Court: Texas Company Unfair to Black Workers

October 22, 2009

State historical markers outside the headquarters of Lufkin Industries Inc. in Lufkin, Texas, tell how the company started repairing sawmill equipment at the turn of the 20th century and grew to make many of the pumps dotting the world’s oil fields.

But a different history has been written in a class-action lawsuit winding to a close. That story describes how the 107-year-old company for years discriminated against its black employees, assigning them to the worst jobs and repeatedly denying them promotions.

More than a thousand of the company’s current and former black employees stand to divvy up $5.5 million in back pay and interest as compensation for what a federal judge in June called the company’s unlawful discrimination in awarding promotions.

While each worker will get a relatively modest sum, those who brought the lawsuit see the award as validation of their struggle for equality in a region often associated with racial turmoil – most famously the 1998 dragging death of a black man, James Byrd Jr., by three white men in nearby Jasper.

“It’s not about the money,” said Sylvester McClain, 62, the former employee who initiated the suit. “It’s about equal pay, equal treatment, equal justice.”

Lufkin Industries employs about 1,200 in Lufkin, making it one of the largest employers in the city of 33,000 about 120 miles northeast of Houston. Publicly traded since 1990, the company makes gearboxes for industrial use as well as oil field equipment.

McClain, a longtime local civil rights activist who worked for the company for 36 years, said discrimination was a tradition there.

“It had been practiced by the granddaddy, the daddy, the son and the son’s son,” he said.

Buford Thomas, who spent 17 years with the company and filed the original complaint with McClain, said signs designating “black” and “white” showers remained in one plant into the 1990s. Although such segregation was no longer enforced, blacks and whites gravitated to the different showers, Thomas said.

“You can’t deny the truth of something when you see it every day,” he said of the discrimination.

Jay Glick, who has served as the company’s president since 2007 and its chief executive officer since 2008, declined to be interviewed.

“Since the case is still before the courts for final resolution of several issues, it would be inappropriate for us to comment,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

Along with the $5.5 million in damages, U.S. District Judge Ron Clark has ordered Lufkin to pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees, estimated at nearly $5.6 million after 12 years of litigation.

The ruling hasn’t hurt the company’s standing in Lufkin, where its red and white logo is ubiquitous and the library and an elementary school bear the names of former executives.

Local officials point to the company’s community involvement, particularly its role in raising money for the United Way.

“What’s the old saying? So goes General Motors, so goes the country? Well, there’s a lot of truth in that when you talk about (Lufkin Industries) in this community,” said Jack Gorden, a Lufkin banker who is in his second term as the city’s mayor.

Gorden, who worked summers at the company while in college in the 1960s, said he hasn’t heard anything that convinces him it engaged in widespread discrimination.

But rulings, testimony and statistical analyses generated by the lawsuit show the company channeled black workers into its foundry, where conditions were harshest, and unfairly denied promotions to black employees more than 100 times.

Among those who testified during a bench trial in 2003 and 2004 was Calvin Deason, a black worker who had spent nine years as a chipper/grinder in the foundry. He described what breathing dust particles had done to his health and his unsuccessful attempts to move elsewhere within the company.

“If I was to wipe my nose right now, it would be black,” Deason testified.

U.S. District Judge Howell Cobb found the company liable for both its handling of promotions and its placement of black workers in the foundry. However, the foundry ruling was struck down on appeal because the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission hadn’t investigated the matter.

Cobb died in 2005, shortly after ruling on the case. The appellate court sent it to Clark, Cobb’s successor, for more specific orders.

The rulings have been particularly gratifying for McClain, who began working in Lufkin’s now-defunct trailer division after earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star as a medical corpsman in Vietnam.

“I mean, here I am,” he said. “I’ve finished high school, fought for my country, kept my nose clean, and I can’t get anywhere.”

Retired since 2008, McClain still wears the watch with the company logo he received for 20-plus years of service.

“It’s something that represents a lot of years of my life,” he said. “It also represents everything we’ve gone through in this fight.”

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