Victory in $15 million discrimination suit

Black women in AFSCME win settlement in Chicago

Mary Hart, Contributed

CHICAGO — More than 700 Black welfare case workers received the first installment from Cook County of a $15 million back pay award from a racial discrimination suit. Since 1973, the Black women fought in court against the dis- criminatory hiring practices of the Illinois Department of Pub- lic Aid. The $15 million is believed to be the largest racial discrimination settlement in U.S. history.

Black women in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) filed the federal suit, charging that the state and Cook County discriminated against Black people in welfare worker job categories. Afro- American case worker aides and trainees were expected to do the same work as case workers (a job requiring a college degree), but were paid up to $300 a month less. Over 80% of the aides and trainees were Afro-American, while 82% of the case workers were white.

At a time when the Reagan Administration and companies are strongly opposing affirmative action and equal pay demands, this court suit is an important victory for Black and women workers.

“I felt like I was fighting for my dignity as a Black, a woman, a person and a unionist,” Ms. Anita LeFlore, one of the original women to file the suit, told UNITY.

History of Racism

The case began in 1971 when the federal government forced the Department of Public Aid to develop new hiring programs for case aides. A similar pro- gram in New York hired welfare recipients as case aides, al- lowing them to go to school part-time and obtain a degree in order to become social workers. But here in Chicago, clerical workers already working in the department were allowed to apply for the case aide jobs, and welfare recipients were hired as case aide trainees. No provisions were made for these workers to obtain college degrees.

As Ms. LeFlore said, “All of us were put on caseloads.” Yet they were stuck in the lower paying job categories, no matter how much experience they had.

From the bottom up

“The organizing was among the case aides,” explained Ms. LeFlore. “This came from the bottom up. We had to move the union in the direction we wanted it.”

Max Liberies, president of AFSCME Local 2000 and author of the suit, told UNITY, ” I would hope this victory will give other people — whether unionized or not — the impetus, courage, to carry on the battle against race, sex and age discrimination.”

Ms. LeFlore concluded, “(We’ve). . .come under harsh attack in these last four years of Reaganomics. The cutbacks, people giving up salaries, giving back money, the PATCO incident. People are looking down on labor . . . . This shows that if you work and you stick with it, it can happen.”