By Barney Blakeney
Charleston attorney Armand Derfner described the work environment at Nucor Steel East of the Cooper River in Berkeley County as a modern industrial facility trapped in a time warp where racial attitudes and resulting behavior cast Black and white employees in roles reminiscent of the Jim Crow south.
Based in Charlotte, N.C. with plants primarily located in the southeast, Nucor is the United States’ largest producer of steel. And though it was formed in the mid-1960s, the work environment was a classic example of Jim Crow racism where despite lucrative salaries, Black employees were subjected to racist language and graffiti, displays of nooses, Confederate flags and discrimination in promotions.
Last month a federal judge, after a 14-year court battle, agreed those Black employees were discriminated against and awarded them more than $22 million to settle the lawsuit that began in 2004. Derfner said roughly 150 former and current employees will proportionately share the award.
The hostile work environment extended to the company’s fight against the employees’ claims. Challenges to the employees’ right to file a class action lawsuit led to what the veteran civil rights attorney described as a court battle that lasted longer than any in his experience which includes the epic legal challenge to discrimination in Charleston County School District.
The case finally went to court in 2016 and was scheduled to be heard last year. Unforeseen circumstances postponed that until January and last month without admitting guilt, Nucor agreed to the settlement. The suit mandates Nucor change its criteria for promotions, but more importantly, the work environment has changed over the years, Derfner said.
“Hopefully things will be a lot different from when the lawsuit began,” he said. “I saw that a number of white employees felt what was going on wasn’t right. I think Nucor was unusual among today’s manufacturing companies. It was like they were caught in a time warp.”