Immigrant bus drivers allege racial discrimination, labor law violations

MINNEAPOLIS – Somali and Oromo bus drivers have filed charges against two Twin Cities bus companies, claiming management discriminated against them on racial grounds and then illegally fired them.

The workers held a news conference on April 22 to announce the charges filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the National Labor Relations Board against Monarch Bus Services and the Minneapolis and Suburban Bus Company.

“As citizens, we have the right to voice our concerns and complain to any company that is violating the laws of the United States of America,” said Mahmud Kanyare, the leader of the group of about 15 drivers who call themselves the United Community of Drivers.

The workers say the companies discriminated against them by assigning them buses that were in disrepair and lacked heat, while white drivers were given better buses. They said the firms arbitrarily reduced their hours and failed to pay them for some of the time worked.

“This appears to be a clear case of discrimination based upon ethnicity,” said Ellen Longfellow, a civil rights attorney with the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission records show many prominent companies have had to settle, or have pending cases, involving ethnic discrimination, such as discrimination against Muslims and Sikhs.

Violators include Walmart, National Tire & Battery, Swift & Co. meatpackers, American Airlines, and United Parcel Service. UPS’ case about failing to hire, failing to promote, and segregating Muslims because of their appearance is pending in federal courts in New York. And in the Walmart case, supervisors told the worker, a Gambian, that “Muslims are terrorists and blow things up.”

One EEOC charge of discrimination against Muslims, involving Abercrombie & Fitch, went all the way to the Supreme Court. There, last year, the justices sided with EEOC and the worker. They ruled the clothier discriminated against a female Muslim job applicant because she wore a headscarf (hijab) to her job interview. The firm claimed it violated A&F’s “look.”

In Minnesota, the bus drivers were frustrated in their attempts to present their complaints to ownership. They walked off the job in January and were then fired, they said. Although all are now working other jobs, they said they would like to return to bus driving and improve conditions at their former workplace.

Mohamed Ali, a bus driver for more than two years, said workers would like their concerns addressed so no one is treated “like a second-class citizen.”

Several charges are in the process of being filed with the EEOC, Longfellow said. They allege discrimination based on ethnicity.

In addition, the group alleges the firings were illegal under the National Labor Relations Act, which protects workers when they take action as a group – whether or not a labor union represents them. The workers are awaiting a ruling from the regional office of the NLRB, which has already conducted interviews, Longfellow said. If the NRLB upholds their case as an illegal lockout, they could be returned to their jobs.

Following the news conference, Monarch Bus Service and Minneapolis & Suburban Bus Company issued a statement calling the drivers’ claims “completely unfounded.” It noted, in part that “Our two companies employ more than 175 employees of Somali heritage at all levels of the company, and we are actively hiring more. We enjoy a good relationship with those employees and the Somali community as a whole.” It claimed the drivers stopped working “by their own choice” and were not locked out.

The drivers’ news conference was held at the Minneapolis office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization. CAIR has been active in assisting workers facing job discrimination and other problems.

Photo: Workday Minnesota


Barb Kucera
Barb Kucera

Barb Kucera was editor of Workday Minnesota. She served for 6 years as director of the Labor Education Service, which publishes Workday. Kucera has degrees in journalism and industrial relations and a background in communications, including as editor of The Union Advocate. She is an associate member of the Minnesota Newspaper and Communications Guild/CWA Local 37002.