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Racial Bind: Black Utility Workers In Georgia See Nooses As Sign of Harassment

April 2, 2001

Suit Alleges Pattern of Bias
At a Southern Co. Unit;
Managers `Had No Idea’

Initiation by Spray-Painting

The Wall Street Journal
By Douglas A. Blackmon and Nicole Harris

In more than a quarter century as an African-American lineman at one of the South’s biggest electric companies, Cornelius Cooper says he abided a stream of racial indignities. He says he was passed over for promotions, subjected to racial slurs and repeatedly spray-painted in his genital area by white employees. Worse, co-workers made light of lynchings, tied hangman’s nooses in his presence and often left such knots displayed in company facilities.

“You didn’t do anything but smile, even though it was intimidating to the max,” Mr. Cooper said in an interview last week.

In July, Mr. Cooper and two others filed a lawsuit alleging that managers at Georgia Power Co. and its parent, Southern Co., unfairly denied promotions to African-American workers, gave lower pay to black employees than to similarly qualified whites and were indifferent to overt harassment of blacks. Attached to the charges, which the companies vigorously deny, was an 8-by-10 color photograph of a noose hanging inside a company building in Cornelia, Ga.

Executives at Georgia Power and its parent company were taken aback. But their surprise wasn’t at finding a noose on the premises; it was in discovering that African-Americans could be offended by one.

“I had no earthly idea that anybody today would consider that to be a racial symbol. None whatsoever,” testified former Southern Chairman and Chief Executive Officer A. W. “Bill” Dahlberg in a deposition given for the case on Jan. 30 but not yet filed with the court. Mr. Dahlberg retired from Southern in February to become the chairman of Mirant Corp., which will be officially spun off from Southern today. Southern is one of the country’s biggest power generators, posting $23.4 billion in revenue last year.

An internal investigation conducted by the company in response to the suit discovered a total of 13 ropes tied as nooses of varying types in eight Georgia Power facilities, according to court filings. The company said it couldn’t account for the origins of all the nooses, some of which had been displayed for several years, but insists that only one of the nooses it found appeared to have been an intentional effort to intimidate a black worker.

Georgia Power also argues that some were not actual hangman’s nooses and that one, wrapped around the neck of a skeleton, was an ex-smoker’s personal reminder not to light up again. The plaintiffs later filed a photograph taken by an employee during the 1990s of an additional noose tied around the neck of a crudely made black figure and allegedly left at the desk of an African-American worker.

Georgia Power’s president and chief executive, David M. Ratcliffe, now says that he also didn’t think of nooses “in a racial context” until the lawsuit was filed. Despite the history of lynching of African-Americans in past decades, Mr. Ratcliffe says many other white managers at the company felt the same way. But since the lawsuit, he says, “there’s no doubt that all of us understand that anything that looks like a noose” would be offensive. “It has no place in the work environment,” he says.

In an interview yesterday, Mr. Dahlberg said there would never have been nooses on company premises if he had realized they offended any employees. “Nobody ever, ever, ever raised the issue of nooses,” he said. Most were found in work areas where there are “hundreds and hundreds” of different ropes and knots.

Mr. Ratcliffe concedes that Georgia Power needs improvement in diversity and racial sensitivity and that the case has prompted it to accelerate a number of diversity initiatives. But he maintains that the failure to realize that black workers might be sensitive to nooses doesn’t indicate that management was indifferent to the issue of racial hostility in the workplace.

The company denies the specific allegations made by Mr. Cooper and the other plaintiffs in the suit, which seeks to represent a class of about 2,000 black workers and demands unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. Even if true, Georgia Power says they are isolated incidents that don’t add up to a pattern of discrimination at the company. The company has asked that part of the case be dismissed on summary judgment. The plaintiffs, who have collected more than 100 affidavits from company employees alleging discrimination and harassment, are expected to file a motion today outlining the evidence gathered so far and their legal argument for class-action status. Rulings on the motions, filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, aren’t expected for several months.

Regardless of the legal outcome, the Southern case offers striking examples of a complex set of new issues driving race discrimination suits across the country and a persistent gap between perceptions of racial matters between many whites and blacks. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says it has filed or resolved more than 20 racial lawsuits in recent years involving a hangman’s knot. Indeed, a 1998 federal Labor Department audit of Alabama Power Co., another unit of Southern, cited the company for “several instances” of nooses being displayed in a power plant, “thereby creating a racially hostile and intimidating work environment.” Mr. Ratcliffe says he was never made aware of that finding at the sister company. As a result, managers at the power plant involved agreed, among other things, to distribute a clear policy forbidding racial harassment and to train all employees on the harassment policy.

Moreover, many companies such as Georgia Power that opened their doors to greater hiring of minorities in the 1970s also are facing increased scrutiny of whether those same workers have been free to advance into middle and upper management. Last year, Coca Cola Co., headquartered just a few blocks from Southern’s downtown Atlanta offices, settled for $192.5 million such a “glass ceiling” case filed by some of the same attorneys involved in Mr. Cooper’s suit.

At Georgia Power, the lawsuit pits Mr. Cooper, a skilled blue-collar worker convinced he has been denied opportunities to succeed, against Mr. Ratcliffe, an articulate Sunday-school teacher from south Georgia who frankly acknowledges his company’s imperfect record on racial issues but adamantly denies any manner of systemic discrimination. The men were hired by Georgia Power within two years of each other in the early 1970s but have never met. Both now argue convincingly that their main goal is ensuring that all workers are treated fairly at Georgia Power, but each views the company’s evolution over the past three decades through profoundly different prisms.

Mr. Cooper’s decision to challenge his employer of 27 years came early in 2000, after his ninth try at being promoted to a mid-level management job since becoming a full-fledged lineman in the mid-1970s. Utility linemen repair or install electric power cables running on poles and underground. Mr. Cooper, 49 years old and graying at the temples, had long hoped to move into a job training other linemen — which would have boosted his annual earnings to about $60,000 from the approximately $43,000 he makes currently. Every time he was turned down, managers told him he needed another training class or should polish a particular skill.At the suggestion of a supervisor, Mr. Cooper, who continues to work at Georgia Power, took a company-organized class on interview techniques. Told by the instructor “you have to sell yourself,” he decided to be “more confident” in his next job interview. He still didn’t get the job. Mr. Cooper says he later was told that one of the managers in the session thought he acted like he “could walk on water.”

The rejection unleashed years of pent-up frustration. “I felt it was race that I was not getting jobs,” he says. Working from his suburban house in Mableton, Ga., Mr. Cooper started spending his days off calling other black linemen around the state. He phoned 27-year Georgia Power lineman Harry Lee on a Saturday last spring, and the two talked at length about their common experiences.

“We come to the same agreement. We should have really done something years ago about it,” he says. Mr. Lee agreed to come to a meeting of black Georgia Power workers from around the state. Over several Saturdays, he and a growing number of African-American workers gathered at a clubhouse in a subdivision not far from Mr. Cooper’s home. The workers dubbed the meetings “Quiet Storm,” as word of the effort spread quietly among black employees.

Workers sat in chairs strewn across the room while others barbecued hot dogs and hamburgers outside. One by one, they swapped stories of their personal battles. “It took a load off you when you could finally discuss what was going on,” says Tommy Trimiar, 46, a lineman who photographed the noose that later became part of the case. “There was a lot of agony and passion at those meetings,” recalled Sylvester Storey, 45, another lineman. Each meeting ended with a prayer.

Mr. Cooper’s wife, Emma, said the meetings transformed her husband. In the past, when Mr. Cooper came home after being turned down for another promotion, she would “walk a chalk line” around him. After she found his underwear stained with spray-paint years earlier, the two had argued intensely. “I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t say anything to stop it, but he just said, `They’ll consider me a troublemaker,’ ” Mrs. Cooper said.

Mr. Cooper says white co-workers forcibly stripped him nearly 20 times during the 1970s and 1980s and spray-painted him — a coarse initiation tradition inflicted on new linemen that he believes some whites used to repeatedly harass African-Americans. That allegation isn’t included in the lawsuit, though he has testified about the incidents under oath in depositions for the case.

Other linemen confirm that the practice was common well into the 1980s, usually involving the distinctive cans of green paint carried on utility-crew trucks to repaint power transformers. One other black lineman involved in the meetings said in an interview last week that he also believed blacks were more likely to be spray-painted than whites; another said the practice was equally applied to both races. Company officials confirm that painting was a common ritual until managers ordered it stopped about a decade ago. They deny that African-American men were singled out for the practice.

Whatever the case, Mrs. Cooper says her husband’s new activism has lifted a burden. “My old Neal Cooper is coming back,” she says.

After several meetings at the clubhouse, Quiet Storm was regularly gathering about 40 men from around Georgia. Initially, the workers planned to sign a complaint letter and send it to top Southern executives. But Mr. Cooper says he became convinced, particularly as the discrimination suit at Coke unfolded, that legal action was the better route. Reading about the Coke case in a newspaper article, he decided to call one of the Atlanta firms involved in that suit. Two lawyers from Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore LLP attended the next meeting at the clubhouse and subsequently agreed to represent the workers. Plaintiffs’ attorney Johnnie Cochran later joined the legal team. Named plaintiffs in the case now include two men and five women, drawing from a mix of the companies’ blue- and white-collar work forces.

After taking the helm at Georgia Power in June 1999 — not long before the rejection that spurred Mr. Cooper to action — Mr. Ratcliffe says he had identified diversity as a major interest for the following year. In March 2000, he launched a series of employee focus groups and surveys investigating the company’s diversity practices. Mr. Ratcliffe says the company’s regular equal-employment-opportunity reports had showed “nothing” indicating any patterns of racial disparity in pay or promotion — a position the plaintiffs strongly dispute.

The day the case was filed in July, Georgia Power announced it created a 12-member diversity advisory council led by Mr. Ratcliffe and a black member of the company’s board, Juanita P. Baranco, head of a large local auto dealership company.

More than 70 employees were pulled into five work teams charged by Mr. Ratcliffe to examine diversity issues. A few weeks later, Georgia Power created a new position of vice president of diversity action. The company also reviewed about 60 individual complaints raised by employees on diversity and compensation issues, and it made salary adjustments in some cases, Mr. Ratcliffe said.

By last fall, the diversity effort had produced 33 proposed initiatives to improve the company’s practices, which Mr. Ratcliffe outlined in a closed-circuit television address to employees. The steps include improved access to job postings, a confidential pay review and diversity training for all employees.

Mr. Ratcliffe said he also reached out to the black employees, including Mr. Cooper, who declined to talk to the CEO without his lawyer present. Another African-American employee told Mr. Ratcliffe of a Ku Klux Klan attack on his boyhood home, including the burning of a cross and hanging of an effigy with a hangman’s noose. “Now that I understand it, I have a sensitivity that I must have,” Mr. Ratcliffe said. “And I understand why it’s so offensive.”

(Copyright (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

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