A former shop steward at a Trenton construction site had probable cause for alleging racial discrimination after his demotion within a local union last year, the New Jersey Attorney General's Office announced yesterday.

Jon Stokes, 41, of Franklinville, accused Local 9 of the plumbers and pipefitters union of improperly removing him as shop steward last June and replacing him with a white man. Two coworkers told investigators that Stokes' successor had used racial slurs to describe him while agitating for his removal.

"The allegations in this case are disturbing," said Carlos Bellido, acting director of the civil rights division of the state Department of Law and Public Safety.

After working as a shop steward for five months, Stokes, who is African American, was demoted to journeyman. His replacement had been at the job site for two months.

"There were some racial things said. Basically I was being set up so they could take the job away from me," Stokes said.

Nick Oberto, who demoted Stokes, told investigators that he had heard reports "from here and there" that Stokes was doing a poor job as shop steward.

Mike Maloney, the union's business manager, said Stokes had lost the confidence of those working under him to relay information and that the demotion had not been racially motivated.

"He did not lose his job. He is still working at the same place with the same pay grade," Maloney said. "As far as the allegations, we emphatically deny them."

About 8 percent of discrimination complaints reach the probable-cause stage, said Lee Moore, spokesman for the Attorney General's Office. The next step is a conciliation process between the sides.

If an agreement is not reached, a trial can be scheduled in front of an administrative law judge. If the union is found to have violated the state's discrimination law, it could be fined at least $10,000.