A U.S. District Court jury has awarded a $202,000 verdict to a black woman who claimed she was fired from a top civil rights job at the international machinists union because she agitated strongly on behalf of hiring more blacks and women on the predominantly white union staff.
"This is a good Christmas present. I haven't seen the money, but I feel vindicated, like I can get my life back on track," said Joycelyn A. Thompson, 43, who was fired in 1982 from her $47,000-a-year job as assistant director of human rights for the Washington-based union.
William W. Winpisinger, president of the 700,000-member International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said yesterday the union plans to appeal the verdict, unless it is overturned by Judge Joyce Hens Green.
Green is expected to rule on additional aspects of the case next month and the union is optimistic she will vacate the decision by the six-member, all-black jury, Winpisinger said.
"I did not discriminate. I have a lifetime record of nondiscrimination," said Winpisinger, who said he had promoted Thompson in 1977, but came to feel he had made a mistake because Thompson was seeking to promote herself further.
"She was on a goddamn campaign to try to force a woman on the executive council, which is an elected job . . . and I had a bellyful of it," he said.
The machinists union, one of the largest AFL-CIO-affiliated unions and regarded as one of the most liberal, had a national staff of about 330 at the time of Thompson's firing, with only 13 blacks and about 10 women, she said.
"The union has good resolutions, sound resolutions about civil rights," Thompson said. "They had resolutions about integrating minorities and women into the life of the union. I kept saying, 'You have all these resolutions but the people you are appointing are predominantly white men.' "
Winpisinger, acknowledging that the union had had a "shabby record" of hiring women and minorities, said he had made significant progress since taking over in 1977, until the 1981-82 recession led to a drastic drop in union membership. The resulting loss of dues led to massive staff layoffs that hit recently hired women the hardest, he said.
"We have improved what was a bad record. I wish we could have made more progress," he said.
The union president said that Thompson's job was to assist human rights director Clark Johnson, but that "instead of being his helper, she was his competitor . . . . She bad-mouthed him behind his back all over the country, backbiting and having secret meetings with women, and trying to create pressure to get herself on the executive board."
Thompson, however, said that the union failed to introduce evidence to back up that claim, which she said was false.
In a verdict handed down Dec. 12, the jury found Winpisinger and three other union officials innocent of the charge of race discrimination but guilty of "conspiracy to discriminate" on the basis of race and of violations of the D.C. Human Rights Act. The jury awarded Thompson $2,000 in compensatory damages and $200,000 in punitive damages.
"I fully expect the judge to throw out the whole thing," Winpisinger said. "I think the jury was thoroughly confused."
Thompson, who said she was the only black woman on the union staff, has been working temporarily for the YMCA since her firing, but could be reinstated by Green next month. A native of Guyana, she worked for the Guyana Labor Union, that nation's largest, before coming to the United States in 1962 and taking a job with the machinists union in 1970