Teamsters union settles race bias lawsuit brought by Black, Hispanic former employees

Dive Brief:

  • The Teamsters union has agreed to settle an employment discrimination suit brought by a group of former employees who alleged they were unlawfully terminated on the basis of race, according to court documents filed Jan. 22.
  • A group of 13 plaintiffs, all of whom are Black or Hispanic, sued the union in February 2023 alleging that they were let go “without warning or justification, by email” after General President Sean O’Brien took office. The plaintiffs alleged the union’s decisions transformed their department, which leads union organizing campaigns, “from a diverse department into a majority white department.”
  • The plaintiffs filed suit in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. The parties agreed to dismiss the case with prejudice Tuesday, but settlement terms were not disclosed in court documents. The Guardian reported Wednesday the parties had settled for the suit for $2.9 million, citing unnamed union officials. The Teamsters union did not respond to an HR Dive request for comment.

Dive Insight:

The plaintiffs were employed full time by the Teamsters union and said in their complaint that none of them had a documented history of negative performance or disciplinary issues. They were terminated shortly after O’Brien and other newly elected leaders took oaths of office, per the suit, with “identical or substantially similar letters” informing them that the union “‘has decided that your services are no longer needed.’”

The plaintiffs alleged that during an April 2022 speech, O’Brien said that he “got rid of the bad apples from the Organizing Department” and that the terminated employees were “lazy” and “didn’t do anything” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Amid the settlement news, U.S. labor unions including the Teamsters have been at the center of high-profile labor organizing campaigns. For example, late December 2023 saw more than 200 Virginia Costco workers vote to join a union organized by the Teamsters. Though overall union membership has declined going into 2024, union approval rates have reached a record high, according to a recent Gallup report.

Legal experts have long advised HR departments to document performance issues as a potential defense against discrimination claims. But employers also face the reality that many incidents of race-based harassment in the workplace go unnoticed, according to a 2023 report by Catalyst. The nonprofit found that 66% of employees from marginalized racial and ethnic groups in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, the U.K. and the U.S. had experienced racism at work during their careers, commonly in the form of harassment or employment and professional inequities.