Breading contempt

On the first day Stephen Little went to work at the Merita Bread bakery on Division Street, there was a noose hanging above his machine. He told the supervisor about it, but the supervisor did nothing. "Finally he climbed up on a ladder and cut it down himself," says Richard Lee Barrett, Little's lawyer.

Little is one of 13 plaintiffs, all of them African-American, who filed a lawsuit against Merita's parent company, Interstate Brands Corporation (IBC), last week in Orange County Circuit Court. The suit claims Merita discriminates against its black employees and seeks unspecified damages. Among the allegations:

• Minority workers were subjected by supervisors to offensive jokes and conduct. In one such incident, a white employee asked, "How do you wink at a black man?" and assumed the stance of a man looking down a telescopic gun sight.

• Minority workers had their equipment sabotaged.

• Minority workers were told not to apply for a job in Leesburg because they would probably be "hung from a tree by the good ol' boys out there."

• A superintendent told a co-worker that he did "not want any niggers in his mixer room."

• Little walked into the employee break room one day to find white co-workers discussing a Ku Klux Klan rally. One of the workers handed Little a Klan membership card, according to Barrett.

The woman who answers the phone in the Orlando Merita office referred a reporter to corporate spokesman Mark Dirkes in Kansas City. "The company's policies are very clear," says Dirkes: "It doesn't tolerate discrimination of any kind, racial or sexual. It is posted in every place of employment that we have."

IBC is the nation's largest wholesale distributor of bread, rolls and snack cakes, making Wonder Bread, Merita and Home Pride, as well as Drake's Cakes, Hostess and Dolly Madison. The company employs about 32,000 people in its 69 bakeries, and last year posted net income of $130 million on revenue of $3.2 billion.

Dirkes says he isn't sure "off the top of my head" what percentage of the company's workforce is African-American, but "I'm going to say that the company has a very diverse workforce. I would expect the ethnicity of the workforce to reflect the geographies where they operate."

At the heart of the Orlando suit is the question of whether black employees were given the same opportunity to advance as whites. "Plaintiffs have been regularly passed over for promotions for which they are qualified," the complaint says. "Whites and males with less seniority and experience were given promotions. Moreover, whites and males are routinely given superior training than that provided to minority or female employees." The Merita management does not post jobs opportunities on the bulletin board, the suit alleges, allowing managers to steer favored employees -- sometimes relatives -- to better positions. Several of the plaintiffs have worked at the bakery for 20 years or more without the chance to advance in the ranks, the suit states.

The Orlando suit's allegations closely mirror those made in two other lawsuits brought against IBC since 1996. A lawsuit filed that year on behalf of 21 current and former employees of the bakery in Indianapolis, Ind., claimed a white employee twice put up a sign in 1995 that talked about the presence of the KKK at the facility and was not seriously disciplined for his actions.

"By the management style of the bakery here [in Indianapolis], we knew this came from the top," says Elaine Parran Boyd, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. The bakery's human-resources manager was also the equal-opportunity director, attendance-control director and point person for union grievances, Boyd says: "I was incredulous when I saw those kinds of responsibilities on one person."

The case was dismissed March 16, after IBC's lawyers argued that Boyd was dragging her feet on discovery. Boyd, who had unsuccessfully tried to make the case a class action, has appealed.

Meanwhile, last July, 15 other black employees of a Wonder Bread bakery in San Francisco filed suit against IBC on similar grounds. In that case, black workers were not only subjected to racial slurs and lack of opportunity but also were prohibited from congregating because of management's fears of "gang activity," the lawsuit, which seeks $260 million in damages, alleges.

"That suit is still pending," says Dirkes. "The law of the land allows people to go to court to seek compensation for injury."

Dirkes notes that in the Indianapolis case, the suit was filed before IBC took control of the bakery from Continental Baking Co. in a merger. Claims that IBC has an institutionally racist policy could thus not be proven by the example of that bakery. The Orlando bakery was acquired in 1988, he says. "You have several companies involved here."

But in the San Francisco case, Dirkes' supposition that the plant's workforce would reflect the local population was not born out, according to the suit: Of 600 workers there, only 31 were black.

Little says about 40 percent of the 600 to 700 workers in the Orlando bakery are black, but only one is in a management position.

"I call it the White House," Little says of the company. That's the same phrase African-American workers used to describe the San Francisco Wonder Bread management ranks, according to that lawsuit.

Little, who moved here from Connecticut, says his seven years as an engineer at Merita have been "kind of tough." He acknowledges that a lot of people would quit their jobs under such circumstances, but he refuses. "I shouldn't have to leave and go somewhere else to be treated fairly," Little says. "It only hurts the people coming up behind you."


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