Teamster Takes on Racism at Kraft Foods

May 1, 2008: When an employee at Kraft Foods repeatedly directed the epithet “coon” at Willie Knox, the Local 445 Teamster knew he had to stand up for his rights.

A poster at the company urges employees to call an “Integrity Hotline” to report issues of harassment or discrimination. Knox called the number. He had no way of knowing that call would lead to his termination.

But six weeks after he blew the whistle on racial harassment, Kraft fired Knox and accused him of violating the company’s policy on harassment.

The Teamster trailer driver continues to stand up for his rights. With the help of Local 445, Knox is fighting his termination in arbitration. He has also filed a complaint with the New York State Human Rights Commission.

Slurs, Threats, Termination

When Knox called the Integrity Hotline, he expected his complaint to be investigated and dealt with. “I didn’t want anyone to get into trouble. I just wanted the harassment to stop,” Knox said.

Instead, the problems at Kraft got worse—escalating from verbal harassment to threats.

On February 4, an angry Kraft employee confronted Knox and threatened him for making the complaint. “He went off on me and told me I better ‘watch my f***ing back’ as long as I worked at Kraft,” said Knox.

To make matters worse, the employee who made the threats, Mark Mohammed, had previously brought a knife to the workplace. Knox reported the threat to management. But Kraft manager Pat Sherman just laughed, Knox says.

“After that, I tried to defuse the situation myself by telling Mohammed I had no problem with him or anyone else. I asked him to ride over with me to Penske’s so I could drop my truck off there,” Knox said.

Mohammed refused, telling Knox, “I don’t do favors for Black people because I’m prejudiced.”

“Since You Like To Report Things…”

Later that day, Mohammed confronted Knox for a third time while he was in an office filling out some paperwork. Sherman entered the room and Knox again pleaded with the manager to put a stop to the harassment. Again, Sherman said nothing.

“You ain’t the only one that knows how to use a weapon,” a frustrated Knox told Mohammed.

The Kraft manager, who had repeatedly turned a deaf ear when the issue was racial discrimination and threats, suddenly developed a keen interest in the company’s zero tolerance policy on harassment—when he could use the rules to go after Knox.

Sherman hauled Knox into the office. He told the Teamster, “Since you like to report things, I’m going to have to report this.” On February 6, Kraft terminated Knox for violating the company’s harassment policy.

To this day, no one from Kraft has ever spoken to Knox to investigate his allegations of racial harassment.

The Issue Is Respect

When Knox called the “Integrity Hotline,” they told him that his file read: “The case is resolved. Employee no longer works at Kraft.”

A background check on the “Integrity Hotline” reveals that it is not a Kraft entity at all. The hotline is a third-party service run by Global Compliance—a spinoff from the notorious Pinkerton agency.

For Knox, the case is far from “resolved.” He filed a grievance for termination without just cause, which is headed to arbitration. Local 445 helped Knox find work at another union employer.

After several weeks, Kraft offered Knox his job back with no backpay on the condition that he drop his discrimination complaint with the New York State Human Rights Commission. Knox refused.

“Don’t tell me I have to surrender my civil rights to work at Kraft,” Knox said. “I’m willing to drop my case if Kraft will step up to the plate and do the right thing. Or I’ll return to work without back pay and we can let the Human Rights Commission decide.

“The bottom line is I work hard and do my job right. All I’m asking in return is that I be treated with respect,” Knox said.

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