St. Louis Post-Dispatch from St. Louis, Missouri on May 13, 2001 · Page 12
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St. Louis Post-Dispatch from St. Louis, Missouri · Page 12

St. Louis, Missouri
Issue Date:
Sunday, May 13, 2001
Page 12
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STLtoday.comnews -f Black Workers at Boeing Class-action suit alleging bias yields rn i . 1 million deal ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH NEWS SUNDAY, MAY 13, 2001 rm-rv . . .. jf 7 74 S $15 I Boeing, continued from Al TV I 9 Boeing worker Lonza Patrick (foreground, left) poses a question at a race relations meeting in St. Louis Boeing's senior vice president for personnel, met with black workers in St. Louis in 1998, he said he left they had some issues, and we really needed to get to the bottom of those issues," he said. . ERIK M. LUNSFORDPOST-DISPATCH Boeing worker Floridus Bain speaks in September at a race relations meeting at the company's offices here. Bain says he grew resentful as whites seemed to climb the ladder noticeably faster. White workers "would come in under us, as trainees," Bain recalls. "We showed them the job, and some of them quickly got promoted, became foremen and would be supervising us." . tering a corporate culture in St. Louis "that recognizes the eagerness of all our employees, including minorities, to contribute on a much larger scale." Speaking up The struggle by black aerospace workers in St. Louis began in earnest a decade ago, but its roots can be found in the civil rights era. Many of the African-American employees battling to change company practices joined McDonnell Douglas in the 1960s or 1970s. At the time, the war in Vietnam and tension with the communist world fed a need for defense workers, while the civil rights movement prompted an awareness of equal opportunity concerns and an impetus to hire blacks. There was relatively little friction over the years, many black workers say, even if mi-' norities found it tough to gain promotions. St. Louis did produce a landmark court case when laid-off McDonnell Douglas technician Percy Green sued the company in 1965 after it didn't rehire him. Green, a flamboyant civil rights leader, claimed McDonnell retaliated against him because he had led several protests, including one at the aircraft company. The Supreme Court's ruling on the case in 1973 made it easier for victims of employment discrimination to win in court. The publicity that case drew was an exception. As recently as 1987, African-Americans watched approvingly as the signing of a labor contract led to hiring they felt was proportionately fair along racial lines. But soon, workers like Fortenberry and Bain grew resentful as whites seemed to climb the ladder noticeably faster. White workers "would come , in under us, as trainees," Bain recalled. "We showed them the job, and some of them quickly got promoted, became foremen and would be supervising us." By the mid-1980s Fortenberry, who had begun working in McDonnell's mailroom and then moved to the cafeteria as a cashier, had made it to management's ranks. As assistant foreman, he made sure correct parts were installed on the Hornet fighter and other planes. He loved the work, even though his schedule of 3:30 p.m. to midnight was tough on his young family. Despite being rebuffed when he sought to change shifts, he missed only two days in his nine years as a supervisor. Beginning in 1988, he tried to advance to a decision-making position and realize his dream of working as a general foreman or superintendent for production control. He says he was unable to even get considered. Instead, he watched as whites younger, less experienced, with less training prospered. "All the openings that came up, I'd submit my resume and either I'd be told I was not qualified, or the position was canceled," Fortenberry said. "I'd be told my skills would have to get better if I was to be considered." At the time, he was working toward a bachelor's and, eventually, a master's degree in business administration under McDonnell's educational program. In his mind, outright bias was less a factor than supervisors simply turning to those they socialized with, were comfortable with or knew well. Fortenberry kept his concerns to himself, hesitant to risk his ability to provide for his family. As a salaried employee, he had less protection than unionized workers. "If you complained, you had nobody to complain to but your boss," he said. "I didn't feel like I was able to express this, because I'd be labeled a troublemaker." But some began to raise their voices. At the start of the 1990s, Bain and other workers formed the Rights Committee. It was partly in response to the end of the Cold War, a time of defense cuts and industry restructuring. St. Louis had taken a hit with the Pentagon's cancellation of the A-12 stealth attack aircraft, which alone cost 5,600 jobs. Some blacks felt they were bearing the brunt of the resulting tension and tighter job situation. The committee lost momentum within a couple of years, in part because of internal bickering and friction with the union. Circumstances were made more difficult by the retirement in 1994 of Machinists union president Cassell Williams, who Their complaints center on hiring and promotion practices, but they also talk of being harassed in an assembly station they've dubbed the "black ghetto" and of occasional racial remarks or actions they take as menacing. " If all this has gone largely unnoticed, it is no accident. The workers' efforts have been marked by a reticence to speak outdfor fear of losing jobs or hurting careers. The company itself has sought to handle the matter discreetly. "It's been kept quiet," says Jethro Fortenberry, who hired on 25 years ago and who has been both a union-represented production worker and a supervisor for management. "Workers know about it among themselves. That's the furthest the conversation goes." Company executives have taken steps to address the workers' concerns and create a more hospitable workplace. Those efforts, have been spurred by a discrimination suit and by what some workers term a new corporate outlook after Seattle-based Boeing acquired McDonnell Douglas. Sam Jenkins, a longtime McDonnell executive, is now vice president at the St. Louis facility fbr personnel and race issues. He describes some of the workers' complaints about past mistreatment as valid, while others involved only a perception bias or lingering resentment from prior injustices. While the company had no intent, to discriminate against anyone, he says, like any large institution McDonnell and now Boeing are a microcosm of "society and reflect its prevailing attitudes. "At one time, when this company . . . had very few women and minorities, life for them was tough," Jenkins says. The key now is to listen to workers and make progress together, he adds. "What people want is respect," Jenkins says. "If we can do a more effective job in creating an environment in which respect is one of our more important attributes, then a lot of the other stuff goes away . . . and we can focus on our real job." Boeing is competing for the most lucrative defense contract ever, the Joint Strike Fighter. The1 Pentagon plans to choose in the fall between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. If Boeing, the world's largest aerospace company, captures the $300 billion contract, it will build the fighters in St. Louis, creating 5,000 jobs. With so much at stake for Boeing and St. Louis, racial controversy can have enormous implications. Allegations of discrimination are fraught with political and legal dangers for defense contractors. They can be grounds for the federal government to deny or dismiss contracts or even bar a company from competing for them. Fortenberry and his colleagues have trod gingerly for the most part. An introspective man who is loath to cry racism, he remained silent even as his career began to unravel, reasoning that he might only make things worse by complaining. Bift as he learned later, he was just; one of many hundreds of African-American workers at Bdefog plants around the nation wljp believed they weren't getting a fair shake from supervisors, nearly all of whom were white. Little by little, they began to assert themselves. Their efforts culminated in a $15 million consent decree with Boeing aimed attedressing their grievances. The , settlement has yet to be completed, because of objections by some workers who say it constitutes little real progress. Ar they assess whether the agreements will mean real changes in the workplace, black employees say the situation in St."L6uis is at a crossroads. Management appears to agree. in selecting engineers and others for the prestigious Joint Strike Fighter project, for instance, Boeing is jettisoning the practice of having managers simply choose employees they knoft. Instead, jobs will be posted; So workers can apply and build a case. That "open competition" is aimed at producing a highly diverse work force for the project, --which "we couldn't get using our current process," Jenkins says. t Jenkins recently discarded his other roles to focus on fos n worsened, Lenoir says, after the hiring of a large number of young workers and supervisors, almost all of them white. The straw that broke the camel's back, as Patrick puts it, was that very spurt of hiring after another labor contract in September 1996, when about 1,100 workers were brought aboard through early 1998. Patrick says that only among housekeepers was a high proportion of blacks hired. Black employees were aware of the situation, Patrick says, because friends or relatives they'd recommended had not even gotten responses. Patrick personally carried resumes of workers seeking promotions to the appropriate office and inquired about job applicants. But he says it proved largely fruitless. While individual workers felt their complaints were isolated, Patrick says he was mindful of the broader trend. "I decided at that point there were some things I needed to do," he says. Bomb shelter In early 1998, Patrick got together with Stuart Coleman, an 18-year aerospace veteran, and they examined their options. Coleman, a crater-packer who prepared material for shipping to vendors, had been among the original members of the Rights Committee in the early 1990s. He also had served as plant chairman. He said he tried to improve the lot of black workers but didn't get far in St. Louis. So the two men decided to direct their concerns outside, and right to the top. That meant Seattle. They had new reason to hope for change just a few months earlier, Boeing had acquired McDonnell. On Jan. 30, 1998, the two wrote ' to Boeing Chairman Phil Condit and President Harry Stoneci-pher. Their letter read in part: "As members of the Boeing-Family, we the minorities are requesting a meeting with you expeditiously in regards to the many problems we are faced with and experiencing. . . .Your urgency in granting our request to sit down with you for the purpose of discussing and resolving the seriousness of 'ALL' of our problems would be appreciated. If there is a need for a petition to make this come about, we are prepared to provide it." As it turned out, no petition was needed. What Coleman, Patrick and it ERIK M. LUNSFORDPOST-DISPATCH in September. When Jim Dagnon, ' impressed. "My reaction was . . . ' BOEING WORK FORCE These approximate figures are based on best estimates from company and union sources. Boeing has 15,300 workers, of which 67 percent are salariednonunion. v:1 'id .1 i.'t NOTE: Salaried employees include engineers and designers as well as management. About 11 percent of all Boeing employees are black. 13 About 19 percent of Boeing's hourly work force is black. -J J A fa :lS ifi , hourly employees:1 i W9 Other ;? 1 hourly V employees: 4,090 About 7 percent of Boeing's salaried work force is black. salaried employees: 724 r Other salaried employees: 7 9,527 Source: Boeing, Boeing unions, staff research POST-DISPATCH of being transferred to the sealer department, where she had to work with dry ice, various chem- ; icals, frozen paint and frozen1 glue, even though she'd alerted "rL her supervisors that this posed' 1 risks for her because of a prior'1"' job-related injury. White work-ers with less seniority, even;1;' some "just off the street," were'' .t given more say in transfers, she li-said. When she complained to' v her supervisor she was harassed L' and threatened with being put on leave, she said. , y Dagnon left St. Louis im- ' 1 pressed. "You have that many people show up, it shows to me that's a "J group of people that care. My reaction was . . . they had some is-'1 sues, and we really needed to get K' to the bottom of those issues." After returning to Seattle,'' Dagnon called Mike Sears, then- president of Boeing's St Louis division, and advised him to "keep an open-ended dialogue1-1 going" and "respond to their v concerns." Some immediate improvement 1 ' resulted, workers say; Griggs, for ' example, was switched back to her original job in parts storage. ' Encouraged by the meeting J with Dagnon and the results, about 300 black St Louis work-f 1 ers gathered at a church in St. '7 Louis County to discuss where to go from there. But their hopes J soon dimmed. 'n A month after Dagnon's visit, r,: workers met with two St Louis ,f vice presidents. But the session ' Continued on A13 I employees: I Salaried . 5,049 1 employees: J 10,251 ' y BlackX employees: I ' 1,683 Other ' 1 employees: I 13,617 ' J i. ." as the first black in that post had for 17 years quietly resolved many racial grievances. That came on the heels of the departure of another pioneer in race relations. As McDonnell's top black executive, Luther Bellinger had helped create the company's equal opportunity programs while also mentoring many minority employees. Given these developments, an urgency was developing among black workers, who feared unfair practices were becoming routine. "If everyone took it for granted that we never got promoted," Bain said, "people would think we were satisfied and there'd never be change. So some of us thought we should speak up." One day on the shop floor, Bain expressed his concerns to Lonza Patrick, with whom he'd worked earlier on the fledgling Rights Committee. Patrick was another McDonnell veteran. He'd started in 1967 as a janitor-sweeper and later served 18 years as plant chairman, a company-funded job similar to that of chief shop steward. Bain was just one of many black workers Patrick heard from in the mid-1990s. Some specific departments, such as parts storage, spawned . frequent allegations, Patrick said, often from workers denied seemingly routine shift changes they sought for medical or family reasons. Housekeepers in the office buildings, meanwhile, talked of incidents such as finding trash piled on desks from garbage cans they'd just filled or acid poured into the tape players they brought on their nightly rounds. Other workers said that in their areas, blacks were paid less or were targeted for layoffs during lean periods. And there were complaints of racial epithets. Judy Lenoir of Florissant, a longtime sheet metal worker, says that in the building where she has spent the past two decades, No. 29, such comments once rare grew more frequent in the mid-1990s. Every month or so, she said, somebody "called us jungle bunnies" or other racial epithets. "Management didn't do anything except slap hands, give an oral warning," she says. "My fear was that it had gotten so bad that I thought people were going to lose their jobs, by popping somebody in the mouth" in retaliation. The situation in her area their co-workers in St. Louis didn't know was that 2,000 miles away in Seattle, black workers at Boeing's plants had been meeting with management to express their own concerns. And at Boeing's assembly division in Everett, north of Seattle, black workers had approached their employers, while similar activities were beginning in the parts plant in Auburn, south of Seattle. "What we're talking about is the whole Puget Sound area, a 60-mile corridor around greater Seattle," says Boeing spokesman Peter Conte. "So the awareness of the company at the higher levels had increased substantially when the letter came in from St. Louis." With a fight brewing in its own back yard, the last thing Boeing wanted was conflict in its new military aircraft division. The task of allaying the concerns in St. Louis and preventing the Seattle rift from widening was given to Jim Dagnon, senior vice president for personnel. Though he'd been with Boeing just a year, Dagnon had spent three decades in hu-m a n resources for the railroads, where he'd built a good deal of trust with minority employees. Before that, he'd been an hourly railway worker and a Dagnon Boeing's senior vice president for personnel union leader. Dagnon had a reputation as a calm and reassuring man who knew how to listen. Sending Dagnon to St. Louis would also signal respect for the workers, given his seat on Boeing's 12-member executive council. The company set the meeting for Room 100 in Building 1 of the St. Louis plant a basement room known as the "bomb shelter." It was held on Feb. 28, 1998. Patrick says about 200 of the plant's approximately 1,000 hourly black workers attended, many standing in the hallway and up the stairs, unable to squeeze into the room. The mood was intense, by most accounts, as employees carefully chosen to cover the various concerns strode to the microphone to speak of problems with promotions, transfers, hiring and harassment Betty Griggs, a materials handler, was among them. She told 1 t

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