Racism charges at GM, from insults to nooses, spurs warnings and firings

Caldwell, the company spokesman, said GM and the police are investigating to determine who is responsible for the racist acts and that the company has a handwriting expert working on the matter.

GM said the first official complaint came in 2017 and that the company responded vigorously. In April, a year before the first of the lawsuits, the automaker sent a notice to all employees saying offensive “jokes, cartoons, pictures, language” wouldn’t be tolerated. As part of an action plan GM developed that year, the company interviewed employees who used lanyards as part of their trade and who worked in the area where nooses were turning up.

By then, one suit alleges, it was too late.

“Hate-driven employees felt free to hang nooses, display racist graffiti and verbally attack and racially insult African-Americans,” the suit claims.

Ray Wood, past president of UAW Local 14, the union chapter that represents the workers at the plant, and Tammy VanRiper, past vice president, are the other two workers who have filed lawsuits against GM, alleging harassment and a hostile workplace.

Wood, 65, was the first African-American president of the local, elected in 2006. He claims in his complaint that by the spring of 2017, when he was running for re-election, it had gotten around the plant that he had been named president of the Toledo unit of the NAACP, a post he won in 2014. He says nooses and racist signs were posted and he was subjected to repeated racial epithets and threats.

Wood reported the first noose in March 2017, he said in an interview. He said GM didn’t do anything for weeks and that when it did, it was just a statement in a weekly letter to employees that most throw away without reading.

“There was always an undercurrent of racism at the plant,” Wood said. “The last several years it really took off.”

He lost his re-election bid and retired in 2017.


VanRiper, the local’s first female vice president, claims in her suit that she was subjected to sexual harassment. A member of the union local’s Civil Rights Committee, VanRiper, who is white, assisted with investigations and helped minority employees file complaints and grievances involving racial discrimination at the plant.

When she ran for re-election in 2014 and, unsuccessfully, again in 2017, workers defaced her campaign signs, calling her a “n—– lover,” “Ray’s ho,” and “VanStripper,” according to her complaint.

The lawsuit claims that VanRiper applied for a job at the plant as a health and safety trainer. When she didn’t get it, the manager admitted that if he hadn’t given the position to a white male, “he would have gotten his ‘a– chewed,’ ” the suit claims.

VanRiper lost her bid for re-election.

Caldwell declined to comment on VanRiper’s lawsuit. In its legal response, GM denied all allegations in the suit.

In a 10-month investigation concluded last March, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission found probable cause to determine discrimination, spokeswoman Mary Turocy said in an interview. The commission’s report said GM’s response was inadequate and that some GM managers showed indifference to the claims.

Caldwell said officials at the plant reported the behavior and “condemned it in zero-tolerance fashion.”

The next step in the commission’s process would have been a hearing. The workers decided to sue instead.

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