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JULY 7, 2000
GOODYEAR BIAS CHARGE BACKED
BY JOSEPH PICARD
Two former managers at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.'s now-defunct North Brunswick warehouse have confirmed allegations by 11 former employees of anti-black bias and racial discrimination by the facility's all-white management.
The 11 ex-employees, all black, are suing the corporate giant and several plant managers for discrimination and a hostile workplace.
The plaintiffs claim they were called "niggers" and "black bucks" by certain members of management.
They say one white manager referred to an area where the blacks worked as "the plantation."
Goodyear, with a reputation for commitment to diversity, denies the charges. The case has been in the courts for over two years.
But the statements of the two men, both of whom are white, were entered into the court record in February after Goodyear's attorneys waged an unsuccessful, year-long battle to keep the documents out.
The statements corroborate the racial slurs and the claims of blacks being passed over for promotions.
A gag order imposed by the presiding U.S. District Court Judge prohibits any parties to the case from talking to the press. But the public record of court documents lays out the tale of a serious problem for a progressive company.
BIAS AT GOODYEAR PLANT, EX-MANAGERS SAY
NEWARK - Two former managers at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Inc.'s North Brunswick warehouse have confirmed allegations by 11 former employees of anti-black bias and racial discrimination by members of the facility's all-white management.
The 11 ex-employees, all black, have been in court since 1998, seeking more than $100 million from the company for discrimination and crating a hostile workplace. The plaintiffs claim, among other things, that they were called "niggers" by certain managers, and the place where the black workers unloaded railcars was referred to by a manager as "the plantation." The blacks also claim they were passed over for promotion because of their race.
The plant closed in December, 1999. The workers, including the plaintiffs, were laid off, and the warehouse operation moved to York , Pa.
Goodyear, an international corporation often lauded for commitment to diversity, denies the claims. Indeed, the company and several of the plan managers filed counterclaims in 1998 alleging slander and character assassination. The case has been in the courts for more than two years.
Judge Nicholas H. Politan, sitting in Newark , imposed a gag order on all parties in the case, barring them from talking to the press. But court records reveal that two men, Robert Whyler and Larry Guffey, both of whom are white and were managers at the North Brunswick warehouse in the early 1990s, have submitted statements to Glenn Bergenfield, the Princeton attorney representing the plaintiffs, backing up the plaintiffs' claims.
Whyler is retired from the Akron, Ohio-based company and lives in Akron . He was warehouse superintendent at the North Brunswick facility from June 1992 to December 1993. He said he contacted Bergenfield after reading the statements of Richard Adante, a Goodyear vice president of warehouse operations that appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal June 8, 1998 .
Adante is quoted as saying there is "absolutely nothing" to the New Jersey black workers' claims.
"It's a real punch in the stomach after all the time and energy we have committed to diversity," Adante told the paper.
Whyler said he was angered by Adante's disingenuousness, saying Adante knew about the situation in North Brunswick and had assigned Whyler to the position for the purpose of quieting dissension and lifting morale among the workers. Whyler told Bergenfield that the race problem was evident and that he himself was called a "nigger lover" for sitting at the "black lunch table." He also corroborated the plaintiffs' claim that one of the managers called the railway area where blacks worked "the plantation."
Whyler also told Bergenfield that a colleague, Guffey, may want to speak with him.
Guffey, who still works for Goodyear in Akron , was on the management team at North Brunswick for several years staring in 1989. He told Bergenfield that the "break room" society was "the most segregated I have ever worked in." Guffey said that Tom Martin, the plant manager that Whyler replaced in 1992 and one of the defendants, referred to blacks as "spoons." When Guffey asked him what he meant, Martin said, "That is what you Southern boys know as niggers," according to Guffey's statement in the court record.
Statements by Guffey and Whyler were only allowed into the case record on Feb. 14, following a decision by Judge Politan. The inclusion of the eyewitness statements, which directly refute the company's position, went unnoticed by the media, partially because of the gag order entered the previous week. When contacted, neither Bergenfield nor Goodyear's attorney, Marilyn Sneirson of the Newark firm of Reed Smith Shaw & McClay, would speak to the press, both saying they were constrained by the judge's order. Bergenfield would not come to the phone. Sneirson would speak only about the procedural issues of the case.
When asked if Goodyear had changed its position in light of the statements of Whyler and Guffey, she said, "That is just the sort of question I cannot answer."
But court documents, which are public record, make clear that Goodyear and its attorneys did everything they could to keep the statements of Guffey and Whyler out of the case record. They nearly succeeded.
Whyler contacted Bergenfield in the summer of 1998. Bergenfield , on Whyler's information, contacted Guffey in September and had, apparently, three conversations with him. When Goodyear learned of Guffey's conversations with Bergenfield, the company's attorneys placed Guffey under their representation and charged that Bergenfield had improperly solicited Guffey's statements.
Sneirson and her colleagues said Bergenfield violated the Rules of Professional Conduct for an attorney by not properly identifying himself to Guffey nor inquiring if Guffey was being represented by any legal counsel. The attorneys basically claimed that Bergenfield ambushed and bamboozled Guffey, Guffey was deposed and seemed to agree that Bergenfield took advantage of him. Goodyear asked the judge, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald J. Hedges, to throw out Guffey's statement, as well as any other statements Bergenfield may have gotten in similar manner and to kick Bergenfield off the case.
In February, 1999, Hedges granted Goodyear's motion. Bergenfield and the plaintiffs appealed the decision and the case went to Judge Politan. Politan decided that Guffey's deposition was not credible and said that, although Bergenfield may have been a little sloppy professionally in obtaining his information, he had violated no rules of conduct. Politan, therefore, reversed Hedge's decision - Bergenfield remained on the case and the statements of the two white managers entered the record.
The statements of Whyler and Guffey are both potentially damaging to Goodyear's case and embarrassing to the corporate image. The corporation has a reputation for sensitivity to ethnic and cultural issues. In May, for example, Goodyear received an award from the United Negro College Fund for its continued support of UNCF. In 1997, corporate chairman and CEO Samir Gibara partook in President Clinton's Akron town meeting on race and diversity.
"Diversity is not just the right thing to do," Gibara said, "It's the smart thing to do."
Nonetheless, the North Brunswick lawsuit has not been the only rough patch on the tiremaker's road to multi-racial harmony. In 1997, Goodyear was forced to apologize for a television commercial in Peru that ran earlier in the year and compared tires to the size of a black man's lips. The commercial aired for five days while Goodyear's top executive in Peru was out of the country. Goodyear said the executive immediately yanked it when he returned.
Sneirson said the plaintiffs have all been deposed and that deposition of the defendants is set to begin this summer. When depositions are complete, the company will move for summary judgment, Sneirson said. No trial date has yet been set.