A black and white case for Boeing

A race-discrimination claim could cost the aircraft giant billions of dollars

Dennis Harris's life didn't go to hell because his white co-workers at a Boeing aircraft assembly plant taunted him and called him "nigger". However much that hurt and upset him, it was nothing compared with what happened after he complained.

His superiors acted swiftly at first, terminating a supervisor who had hurled abuse at him. But then things got weird. The supervisor offered him $50,000 (pounds 31,000) in cash if he would drop the charges he had brought. Senior managers informally offered him a promotion on the understanding that he would not breathe a word of the incident to the media. When Mr Harris turned these offers down, he became, in his words, "a marked man", unable to progress within the company, unable to take holidays for fear of being laid off and subject to constant scrutiny, criticism and firings over a 20-year period.

"The baton was passed from white male supervisors in different buildings and departments to harass, provoke, reprimand and even fire me for being 15 seconds late for a team meeting," Mr Harris said in a legal deposition now being considered as part of a racial discrimination suit against Boeing.

He is one of more than 200 black employees frustrated by what they see as a lifetime of shop-floor abuse, harassment by managers, inability to secure promotions and unfairly low pay compared with their white counterparts. The stories lodged with the district court in Seattle vary in their details, but they all paint a picture of a company either unable or unwilling to root out the deep prejudices of its lower- and middle-echelon managers that ensure being black in effect sets you up to fail.

Among the more hair-rising stories is evidence that the Ku Klux Klan operates openly on Boeing shop- floors. Black Boeing employees describe how their educational qualifications are ignored, how they are consistently passed over for management positions even when they have the better record, and how highly skilled workers are punished by being forced to carry out menial tasks - including sweeping the floor - for years at a stretch.

The lawsuit started slowly and uncertainly - after all, racial discrimination is notoriously hard to prove and Boeing felt under no pressure to release the personnel records that might show a pattern of career obstacles for minorities. Through a volatile chain of events, however, the case is now blowing up in Boeing's face, with the federal government filing lawsuits of its own and threatening a full-scale investigation that could end up costing the company hundreds of millions of dollars.

It is little secret that Boeing is a heavily white, male company grown cosy from decades of military contracts, where friends and relatives of senior executives land plum jobs while others are overlooked. The company has acknowledged its own old boy network and, to a lesser extent, its near-exclusion of minorities in the upper echelons of management. Boeing is 82 per cent white and 6 per cent black. Of around 10,000 managers in its 230,000-strong workforce, the number of blacks can be counted on two hands.

When the lawsuit was first filed in March last year, it quickly attracted the attention of Jesse Jackson, the former presidential candidate whose Rainbow Coalition actively promotes black causes. Rev Jackson, in turn, attracted the attention of Phil Condit, Boeing's chief executive, who saw what he thought was an excellent opportunity to prove his anti-discrimination credentials.

Boeing made a sizeable contribution to the Rainbow Coalition and farmed out $400m in pension funds to two black-run companies and through Rev Jackson's mediation, the company also agreed on a $15m settlement of the discrimination suit, to be distributed not only among the 43 original plaintiffs but also, in lesser amounts, to all black employees.

The problem was, the plaintiffs were not consulted. A few thousand dollars each, with no promise of performance reviews or salary increases, seemed insulting and inadequate, particularly since the lawyers managed to negotiate a $3.85m fee for themselves. They accused their main Seattle attorney, Oscar Desper, of lavishing payouts on employees he liked while virtually ignoring others. In other words, they felt it was a sell-out intended to make everyone feel good except for the people who had suffered in the first place.

Enraged, the plaintiffs found a new law firm in Philadelphia. In May, the judge appointed to approve the settlement said he wanted four more months to consider whether it was admissible and now a showdown is hotly anticipated in a Seattle courtroom on 23 September.

Meanwhile, one of the plaintiffs, Paul Coston, got his hands on one of the KKK cards being distributed at Plant 2 in Seattle and took it to the Department of Labor in Washington. Armed with this crucial piece of evidence, the department demanded to see the work records of minority employees in three Boeing locations. Boeing refused to hand over the documents, so the federal government sued. Suddenly, the case took on a whole new dimension, since Boeing has $11bn worth of contracts with the Pentagon and other government agencies that it risks losing if it is shown to have ignored federal anti-discrimination guidelines.

By now, Phil Condit's public relations coup engineered with Jesse Jackson looks like an enormous gaffe. "Why did the company settle so soon, and for so little? All that achieved was to make them look guilty without satisfying anybody," Mr Coston said.

Last week, Boeing made a significant concession in agreeing to release two of the three sets of personnel records demanded by the Department of Labor. It may be too little too late, with federal agents talking about a year-long investigation and possible punitive action for resisting their demands this long.

The plaintiffs are a long way from victory, however. "Boeing can pay out all the millions it wants," said Fred Odom, one of the original group to sue. "But nothing's gonna change until there is a change in attitudes."

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