The Cleveland Plain Dealer


May 9, 2000 Tuesday

It should have been a perfect match.

Shane Hamilton was young and eager to work at the construction site of Perry nuclear power plant.

The plant needed hundreds of men to build the gigantic concrete cooling towers that loom over Perry to this day.

But Hamilton was black and Local 496 of the Laborers' International Union of North America, responsible for hiring, knew it. Union officials made him write his race on his application. He and many other black applicants were never hired.

Blacks were told they had to join the union in order to work, but that they couldn't join the union if they didn't have a job and a connection to someone in the local.

Some never forgot the rejection. They sued.

Last week, after 16 years, Hamilton and 51 others finally were vindicated when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the union's final appeal.

U.S. District Judge Kathleen O'Malley had found the local union guilty in 1996 of racial discrimination, and its parent union guilty of aiding and abetting it.

The plaintiffs won almost $2 million. Complaints from the local that it can't pay its share - it owes $480,000 and lists assets of $460,000 - should be brushed away like a whining mosquito. The parent union, which refused to rein in the local, paid its share. It should be able to spare a dime - or more.

No matter how you calculate it, the plaintiffs lost much more: They lost the opportunity to hold a high-paying job to support their families during a recession in Northeast Ohio. And they lost a chance to be judged on their merits.

Broken, sagging dreams form the corrosive residue that racism leaves behind.

The union still refuses to admit that it discriminated, despite the evidence. But testimony showed that inexperienced white workers with relatives on the job received preference, while black applicants were passed over.

The union already had a scandalous reputation.

Until last January, it was overseen by the Justice Department because of charges that it had mobsters on its payroll.

The loss of this class action adds one more disgrace to the Laborers' ignominious history, though Business Manager Floyd Conrad sums up the case by saying, "The courts are set up to help criminals and freeloaders. We definitely don't have anything to be sorry for."

Unfortunately, it sounds as if Local 496 hasn't learned a thing.


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