Story Highlights• Noose was hanging in area accessible only to white managers
• Black workers questioned white managers, got few answers
• Noose eventually removed, workers take legal action
By Allan Chernoff
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- James Jackson, a 26-year-old black employee of 180 Connect, was preparing for another day of installing cable, telephone and Internet service to residential customers of Cablevision in Nassau County, New York on December 7.
When he walked to the fenced-off area to pick up equipment for the day's jobs he looked up and was shocked to see a vicious, racist symbol in his workplace. A noose was hanging in the fenced-off equipment area, visible to the dozens of installers, the majority of whom are black, but accessible only to his boss and an equipment manager, both of whom are white.
Jackson, a former messenger who had worked at 180 Connect for a year and a half, immediately confronted the equipment manager, Dave Willie.
"I asked Dave," Jackson told CNN, " 'What is that hanging up there?' and he said, 'That is a noose' and I said, 'I know it's a noose, but why is it up there?' And he walked away."
Jackson and his co-workers say they were distraught.
"I just wanted to leave. I wanted to get out of there," 180 Connect employee Ralph Satterwhite told CNN. "I was disgusted."
The installers say they never complained to Human Resources. Instead, they consulted with a labor attorney, documented the incident, and decided to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Installer Shomari Houston, according to the complaint, says he asked his white boss, Gary Murdock, why a hangman's noose was in his workplace. He says the response was: To hang two black employees.
"He said, 'Yo, I like that, it's cool, I am gonna hang Russell up there. Think we can get James up there?' " Houston recalls Murdock saying. "I looked at him like, 'You serious.' "
Jackson says he continued to ask that the noose be taken down, and openly recorded the following conversation with Willie.
Jackson: "Who's that for, the rope?"
Willie: "For anybody who goes past that door that I don't want them in there."
Jackson: "Hang 'em?"
Company says it has no tolerance for racism
After a week of complaints, the noose finally came down. The next day, December 14, the installers went public with their gripe, announcing their plans to file the EEOC discrimination claim.
180 Connect says it has zero tolerance for racism.
"It's inappropriate to put up any sign of violence in the workplace," said 180 Connect attorney Joel Cohen. "The company is aware that a noose could have racial connotations and could be a very negative symbol to African-American people.
"The company does not tolerate racism in the workplace and if anybody in the company engaged in wrongdoing, that will be dealt with and will be dealt with in a responsible way."
180 Connect has suspended Willie with pay, pending results of an investigation.
In a statement, Willie told CNN, "I am deeply saddened that a few of my co-workers have chosen to publicly air allegations of racism which they know to be false."
Willie's attorney, Richard Gertler, says his client's comment had no racial intent.
"He was saying it tongue in cheek. It's taken out of context," said Gertler.
Willie, Gertler stresses, is no racist. "My client's first marriage for 17 years was to an African-American woman. So I don't think he's racist."
Gary Murdock continues to oversee the warehouse at 180 Connect. Murdock did not return CNN's phone calls.
180 Connect has retained former National Labor Relations Law Judge Edwin Bennett to conduct an investigation. The installers, however, are refusing to appear before the judge without their attorney, which the company is not permitting, arguing it is not a legal proceeding.
Although the installers don't work directly for Cablevision, they also named the cable operator in their suit, saying company employees saw the noose and took no action.
Cablevision told CNN, "We are deeply troubled by the allegations about 180 Connect's workplace. We expect 180 Connect to conduct a thorough and credible investigation, to cooperate with any external investigation, and to take any appropriate actions."
180 Connect has more than 4,000 employees around the country. Among the cable television companies it provides installation services for is Time Warner Cable, a division of CNN's parent company, Time Warner. 180 Connect's operations are almost all in the United States, but the company has its corporate headquarters in Canada and trades on the Toronto stock exchange.
Employees of a New York cable installer say they saw this noose hanging from the ceiling when they reported to work.
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