for damages and for a new process for hiring engineers in the union. 

“Unless this court orders Local 15 to implement a system for assigning jobs to operating engineers that cannot be manipulated, the discriminatory practices complained of herein will continue into the future, to the detriment of plaintiffs and other non-white operating engineers,” the lawsuit says.

Local 15 declined to comment on the lawsuit. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Michael O’Neill, did not immediately return a request for comment.

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