By Kwame P. Dean
Posted January 2, 2021
I was hired to fulfill a court order to work as a management level generalist in Human Resources. I was there to satisfy the settlement of a successful hostile environment lawsuit brought by long-suffering black employees, all of whom were hourly workers. I didn’t know about the law suit until after I was hired as a complete outsider. It never came up in the rounds of interviews, surprise, surprise.
My job, was to act as a management liaison for black employees and keep them happy with a willing ear, diversity initiatives, investigations of racist acts, and teaching the settlement mandated “get-a-long” school, as zero tolerance racial harassment policy training was known. I wondered how a plant in relatively tolerant and integrated Eastern Iowa could be such a hot bed of racism that even a traditionally conservative, pro-business US District Court would force them to change?
Built in the late 1940’s, the plant grew into one of the largest aluminum rolling plants in the world. A mile long under roof, the plant needed lots of workers quickly to satisfy the growing post WWII airline industry in a competitive local job market. One of management’s staffing answers was to look to the South for employees in places like Alcoa, Tennessee.
Alcoa, TN was a segregated company town in every sense in 1948. It seems that opening an operation in the Sough meant following local customs and paying lower wages rather than bringing any enlightened Northern thinking. Much like the carpetbaggers of the post civil rights era, making money led to northern support of social divisions rather than seeking to change them for any greater good.
Incorporated by a closed door act of the Tennessee state legislature, organizing the town of Alcoa deprived the next closest town, Maryville, of tax revenue. Alcoa, TN was designed, built, and run by company leadership. The city manager was an Alcoa manager from its beginning in 1919 until 1956. The police of Alcoa, TN acted as plant security and protected strike breakers when necessary. A violent confrontation in 1937 resulted in the death of a police officer and striker when management broke a strike by busing strike breakers through a picket line. Alcoa, Inc’s economic hold on the town wouldn’t break until the ‘60’s. Alcoa is today one of the most violent cities in Tennessee.
Why would a plant in Iowa go so far to recruit workers instead of just competing for them closer to home? The answer became more obvious when I visited other plants across the country and noticed their commonalities. From Pennsylvania to Texas and beyond, these plants were near cheap sources of electricity and were in the middle of nowhere. The company obviously liked being the only game in town.
Monopsony is a market condition of one buyer and many sellers. It is the hallmark of a company town. Plant management succeeded in creating a cultural monopsony in Iowa by recruiting southern and local segregationists to a place in the North where labor unions had been desegregated for over 40 years. Plant management didn’t seem to care what people thought about others as long as they did the often back breaking work when demanded. Plant management used an overtime, slow growth, and nepotism approach to create a stable work force. It also protected itself from the unwanted complications of the differences between the local culture outside of the plant and the one inside.
Long before people thought about work-life balance, plant employees were encouraged to work overtime whenever possible, and there was a lot of overtime to be had. 80 hour work weeks were not unheard of in the 24/7 plant. I asked an old timer how that was possible and he said there was a difference between being at work and working. The management culture in the plant was one of surveillance, control and appeasement. By the time I arrived, management and union leadership had learned to play nice as long as it wasn’t contract negotiation time. The social culture inside the plant had to be appeased since management preferred new workers who were family members and friends of those already there. With long hours and familiarity, the plant became a petri dish of marriages, divorces, cliques, grudges and restraining orders.
The plant, as a federal contractor, was forced to hire black workers in the 70’s by Nixon Administration Equal Employment Opportunity laws. Plant management was unconcerned with or unprepared for the social backlash within the plant. It left black workers exposed to open acts of racism from management and their union brothers. Nooses in lockers, KKK graffiti, aluminum shavings in safety shoes as well as the trump card of the “N” word in conversation were just some of the examples of things that happened there. Plant medical staff were accused of giving substandard care to black workers and were specifically noted in the settlement. If you’ve ever received treatment from someone who didn’t want to touch you, you’ll know the feeling black employees said they felt when seeking medical attention.
Management’s answer was to keep blacks separated by shift and department and as few as possible. Results of tests for promotion were manipulated and ignored. Getting ahead while black had more to do with being tolerable to the toxic culture than anything else. Despite the hardships, the overtime pay meant the money was good so many black workers kept their heads down and endured for the sake of their families and their hard won middle class lifestyles. They petitioned management. They petitioned the unions. They took all they could until they couldn’t take it anymore and started a class action suit.
The historical, cultural monopsony in a plant community of 2,500 people made tolerance of intolerance the rule. Equity across racial, ethnic and gender lines didn’t seem to even occur to people who should know better until they were forced to recognize it with the threat of fines and public embarrassment. It was like going back in time to the civil rights battles of the 50’s when I joined the plant in 1998.
I talked to a friend who was part of the class action recently. She said going through the 4 years of Trump in the White House reminded her of what they had to endure over 20 years ago in the plant. Management gaslighting and union downplaying of the significance of racists acts in the past felt all too familiar with the same things happening locally and nationally today.
Some traumas run deep and the more things change…
Crime in Alcoa, TN
History of Local 309, United Steelworkers of America, Alcoa, TennesseeSammy E. PinkstonUniversity of Tennessee, Knoxville
John P. Cooper, et. al. v. Aluminum Company of AmericaCIVIL NO. 3-95-CV-10074