The white ceiling

The word on the street was that Merita Bakery was the place to apply if you wanted the best pay and best benefits. Darrell Whitley took that advice to heart. He traveled back and forth from his Apopka home to Merita's Division Street office south of downtown Orlando many times, filing applications even when the company wasn't hiring. By his count, he handed in 19 applications. On the last one he underlined his name in red so Merita's managers would get the hint.

His first night on the job, Whitley placed pans on a conveyer belt for more than 13 hours. The next two nights he worked 13-hour shifts in the shipping department. The long hours -- typical for bakery work -- were unusual for somebody used to an eight-hour grind. Yet for the high-school dropout, the pay of $9.70 an hour plus daily overtime was a godsend. "After I saw that first paycheck, I didn't care about the hours," Whitley says. "I got to the point where I asked them if I could stay longer."

He saw his future with the bakery. At one point he even imagined himself as a supervisor. He once asked the head of the sanitation department to keep him in mind for the job of floorman, considered a stepping stone into Merita management. Sure, no problem, Whitley recalls being told.

Six months later, a floorman's job did become available. But it went to someone else -- a man whom Whitley knew as trouble. That man, in fact, had committed one of the deadly sins of employment: After an argument, he'd walked off the job. The man had not only been rehired, he'd also been given the floorman's promotion.

That fact troubled Whitley, but so did this:

The man was white. Whitley was black.

A slight may not have been intended; Whitley says it was never explained. But that and similar, recurring snubs had a cumulative effect. Things began to turn sour for him. He began to sense barriers in his way, placed there -- he says -- deliberately. No longer was Whitley proud of his workplace. Instead, the feeling that lingered was one of bitterness.

Next month marks Whitley's 10-year anniversary with Merita, but it's due to economics more than enjoyment: He can't walk away from a position that still pulls down $1,200 a week.

But he also isn't settling for a workplace where he says the situation borders on harassment. Whitley is one of 17 Merita workers who filed individual and class-action lawsuits in federal and district courts against the bakery in 1998 and 1999. Those suits argue that Interstate Brands Corporation, Merita's parent company, violated the Florida Civil Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by maintaining a hostile work environment, treating black workers as inferiors and denying promotions to them. The attorney fighting their case won a similar action against T.G. Lee dairy.

The workers allege that the conditions are institutional. But for Whitley, it's also understandably personal.

"If a black had walked off the job, he definitely wouldn't have been hired back," he says. "And he definitely wouldn't have been given a floorman's job."

The group alleges a pattern of discrimination and intimidation that dates to at least the early 1970s, when the bakery had segregated bathrooms and break rooms. Black workers say they've encountered hanging nooses and paper dolls labeled with the word "nigger." White employees, including supervisors, often would speak in the break room using racial slurs and tell racial jokes, according to the lawsuits; some of them also displayed Ku Klux Klan cards, and knives and guns, inside the bakery.

Those involved with the suit also say they are treated differently when it comes to common, everyday practices. After slicing off the ends of two of his fingers, Robert Dunston says he was the first employee in Merita's history to be reprimanded for being injured. Elijah Bouie says he's often made to work more overtime than his white co-workers, overtime he's begged not to be given. For five months, Frank Jackson says he had to do all the heavy lifting for a white female worker assigned to light duty much longer than she was supposed to be; Jackson says that instead of apologizing, supervisors laughed about it. Charles Vickers says supervisors would say to black workers who walked into their office, "What are you doing coming up here with white people?"

"They acted like they were joking," Vickers says, "but when someone says something like that, it puts something in your head."

Black workers claim they were not only denied promotions but also never considered for such nonmanagement jobs as engineers, mechanics, dough mixers and salesmen. Moreover, the bakery offered little training and never offered timely, written evaluations that might have provided clues to employees' progress, the lawsuit say.

Plant manager A.L. Brewer, through his office, declined to be interviewed. Production supervisor Lee Davis, reached at home and told that he was the target of many employees' allegations, said he wouldn't "justify" the suit by talking about it. Mark Dirkes, an IBC marketing executive at the company's corporate office in Kansas City, further declined Orlando Weekly's request to tour the bakery and see firsthand how Merita workers -- black and white -- interact. "I don't want this to be tried in the press," he said.

But Merita has made some changes since the lawsuits were filed, according to interviews with workers. All job openings, including supervisory positions, are now posted on a bulletin board in the bakery's break room. Black workers report hearing fewer racial comments, and the bakery now employs six African-Americans in supervisory positions -- up from two in the mid-1990s. Two of those men in the shipping department were promoted after being on the job for only a couple of months.

Even so, the plaintiffs' attorney, Lee Barrett, says the changes are small compared with what Merita could be doing.

"We think they should not only be posting jobs, we think they should be getting some meaningful framework for what they look at when they promote their employees," he says. "Nobody knows exactly what the qualifications are. We want equal access to training. A lot of the machines run on computer now, and that requires specialized training. And black workers want equal access to promotions and hiring."

Adds Frank Jackson, a plaintiff in the case: "If they get enough blacks in supervision, maybe they'll have an understanding with the rest of the people that when you have a problem ... you're not systematically wrong. They don't even need to even it out so that supervisors are 50-50, black-white. They just need to make the playing field a little bit more even."

Of the roughly 600 workers employed around the clock at Merita's Division Street bakery, about 60 percent are minorities, mostly African-American. About 40 posts are given over to supervisory or upper-management positions. Roscoe Reed, a retired Merita employee, says the first black supervisor was hired in the mid-1980s in the bakery's shipping department. Not until the mid 1990s was a second black supervisor put in place -- that is, until the lawsuit was filed and several more were hired in succession.

The plaintiffs say that Brewer, the 6-foot, 6-inch, 300-pound plant manager known as "Bo" or "Big Country," and Davis, the production supervisor whose black pickup sports a Confederate flag sticker on the front bumper, are responsible for locking out African-Americans from promotions.

Some white workers agree. "Lee says, 'I don't want this man in this job,' and supervisors don't question him about it," says a white employee who wished to remain anonymous. Davis, he says, takes orders from Brewer, who runs the plant like a "dictatorship." "Bo dictates what he wants and Lee does it," the worker says.

Employees rarely interact with Brewer because he also runs a smaller bakery in Tampa. But they know him as someone who has stormed out of meetings when the subject of racial discrimination has come up. A hunter and fisherman, he's added to the aura of intimidation by showing Reed a pistol he kept in his desk. "It looked to be a .45," says Reed. "It was a big gun. He just showed it to me. A lot of white folks have guns in there."

Workers say Davis' relationship with African-Americans in the plant has been icy at best. Last year officials with Local 103 of the Bakers, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers' Union filed a grievance against Davis after he grabbed the shirt of a black employee named Hugo Harp during a disagreement. Union officials aren't sure what action, if any, the bakery took against Davis. But a month after the incident, workers were disgusted when Davis suddenly showed up for contract negotiations, sitting at the bargaining table as if nothing had happened. "They were sending us a message that, 'Regardless of what you think, we are going to do what we want,'" says John Ehrhardt, the union's business agent. "They were slapping every minority in the face."

Davis was the protégé of former supervisor Harold Henderson. "[Henderson] was a slave driver to blacks," says Robert Dunston, who retired in 1998 after 25 years of what he described as "pure hell" at Merita. "The reason the bakery has gotten away with [mistreating blacks] so long is that [supervisors] came up in that environment."

Henderson's life ended in the mid-1970s at the hands of a black worker named Andrew Chestnut. Chestnut, burdened by marital troubles and aware in advance that he was going to be disciplined by Henderson, shot Henderson in the head and wounded another manager in the bakery's upstairs office. Davis escaped by begging for his life, jumping down a flight of stairs and running to call police.

That incident is now lore. How much it influences conditions under which blacks say they must work at the bakery is unknown. But Dunston insists those conditions are why only 17 employees have come forward to challenge Merita.

"A lot of things happen down there with black folks that never get reported," he says. "People say, ‘I have a wife and family to take care of. I can't do that.' They're scared."

The number of weapons in the plant is a common complaint among black workers. Another plaintiff in the case, Stephen Little, says he reported to management that several white employees were examining a rifle in the company's parking lot. To his astonishment, he says Merita's human-resource director told him it was a toy.

Black workers say they have found other items they felt were meant to intimidate them. Little discovered a noose hanging in a work area and cut it down. Clifton Dancy, the worker who spearheaded the lawsuits, also found a noose and cut it down; when it was re-hung, Little took it down again. A third noose was found in the early 1990s by a white employee named Jim Downs. That noose is being held at the Orange County Courthouse as evidence for trial.

In a deposition, Downs said he hears white workers making racial slurs all the time. He is one of many white workers that Lee Barrett plans to introduce, if necessary, in court.

"I will tell you this," Downs said in his deposition. "A gentleman just last week, realizing that all of these proceedings were going on, first of all made a comment to me about Afro engineering, and, of course, when I said to him, I really don't want to hear that, he said, 'I can say Afro and that's OK. I can say Afro-engineering. I just can't say nigger-rigging.' ... I don't hear black people calling black people niggers but I do hear white people referring to black people as niggers."

After Downs recounted another incident in which an employee wrote on a company form that a piece of machinery had been "nigger-rigged," attorney Leonard Singer, representing Merita's parent company, said:

Q. " ... Mr. Downs, do you understand that the company has an obligation to investigate incidents of this sort?"

A. "I understand that. And if I thought it was going to correct the problem any more than to get the individual in serious trouble, you know I would try to help. But I don't see it as benefiting the atmosphere overall. I mean, if that person was gone, there would just be somebody else there."

Q. "Regarding incidents of this nature, is the company responsive to these incidents?"

A. "I have no respect for their ability to investigate and to handle matters fairly."

John Mahan, the union local's labor-relations consultant, agrees. The union has filed a number of grievances to address conflicts between black workers and management. "Most employers will take effective action once you bring something to their attention," he says. "This particular employer seems to be a lot more deliberate and a lot more defensive. You have to hammer them over the head to convince them that something has happened."

Ehrhardt, the union's business agent, offers this anecdote to sum up Merita's racial relations:

Last March, management met with minority workers to discuss the lawsuits. Under terms of the meeting, every employee present had been excused from work. Yet the next day, Ehrhardt discovered that two workers had been disciplined for not calling in to report that they were at the meeting. Instead of conceding the misunderstanding, supervisors pursued the discipline. Only after the union filed a grievance did Kathy Holland, Merita's human resource director, back down.

"They were just trying to punish these guys through some improper means," Ehrhardt says.

Robert Dunston can count 11 white workers who "jumped over him" to supervisory positions in his 25 years at the bakery. "There's some more, too," he says. "I just can't think of their names."

Stephen Little, who told management he was interested in a supervisory position when he was first hired, saw at least five workers promoted past him during his eight years with Merita.

Clifton Dancy says he trained so many white workers to be his boss that he became frustrated. "It's hard to train someone who will tell you what to do," says Dancy, who has been struggling with the company over these issues since 1985. "It's devastating and depressing."

Says Lee Barrett: "If these guys were good enough to train supervisors, why weren't they good enough to be supervisors?"

With no performance evaluations, black workers say they were never sure where they stood in management's eyes. Moreover, the criteria to be a supervisor was never posted or published, they claim. They say they only realized a supervisor's job was available when they saw a white employee being trained for it.

Little says he asked for a job description for a floorman's position and was given a set of qualifications. Among them, he says, was a listing for "personal appearance." "We all wear the same uniform," Little says. "How are you going to make a judgment on personal appearance other than how my face looks?"

Yet even under the weight of the allegations, the case is no sure thing for the plaintiffs. Discrimination lawsuits are difficult for employees to win. "You can't tell a company's motive," Mahan says, "unless it outright says it."

Plaintiffs here are satisfied to know, however, that theirs is not the only discrimination case against a bakery under IBC's ownership.

Fifteen black workers in a Wonder Bread plant have filed a $260 million lawsuit in San Francisco alleging that African-Americans there were referred to as "lazy" and "welfare people" and denied opportunities for promotions. The bakery was so hostile to blacks. they nicknamed it, "The White House."

Twenty-one employees in Indianapolis seeking unspecified damages claimed that a white worker displayed a Ku Klux Klan sign in the bakery in 1995 and that black employees were treated differently than whites in job training, disciplinary action, job assignments and company benefits.

The Indianapolis plaintiffs lost the first round of the lawsuit, filed in 1996, when a federal district judge dismissed the case because of a procedural error last March. That case is now on appeal.

In Orlando, IBC attorney Singer can be expected to apply a two-pronged defense. One, IBC could tell jurors that the employees who are suing the company have an inadequate work record -- that, in effect, none of them deserved to be promoted. Two, he could argue that those supervisors promoted by the company were at least as competent as the workers it failed to promote.

Singer can also point out that Merita has fired white employees for uttering racial slurs and exhibiting "intimidating conduct." According to court documents, one worker was fired in 1995; a supervisor was fired after an incident in 1997.

Lee Barrett, who successfully argued the T.G. Lee Dairy case in 1996, believes that won't be enough to let Merita off the hook.

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In the T.G. Lee case, 14 black workers complained that supervisors hung black dolls in their offices, references to the KKK and "niggers" were scrawled in the bathroom, supervisors referred to black men as "boy," and a black female worker was subjected to unwanted sexual advances by a white male employee.

The similarities, Barrett says, are obvious. "It's two companies with entrenched good-old-boy systems."

Since the Merita suit has been filed, a few of the plaintiffs report a backlash from other workers, both black and white.

"I'm not trying to make trouble," Dancy says. "I'm trying to make peace." Others who are pursuing the lawsuit say that they've been ignored -- or, conversely, that they now find themselves being micromanaged. "I've got people watching me all the time, looking for some little thing to complain about," says Stephen Little.

If the suit eventually is decided in their favor, Merita workers shouldn't expect too much too soon. Not if T.G. Lee Dairy is an example. According to a dairy employee who asked that his name not be used, opportunities for minorities have indeed increased since T.G. Lee lost its suit in 1996. Yet attitudes are slower to evolve.

"A lawsuit is not going to change people's mind," the worker says. "It might change the way people talk, but it can't change people who don't want to change."


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