In 1998, he filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that his employer, Ford Motor Company, discriminated against blacks on a promotions test at its Walton Hills plant.
Seven years later, Ford has finally agreed to settle, offering $9 million to make it go away. So you'd think the 43-year-old, who spent most of his adult life working on an assembly line, would be sitting pretty and driving a new Lincoln -- or, if he's still holding a grudge against Ford, maybe a Cadillac.
But that's why he's pissed. After the lawyers and other Ford employees take their cuts, Cheeks will be left with just $30,000.
"Now you tell me how the hell any of that sounds right," he says, screwing up his face like a child whose ice cream plopped onto the pavement.
Welcome to the none-too-lucrative world of racial-discrimination suits.
This isn't the first time fate has cheated him. After graduating from Warrensville Heights High School, Cheeks attended Tennessee State on a football scholarship. But after two shoulder injuries and a neck problem, he was permanently benched. He left school with no degree and few marketable skills.
Then he found Ford. His aunt, who worked at the Walton Hills Stamping Plant, got him a job on the line. It was dull and repetitive, but it was work.
Three years in, Cheeks discovered his golden ticket. Ford announced that it was testing for its apprenticeship program. Here was a way for a guy like him to rise from the assembly line into the rarefied circle of skilled tradesmen. He could learn to be a plumber, a carpenter, a mechanic -- whatever was needed at the plant. It could mean as much as a $30,000 bump in annual pay. And there were less tangible benefits.
"It's using your mind, not your back," he says. "And you got a skill you can take outside of that."
All he had to do was score high on a test.
The competition would be stiff. Of the plant's 2,000 workers, 500 were taking the exam. A scant 43 would make the cut. The rest would toil for years, waiting for another round of testing.
Cheeks was not about to mess this up. He underwent six weeks of preparatory classes. When he finally took the exam, he found it remarkably simple -- the equivalent of a sixth-grade multiple-choice math test. "It was a joke," he says. Cheeks figured he was a shoo-in.
And yet, when the results were announced, Cheeks was shut out. Those who made the cut had one thing in common: Except for one black woman, they were all white.
Window dressing, Cheeks figured. Especially considering that half the people who took the test were black.
To Cheeks, it all seemed shady. Even shadier was that Ford didn't post the scores -- or even a complete list of applicants -- so that Cheeks could see how far he'd fallen short. "Never got a ranking," he says. "Nothing."
In a plant where who you're related to is often the basis of hiring, Cheeks suspected that the results were preordained. He wasn't about to stand for it.
He organized a group of black workers to complain to management. The bosses told them to take it to the union. The UAW didn't want to touch it. So in 1998, Cheeks and a co-worker took the route of last resort: the EEOC.
"The only people who could fight Ford Motor Company was the EEOC, 'cause they're the government," he says.
Six years passed, with little progress. A group of 11 black Ford workers in Cincinnati filed a similar suit that was lumped in with his. Occasionally, the EEOC sent letters asking if he'd changed his address. But there was no word on a resolution.
It wasn't until last July that the feds finally acted. The commission ruled that the test was indeed discriminatory, because it "had a disparate impact" on African Americans, meaning that for whatever reason, blacks had a harder time passing. It wasn't exactly a "whites only" sign, but the effect was the same.
The EEOC sued Ford, and the company promptly folded, offering a $9 million settlement. It had the distinct whiff of go-away money. Ford admitted no fault and dispensed with a nagging lawsuit.
Cheeks was elated when he heard the news. He naively believed that plaintiffs who win multimillion-dollar settlements actually get multimillion-dollar settlements.
"They come back and say, we got $9 million from Ford," Cheeks recounts. "Okay, cool. That's cool. Well, how much do I get? And they said, 'You and 12 other people are gonna get $30,000 apiece.' I said, 'Wait a minute, $30,000 apiece? There's $9 million off this lawsuit!'"
If he had read between the lines, he might have seen it coming. The EEOC, after all, is in the business of public policy, not of enriching individual plaintiffs. The commission told him as much in a December letter announcing the suit.
"It is possible that at some point in the EEOC's prosecution of the suit, you will disagree with the agency's decisions regarding the relief to which you are entitled in the case," wrote attorney Jeffrey Stern. "Because EEOC's first obligation is to the public interest, the agency may decide to act in a manner that you believe is against your individual interests."
The lawyers made sure to take care of their own interests. About $1.7 million of the settlement will cover legal fees.
Cheeks could always opt out of the deal. But he'd already waited six years for the EEOC to act, and he'd have to bankroll a new suit himself.
To be sure, the settlement will help black workers. Each of 3,400 blacks who took the test will receive $2,400 if they file a claim. Moreover, 276 of those will be put on a waiting list for the apprenticeship program, as will 3 of the 13 plaintiffs.
Which leaves Cheeks right back where he started: fighting for one of too-few spots and suspecting that the fix is in. The only difference now is that he's $30,000 richer.
He figures that the money basically covers one year of the raise he would have received if he had been admitted to the program seven years ago. Needless to say, he's pissed.
"We did change the industry," he says with a sigh. "Some good things came out of this. But nothing that good for me."
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