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“Quit or Die, N----r,” Read the Note

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Kraft faces $30 million California lawsuit over atmosphere of “virulent racism”

Fresno, CAThree former employees of Kraft Heinz Foods Co. at the Tulare, California plant have filed a lawsuit citing violations of federal and California employee labor laws including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866; the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990; the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), the Ralph Civil Rights Act, and the Tom Bane Civil Rights Act.

Alex Horn et al. v. Kraft Heinz Food Co. LLC details repeated instances of threats, harassment, retaliation, discrimination in promotions, transfers and training and, eventually, wrongful termination. For some of the workers, this abuse went on for decades.

Hostile work environment

There was nothing veiled or subtle about the physical menace. The Complaint contains photographs of swastikas drawn on the Black workers’ lockers and the threatening notes: “No n----s as coordinators.”  “All n----s must go,” “Quit or die n----s,” among other threats.

In February 2018, shots were fired outside the Tulare plant. The identity and motivation of the shooter or shooters were never determined, despite being reported to the plant’s HR department. Plaintiff Lance Aytman’s car -- and his car alone-- was vandalized in the parking lot. White co-workers openly displayed firearms at the plant. The family members of one of the men ultimately reported the threats and violence to the local police and FBI. The Plant Manager allegedly told one plaintiff that if he retained legal counsel, he “could no longer work” at Kraft Heinz.

The workers’ complaints within the plant were ultimately dismissed, and they were told to return to work without further assurances about their safety. They were, however, met as “snitches,” or “rats” by co-workers. During this time, “Alex [Horn] is a n----r and a snitch” was written on the wall of the men’s bathroom. A maintenance mechanic informed Horn that management instructed him to paint over the graffiti since they “didn’t want to make a big fuss about it.” No other steps appear to have been taken.

Other Black employees refused to join in the complaints for fear of “having a target put on their backs.” Slurs and insults were endemic – not limited to the use of the n-word. In 2014, a non-Black employee wore a sanitation mask that had been vandalized with “No n----s in Culture” written on it. (Culture was one of the plant’s departments.) Management reportedly provided the offending employee with a new mask but issued no reprimand. In addition, the relevant supervisor regularly arrived at work with multiple Confederate flags or images of that flag prominently displayed on his truck.

The three plaintiffs also reported being denied repeated transfer requests or the opportunity for raises or training. In 2012, plaintiff Horn found a note in his personal locker that read, “No n----s as coordinator.” As the only Black employee with the title of Back-up Coordinator, Horn’s solid work performance should have made him eligible for promotion to Coordinator. Kraft Heinz management took no corrective action after Horn turned in the note. Shortly thereafter, Horn’s direct supervisor informed him that someone had also written “No n----s as coordinator” on a communal calendar in the company breakroom. Horn was never informed of any investigatory or corrective action taken in response. He never got the promotion.

One plaintiff started with a cohort of five other part-time temporary employees. Unlike his non-Black counterparts, he was denied the same rotational opportunities within the cohort and was forced to train himself informally in most of his job duties. When his part-time cohort applied for full-time positions in early 2013, his interviewer shared that he was “the highest scoring applicant.” Yet everyone except him was offered a full-time position. An individual who was on the hiring panel revealed to him that he “had interviewed better than anyone else, but someone had instructed [the hiring panel] not to hire” him. Thereafter, he consistently applied for promotions to positions in various departments. His applications were never granted.

The abuse took its toll— panic attacks, diagnoses of PTSD, medical leave. Some took early retirement, well short of full retirement. Some of those on leave were simply terminated. As of April 2021, Kraft Heinz still had not produced full personnel or payment records.

California civil rights laws

The principal California legal remedy for this kind of conduct is FEHA. It is a place where civil rights law and California labor law meet. The FEHA is the primary California law that prohibits employment discrimination based on race or color; religion; national origin or ancestry, physical disability; mental disability or medical condition; marital status; sex or sexual orientation; age, with respect to persons over the age of 40; and pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. The FEHA also prohibits retaliation against for opposing any practice forbidden by the law. 

The Ralph Civil Rights Act was enacted to address the problem of racial, ethnic, religious and minority violence by providing civil and administrative remedies for those who are victims of violence directed against any particular class of persons. The Tom Bane Civil Rights Act. similarly forbids people from interfering with a person’s constitutional rights by force or threat of violence.


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