Two Chapel Hill men known as the “Sanitation 2” visited WCHL recently with their attorney to explain why they’re continuing to push a lawsuit against the Town of Chapel Hill for firing the two sanitation workers in 2010.
Last Friday, the plaintiffs appealed a recent dismissal of a case that, according to them, is about a violation of their right to speak out and organize in the workplace.
“The important thing about this case is, in people that have looked at it over the years, is it’s probably the most important case about racism, and about the anti-union, anti-worker mentality that exists in this area,” says Al McSurely, the attorney representing Clyde Clark and Kerry Bigelow.
McSurely’s clients were fired as sanitation workers by the Town of Chapel Hill in October 2010 for insubordination, as well as job performance issues, and complaints from residents in neighborhoods where they picked up trash.
The two men sued the Town of Chapel Hill for wrongful termination, and for violating their free speech rights. They also claimed racial discrimination was involved.
The recommendation to fire Clark and Bigelow came from Raleigh-based consulting firm Capital Associated Industries, hired by the town to investigate claims against the two men.
McSurely told WCHL that CAI was hired to “vilify” his clients for union activities.
According to the attorney, Bigelow filed a complaint with a labor union in early 2010, claiming he was passed over for a driver’s job in favor of what McSurely called “a less experienced white guy.”
He also says that Clark filed complaints about unsafe truck-driving practices while he and Bigelow were working together, loading neighborhood trash into the back of a truck. McSurely claims that the town failed to act on the complaints, and retaliated against Clark and Bigelow instead.
The Town of Chapel Hill was successful in getting the lawsuit dismissed in Orange County Superior Court back in 2012, but the North Carolina Court of Appeals sent the case back in May 2013. The North Carolina Supreme Court concurred.
It was supposed to go to trial on Sept.22. But in August, the Town of Chapel Hill won another dismissal.
On Friday, Sept. 5, the plaintiffs filed another appeal with the state Court of Appeals.
Clark told WCHL he feels like he has no choice but to continue with the lawsuit. He now lives at the IFC Community House on 100 West Rosemary Street, and says he’s been virtually homeless since shortly after he received his final paycheck from the town.
“I’m at the shelter, with no means of support,” said Clark, “and been wrongfully discharged from my job.”
Bigelow says that for him, it’s a matter of principle.
“This right here for me is something that’s worth fighting for,” said Bigelow. “Like I’ve said, it’s something that hasn’t been finished, because it’s about the workplace – it’s unfairness throughout the state of North Carolina.”
McSurely says the appeal process will likely take about a year. The plaintiffs are asking to be reinstated in their jobs, and to receive compensation for damages, as well as attorney fees.
CHAPEL HILL – Chapel Hill Civil Rights lawyer and NAACP Redress Chair, Alan McSurely says the town has a political problem on its hands that has led to the firing of three black men.
“The problem is that the Town Council has allowed the Town Manager to run roughshod over the rights of its employees—particularly its black employees,” McSurely says.
Late last week, Chapel Hill Town Manager Roger Stancil announced his ruling to uphold the firing of Kevin “Lee” Thompson for the misuse of Town resources that resulted in personal profit and after multiple written warnings of “incidents of detrimental personal conduct and/or unsatisfactory job performance.”
However, McSurely says his client believes he was dismissed for other reasons.
“The system is rigged against black employees and people who join unions,” McSurely says.
Kerry Bigelow and Clyde Clark, otherwise know as the Sanitation 2, were fired from the Town of Chapel Hill in October 2010 for insubordination and complaints by town residents about their job performance. An investigation was conducted by Raleigh-based human resource and compliance firm, Capital Associated Industries (CAI) and recommended the men be fired; the Citizens Advisory Committee concurred. In an email to WCHL, McSurely calls CAI “a union-busting outfit”.
However, the advisory committee, which McSurely referred to as a group of impartial hearing officers, did not agree with the firing of Thompson in a unanimous vote, 5-0. Stancil released his findings after that ruling, while taking it into account.
The Sanitation 2 are in a 30 day window with which the Town can appeal the ruling the North Carolina Court of Appeals gave earlier this month stating the two men should be given a hearing in front of a jury. Once that time is up, McSurely says they plan to take further action in the cases.
He says part of the discussion will be about how the two cases contradict themselves. He says Thompson was fired for doing extra work for which someone asked, while the Sanitation 2 were fired for not doing an extra favor while on the job.
“We send our black employees out into the neighborhoods, and we’ve done it for years with very little guidance about how to respond to requests of residents to do small favors,” McSurely says. “The Town has never developed a solid training program or policies that help guide our employees. The Town Council knows that; they obviously knew that from the Sanitation 2 case, and they have not done anything about it.”
The personnel appeals committee agreed, at least during the Thompson case, that there needs to be “a formal written policy regarding work performed by employees on private property” and additionally that “all Final Written Warnings are time-limited and include specific performance expectations.” Those recommendations were made by the appeals committee and sent to Stancil on February 27, 2013 after the committee ruled on Thompson’s case.
McSurely says before going back to court, he and his clients want to address the issue that they believe is still in place.
“We intend to issue to the Council first and try to get them to step up and do what they’re supposed to do, which is to help set policy for the town,” McSurely says.
No one from the Town was immediately available for comment.