NYC Transit Workers Sue Against Discrimination

by Marty Goodman / August 2005 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

NEW YORK—City transit workers of the Sikh faith are suing their employer for discrimination. Federal lawsuits on behalf of five station agents and one
train operator were filed on July 15 by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the Sikh Coalition. In April, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) ordered five Sikh station agents to place a company logo on their turbans, a sacred religious symbol that must be worn everyday. The five were ordered to choose between their religion and their jobs.

Inderjet Singh, one of the five station agents, told Socialist Action, “It’s discrimination between the Sikhs and other employees working in the very same position. Other MTA headdresses do not have an MTA logo. If Sikhs must have a logo on their hats then why don’t others?”

“A turban for a Sikh is considered an article of faith. It’s like a cross for Christians or a yarmulke for Jews,” he added.

The charge of discrimination is correct, according to a federal Justice Department investigation earlier this year, which found over 200 instances of MTA employees wearing a hat without MTA logos, including MTA-issued headgear.

At press time, the five station agents are continuing to work without an MTA logo on their turbans. Their lawsuit was filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

On the same day, another suit was filed in Brooklyn Federal Court on behalf of Sikh train operator Kevin Harrington. In June 2004, Harrington, became the first Sikh worker to be targeted by MTA bigots after 9/11. He was told by bosses to remove his turban or be fired. His refusal resulted in a temporary banishment, inquisition style, to a train yard out of public sight.

Later that month, after media exposure, management told Harrington that he could drive a train, but must place an MTA logo on his turban. Harrington, an
Irish-Catholic convert to Sikhism and a family man, decided after great personal anguish to comply with the new MTA rules—under protest—pending his legal case. Last September, Harrington joined the Justice
Department in bringing a suit charging MTA discrimination to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Harrington had worn his turban to work without incident every day for his past 21 years as a train operator. Ironically, he received an award from the
MTA for guiding his passengers to safety on 9/11 through a smoke-filled subway tunnel in lower Manhattan.

The Sikh faith, frequently mistaken for Islam in the West, was founded by Guru Nanak, born in 1469 in India. Nanak aligned with no religion and respected all, say his followers, who number about 23 million worldwide. Sikhs must have uncut hair, beards, and wear turbans each day.

Sikh transit workers, as well as Muslim women bus drivers who wear the traditional khimars headdress, came under increasing attack from Transit bigots after the 9/11 tragedy. Four African American Muslim women
bus drivers have been banished since 2003, reassigned to a bus depot out of public sight. They also have a pending lawsuit. By targeting Sikhs and Muslims the MTA sought to divide transit workers and create an underclass.

The Sikh and Muslim workers are members of the Transport Workers Union Local 100. The union leadership, led by President Roger Toussaint, opposes
MTA policies but has done next to nothing to mobilize the membership against discrimination.

The treatment of Sikh and Muslim transit workers reflects the official racism that targeted hundreds of Palestinians, Muslims, and South Asians for arrest in the New York City area alone during the hysteria that followed Sept. 11, 2001.

Although most of the post-9/11 violence has been directed at Muslims, a Sikh named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot and fatally wounded in Mesa, Ariz., on Sept. 15, 2001, making him the first to die at the hands of racists after 9/11.

Last November, a Sikh-owned gas station in Chesterfield, Va., was set on fire and sprayed with racist graffiti.

Muslims, Sikhs, South Asians, Palestinians, and other Arabs are convenient scapegoats for capitalist governments and reactionary movements in the West. The minorities are targeted as terrorists and often blamed for unemployment, especially immigrants, creating an underclass to be exploited.

France, with five million Muslims, passed a law that took effect in September 2004, which essentially bans from schools the Muslim hijab headdress and the Sikh turban. It was passed under the guise of combating religious extremism.

The French law also bans Jewish yarmulkes and large crosses, but is aimed primarily at Muslims. The tragic July bombings in London resulted in attacks
on Muslims and the firebombing of a Sikh temple in Kent. Jagta Singh, of the Sikh Federation, told the BBC network July 15 that Sikhs are “the largest and
most visible” minority in London and that attacks were “spreading and increasing in seriousness.”

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