In 2012 a federal lawsuit was filed against the restaurant chain IHOP and franchisee, Anthraper Investments Inc. on behalf of four Arab, Muslim managers in Texas, all of whom were fired in 2010. This lawsuit alleged in part that their terminations were unlawful and discriminatory in nature, and came after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that their accusations had merit—not only had these men faced discriminatory harassment at work based on their race, and religion, there were witnesses, and corroborating evidence, determining that there was “reasonable cause to believe that…Arabs were discriminatorily harassed and discharged based on national origin.”
One of the most revealing incidents came during an employee meeting, during which Larry Hawker, hired to replace one of the fired managers, told IHOP workers that, “Arab men treat women poorly and with disrespect. We’re going to let these people go and have new faces coming in.” Prior to this event, and before their respective terminations, the district manager would be emailed warnings in time for the anniversary of the September 11th attacks, asking that Arab and Muslim employees “lay low”.
The CEO of this specific IHOP chain, John Anthraper, even referred to Muslims waiting to break their fasts during Ramadan as “dogs”, and would complain that any work related incidents that occurred at one of his stores came about as a result of the district manager hiring “those fucking Arab friends” of his. And so, these four men sought damages for employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, and the Texas Labor Code.
One of these men—the man whose face would be plastered across countless publications and television screens as the story and subsequent backlash went viral—was my father.
Most states are like Texas in that they allow for employers to terminate workers for nearly any reason, with a few exceptions: a termination which violates any civil rights statutes, a termination that comes about as a result of specific kinds of whistleblowing, refusing to take part in a criminal act, a termination that violates an employment contract, and a termination that is the result of harassment and abuse. This is called at-will employment, and it provides cover to a myriad of sins.
The only counterweight to this is unionization, where almost every union contract contains a clause for the employer to show just cause for termination. However, even this has been restrained through anti-worker laws, with the foremost amongst them being the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. This piece of ostensibly anti-communist legislation, with bans of Communist Party USA members holding office in unions, would become a core fetter on constraining worker power by banning secondary boycotts and excluding supervisors and foremen from collectively bargaining with other employees. Probably the most discussed aspect of Taft-Hartley is the “right to work” portion, but that is only part of a mosaic of law designed to undermine and constrain union power in the United States.
All of this precarity and uncertainty is particularly acute in retail work, where what union power existed has been flensed away to almost nothing, leaving workers with fewer bargaining rights for things like higher wages and little to no ability to challenge their terminations. Things like predictable scheduling and wage theft are constant problems as well, with all the power concentrated in the hands of the bosses. The only option for workers, should they be cleared by the EEOC, is to sue their employer.
It was certainly the only route left to my father when faced with a brutally racist bigot for a boss. He had no union that had his back, no one to stand in solidarity with him. And there was certainly no guarantee that he would win, or walk away with enough to make ends meet. The process itself is hard on everyone, and it’s especially hard on older and less able-bodied workers, and I saw it wear him down as the process dragged.
Suffice it to say that my father’s lawsuit meandered, as most lawsuits of this nature tend to do, and there was mediation during which a settlement was reached. The lawyers took their cut, one of the men was forced to leave the country after it was made plain as day that he would not find work. Without even a paltry income for support, and with elderly parents to support, it became clear that he and his family would be better off somewhere else. There was no great financial win, and no one retired in a large house without a worry or care.
My father, who is now on disability, continues to suffer from the debilitating effects of working almost non-stop for over a decade for a company that treated workers as many companies do—as expendable commodities that deserve no humanity, let alone a living wage and quality healthcare. The plates in his neck, the scar from his spine being fused together, and his constant pain from it are evidence of my father’s commitment to our family and the ingratitude of his employers.
While his case managed to make the news and saw some success, there are countless others who file complaints with the EEOC in hopes that their terminations will met with a modicum of justice they will not find. This is thanks in part to the unshakeable hatred of Arabs and Muslims that still permeates this country a decade and a half into imperial wars. This is a hatred that I live with the consequences of every day, and I am sure my sisters live with it as well. But mainly, other Arab Muslims will struggle to find justice because the deck is stacked against working people like my family.
Only by rebuilding working-class organizations can we hold the bosses to account for their hatreds and bigotries, and then maybe men like my dad can be treated with the dignity they deserve.