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Minority workers allege racism at Kansas City Harley-Davidson plant

Several current and former black employees at the Harley-Davidson plant in Kansas City say minorities at the plant faced ongoing harassment.
Several current and former black employees at the Harley-Davidson plant in Kansas City say minorities at the plant faced ongoing harassment. File photo

Minority employees at Harley-Davidson’s plant in Kansas City have been subjected to years of harassment and discrimination — including having swastikas and nooses posted in the plant, frequent racial epithets and at least one assault, several employees said at a news conference organized by the NAACP-Kansas City on Friday.

“All the time I worked there it’s been there, it’s just ridiculous,” said Emmanuel Matthews Sr., who worked at the plant for more than two years. “This is 2019. This stuff has to stop. Something needs to be done.”

Matthews and other employees who spoke at the news conference work for Syncreon.US Inc., an affiliate of Syncreon, which supplies contract workers to the Harley-Davidson plant, but they said the harassment was directed at all minority employees. Matthews said he was assaulted by another worker at the plant but declined to discuss the details.

Harley-Davidson said in a statement that it does not tolerate any form of harassment or discrimination and actively enforces its code of conduct and anti-harassment policy along with well-established processes for employees to report concerns.

“Complaints that we were aware of were thoroughly investigated and action was taken based on the findings,” the statement reads. “As appropriate we also referred incidents and complaints to third-party employers who share our factory.”

Oswald Reid, president and CEO of Syncreon.US said in a statement Friday that the company doesn’t tolerate any of the alleged actions. He said the company provides many avenues to report harassment or discrimination, including a confidential “ethics line.” No complaints of racially discriminatory behavior have been reported to that line in the last two years, Reid said.

“Over the last three years, all alleged policy or Code of Conduct violations that we are aware of have been swiftly and effectively addressed,” Reid said. “As of this moment, there are no open investigations with regards to discriminatory behavior.”

Harley-Davidson plans to close the Kansas City plant this year and shift those operations to York, Pennsylvania. The Milwaukee-based company said the closing would eliminate 800 jobs in Kansas City.

Employees said the harassment has happened for years but has intensified as the plant’s closing approaches. They said they have seen graffiti telling black employees to die or to go back to Africa. The workers said when swastikas or racial epithets were reported, the images were sometimes left for days before being covered with spackle. They alleged management would say the incidents were being investigated but nothing ever happened and the perpetrators were rarely punished.

Rochelle Anthony, who was a union representative for the Steelworkers at the plant for nearly three years before she was fired, said she ran into constant roadblocks when she tried to file grievances and could never get a straight answer or feedback when she asked about her complaints.

“I tried,” she said. “I felt like I was fighting by myself. I couldn’t help them. It’s getting worse. We need help.”

Steve Nelson, general manager at the Kansas City plant, sent a letter to Harley-Davidson employees Thursday saying the company wanted to reassure them that the company is taking “all necessary steps” to enforce its policies. He said harassment of any kind “cannot and will not be tolerated at Harley-Davidson.” The letter included details of the company’s policies for reporting and investigating complaints.

The Rev. Rodney Williams, president of NAACP-Kansas City, said the national NAACP plans to ask Harley Davidson to launch an investigation at all of its plants to determine if discrimination is part of the company’s culture or is isolated to Kansas City.

“Whether it is closing or not, this is not acceptable,” Williams said in an interview. “We need to send a message that this not acceptable anywhere. Many employees came to us to complain so we felt it was our duty to give them a platform that they might be heard.”

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