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"Nigger Dave" 

That's what they called him at Wal-Mart. His managers didn't seem to care.

Dave Thomas has found that justice is for those who - can buy it. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Dave Thomas has found that justice is for those who can buy it.
The first time David Thomas was called a nigger, he'd spent just 45 days on the job. Two co-workers had taken to announcing that they hated "that nigger Dave" to anyone who would listen.

Thomas, an even-keeled and courteous man -- the kind who calls you "mister" -- had no idea what he'd done to piss the women off. "I didn't even know these people," he says. But everyone knew they were pissed. "They didn't care who heard it."

Two managers at the Elyria Wal-Mart called him into the office. "Did you hear anything?" they asked. He was told to write it all down.

But as the weeks passed, the women continued to pronounce their hatred for "that nigger Dave." "The first shift heard about it, the second shift heard about it," says Thomas. "People would come up to me and say, 'Are you hearing these things they're saying about you?'" When he asked managers if they were following up, they'd simply reply, "We're handling it in our own way."

But a few months later, it happened again. Thomas was working the overnight stocking shift when, for reasons no one can seem to explain, another woman called him a "black bitch."

"Almost the whole shift saw it," says coworker Denise Taylor. "There were like six or seven people there."

Thomas again went to his managers, who did nothing. So he called a Wal-Mart employee hotline. He went to store manager Keri Brown. He complained to the district supervisor. "It was like talking to a piece of wood," he says. "That wood is not going to respond back to me. They would say, 'What do you want me to do?'"

Brown, who now works at the Wooster store, won't discuss the matter. "Sorry, I can't talk to you about any of that." But Thomas wasn't about to lie down. He launched a protest, simply refusing to come to work.

It was a militant move for a father of two who seems anything but rebellious. "David is the kind of person who will speak up for himself," says one co-worker, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. "He never did it in a disrespectful way. He wouldn't call them out in front of anybody. He would pull them off to the side. He was a very hard worker; he wasn't a slacker."

Nor was he asking for much: just the courtesy of not being called nigger on the job.

Yet for all its achievements as the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart remains a stunningly inept corporation. Judges have fined it so often for hiding and destroying records (see "The Wal-Mart Menace" on clevescene.com), that it might aptly be called the Hillbilly Enron. Particularly troubling is its labor history.

It's been caught forcing employees to work off the clock. It's being sued by female employees who claim pervasive gender discrimination. (One was told by her manager that "God made Adam first, so women would always be second to men.") And in California, a movement is afoot to require Wal-Mart to reimburse the state for public assistance. Assemblywoman Sally Lieber says the company encourages employees to go on welfare to subsidize their poor wages and health benefits.

Wal-Mart's racial history is arguably worse. A jury found the company guilty of firing a white woman because she dated a black guy. The Alaska human rights commission found omnipresent racism at one store; workers would ask a black employee to "smile and show his teeth" to light trucks on the loading dock, among other insults. Then there's the infamous Cleveland Heights incident. When $1,000 went missing in 1999, a manager conducted bathroom searches of 37 black employees. No white worker was questioned.

It's tempting to conclude that bad wages simply produce incompetent management. The average Wal-Mart employee earns about $11,700 a year (working 30-hour weeks, the company's threshold for full-time). That's $2,000 below the poverty line for a single mother with two kids. And management-recruitment fliers read more like punishment for a 4th-degree felony than they do career opportunities. Enticements include uneven hours, forced overtime and transfers -- all for a few more cents an hour. It's a system designed to attract the children of a lesser Palm Pilot.

Yet Elyria supervisors were smart enough to fear their exposure with Thomas. "If you leave your job for 28 days in a protest, any other job you'd be terminated," he notes. Instead, they called him at home, urging him to return, arguing there was no need to file a complaint. He went back to work.

Then it happened again. He was pushing a heavy pallet, when a co-worker walked in front of him. Thomas asked the guy to step around him instead. When they got to the front of the store, the co-worker said, "'Man, I can't stand that nigger Dave,' loud enough for everybody to hear, in front of customers," says Thomas.

Again he went to Brown. Then to district manager Ray Hartman, who said he would investigate.

A month went by. Nothing happened. Thomas called again. Hartman told him there never was an investigation, nor were any witnesses called. (Hartman could not be reached for comment.)

So Thomas went to the regional manager. "All she wanted to know after I told my story was, 'Dave, have you sought legal representation yet?'"

A month later he was fired. The official reason: too many absences.

For all his troubles, conventional wisdom suggests that Thomas was sitting on a gold mine. He had been repeatedly called a nigger. There were many witnesses. Store managers had done nothing about it. Three of the four people who slurred him were still on the job. The fourth got fired only after he called a manager a spic, say employees.

Put it all in front of a jury, and you're looking at a monster payday.

But conventional wisdom would be wrong. Thomas is evidence.

He filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, whose rules dictate that a problem must be "severe or pervasive" for it to act. Thomas's case would appear to meet that threshold -- especially since courtrooms across the land are littered with similar cases involving Wal-Mart. But after receiving a letter from the company explaining its side, EEOC case worker Brian Shelton dropped the matter. He never investigated, nor did he call any of Thomas's witnesses.

It's hard to say whether Thomas simply didn't explain his situation well enough, or whether Shelton, overworked and weary of hearing so many false cries of wolf, simply blew it off. EEOC district director Mike Fetzer won't discuss the case, though he admits the agency has "historically been underfunded . . . Some people refer to it as a triage system."

None of which helps Thomas. He's tried to find a lawyer who will take up his cause, but he can't afford a retainer. Such is the fate of an unemployed man with two kids to feed. Like most people who encounter the law, he's found that justice is for those who can buy it.

These days, he spends his time at home, taking care of the kids. His wife has two jobs, but the best Thomas can get is occasional work resurfacing floors. "It's so hard up here in Lorain County, because everything is shutting down."

There is anger in his voice, but not the acidic tang one might expect. It's more a sense of incredulousness that a man can be screwed so blatantly, repeatedly, and no one will rise to his aid.

"I went to the proper authorities," he says. "Nothing happens. I went to the store manager. Nothing happens. I went to the EEOC. Nothing happens."

This is the true conventional wisdom.

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