The White Power Company
Ron Davis runs his fingers over an old, yellow hard hat.
“Sick,” he says in a low voice. “Just sickening.”
The hat takes Davis back to 1967, his first year working for Kansas City Power & Light. He was a groundsman, using a pulley to get tools and equipment to the linesmen who repaired power lines from up on top of poles. One of only a few black people in his department, Davis knew he wasn’t expected to last for long. His black coworkers had told him he’d have it easier if he just bid for a transfer to the tree-trimming department. But Davis said no. He wasn’t going anywhere, no matter what he had to put up with.
Davis squints at the words scrawled on his hard hat. Across the top, almost completely faded, is “NIGGER.” Across the back, “KKK.”
Davis had promised himself he would never put up with that kind of treatment, so he went to his supervisor to complain. He got nowhere.
“They said, ‘Well, Davis, you know, part of getting along here, and working here, is everybody here’s got a nickname.'”
Things only got worse. Many of the linesmen chewed tobacco while they worked, and they made a game out of aiming to spit the slimy black liquid squarely on top of Davis’ head. Every day, his yellow hat would be brown by the end of his shift. Every day, angry and frustrated, he would go home and wash off the congealed scum. Davis’ coworkers kept finding new ways to show him he wasn’t welcome. One day, he and another black employee found “COON BARN” written across the cab of their truck.
Davis didn’t have a lot of experience dealing with racial harassment. During his childhood, Kansas City, like the rest of the country, had been segregated. He’d grown up in black neighborhoods on Nebraska and Everett streets in Kansas City, Kansas, and had attended all-black schools. Davis remembers having to eat sandwiches standing up at the counter at corner restaurants while whites sat down at the tables. Blacks could enter only a small area of Swope Park. Staying away from whites was a part of life. He’d never had many encounters with white folks, but his parents had talked to him often about the discrimination he surely would encounter.
“They told us to be courteous and respectful and to treat people like we would want to be treated and all that — no matter what,” he says.
Davis entered the U.S. Navy straight out of high school, and there he got his education in discrimination. He lived in the same barracks and ate in the same mess halls with white men who had grown up living in all-white neighborhoods, swimming in all-white public pools, and eating at all-white diners. Davis had to deal with racist put-downs on a daily basis.
“I found out they were the ones who had the problem,” he says. “I told myself that because I was putting my life on the line for my country like everybody else, I wouldn’t tolerate being a second-class citizen in any form whatsoever and I would always stand up and fight against racism whenever I saw it.”
Davis was in his mid-20s when he got a job with KCPL. In 1967, the company had a total of 2,155 employees — and 63 of them were minorities. Almost half of those minorities were service workers (janitors and night watchmen) and unskilled laborers (tree trimmers, car washers, street-lighting workers, and drivers). No minorities held management positions.
His bosses told him that after a six-month probationary period, he could apply for membership to Local 1464 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Davis had heard that certain jobs — such as that of a linesman — and certain departments were unofficially white. The overhead department, where he worked, was one of those. “It was common knowledge. If you wanted to stick around for more than six months, not be out of a job, you’d bid out (for a transfer),” he says.
Davis remembers that a supervisor told him when he first started that he could never expect to do much more than push a broom at KCPL. Black men could not be meter readers because it was “too early in the morning for black men to be going in white neighborhoods, to be going around white women.”
He decided to work to make a change. His goal was to integrate all the departments and get minorities promoted into supervisory positions. Davis grabbed any chance to make a statement.
“Management — they all knew my name. They hated me,” he remembers.
Davis tried to deal with the harassment from coworkers in the way his father had taught him to. He’d call all the men — black or white — “brother.”
“They’d tell me, ‘You got your people mixed up,’ or ‘I ain’t your brother.'” He’d tell them, “Just like I can’t control how you feel about me, you can’t control how I feel about you. And I accept you as my brother.”
Every now and then, he’d overstep his bounds. When a coworker called him a “black boy,” he waited until the end of the shift and asked the supervisor to gather the crew around.
“I pointed the fella out and I told everybody on the crew, ‘This guy here just called me a black something and I want you guys to know I ain’t gonna tolerate name-calling or discrimination in any form whatsoever.’ Actually I said, ‘I’d kill the SOB about something like that.'”
Supervisors called Davis in for a reprimand. He knew he was becoming unpopular with managers, but he vowed to keep fighting discrimination.
After his six-month probationary period, Davis was up for admission to the union. Davis’ coworkers had to vote him in — but instead, they rejected him. He later found out that a black friend of his — a childhood and Navy buddy he says “wanted to be one of the boys” — had voted against him. White coworkers who found out about it began to harass Davis. Some of them said to him, “Hey, Davis, even your own people don’t like you.”
A few months later, KCPL fired Davis. He was sure it was a result of his outspokenness, so he filed a complaint with a local civil rights group, which contacted KCPL and demanded that he be reinstated. He also complained to the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, which investigated and found “probable cause that (KCPL) is practicing a pattern of discrimination with regard to race.” The company responded by saying that it maintained relationships with the Urban League and other groups and advertised “in the local Negro newspapers.” It also promised to hold meetings with small groups of minority employees to “hear their job concerns firsthand.”
In August 1968, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) met with KCPL officials to discuss minority hiring and practices. According to a company memorandum regarding the meeting, the EEOC became “more and more critical of the company’s efforts in the area of minority-group hiring” and the “meeting ended on a rather strained note with members of the EEOC committee unwilling to hear the last part of the company’s presentation.” The EEOC promised to return the following year for a “detailed investigation.” The EEOC’s summary of the meeting showed that the percent of black employees jumped from 9.5 in 1967 to 26.2 in 1968.
“While statistically this picture shows a significant percentage increase in minority employment, it undoubtedly reflects two things,” the EEOC wrote. “First, the company’s … efforts in the area are of recent origin, and secondly that more aggressive efforts are needed to attract and retain minority group members for jobs in all levels. There were more nonwhites hired during the first eight months of 1968 than had been hired in the 35 years between 1930 and 1965.”
Pressure from the state and EEOC got Davis his job back. But instead of reinstating Davis so that he could avoid another six-month probation period, the company rehired him as a helper at the power plant where the former Flamingo Casino now sits. His job description included sweeping floors and cleaning equipment. His first day, he decided to do something about the segregated locker rooms.
“I checked out at the end of the day where the time clock was. I saw steam coming out of what I knew then was a locker room and a shower — for the white guys. The black guys had a locker room and a shower down in a cubbyhole by the basement. So I immediately went and took all my belongings out of the basement and moved upstairs,” Davis remembers.
He says he heard a rumor that the company wanted to terminate him but did not want to risk more trouble with the state or the EEOC.
After six months, Davis became an auxiliary operator at the power plant, reading charts and assisting operators. During the year he held that position, he trained a new employee: Bailus Tate, now KCPL’s vice president of human resources. Tate, an African-American and prominent community member who has since served on the city’s board of police commissioners and is running for city council, never attended any of the meetings when minority employees gathered to address racial discrimination, Davis says. “He more or less acted like there wasn’t any discrimination and everything was fine.”
Davis watched Tate rise up through the company. It was a phenomenon black workers would later call “window dressing” — promoting the less outspoken minorities as token supervisors.
Davis made one more move at the company the following year. He bid back out to the overhead department, where he worked at a storage facility filling orders and loading trucks the linesmen used. He worked the night shift and stayed in that position for about 15 years.
Over the years, he wrote letters to supervisors and filed various complaints. Sometimes he would ask black coworkers to sign them, because supervisors would tell him that he was the only one with a problem. Some workers, he remembers, were not as vocal as he was but felt discrimination nonetheless. Others agreed with him in private but told him he was crazy and refused to do anything that might jeopardize their own careers.
After about 15 years of working the night shift, Davis heard from his boss that he would be promoted to a foreman position. But one day in 1984, before he could take the position, he was called for jury duty. After serving as a juror for several days, Davis received a notice at the courthouse. It was from KCPL. He was being fired for stealing, sleeping on the job, and using a company vehicle without authorization.
He found out that the company had hired a private investigator to pose as a worker. The investigator said he saw Davis going from truck to truck looking for something to steal and taking something out of one of the trucks. The investigator also reported that one time he and Davis had used a company vehicle to go to 7-Eleven for food on their lunch break.
Davis and five other African-Americans who also had been terminated decided to sue. The others quickly settled for $8,000 each, but Davis was determined to take it to court — he was sure he would win. The company upped the ante to $24,000, but he refused to accept the money. He got an attorney from Legal Aid and had several coworkers — many of them white — testify that they had never seen him asleep on the job and that it was common practice to use company vehicles to get lunch. But the all-white jury found in favor of KCPL. Davis was out of a job.
Thirteen years later, in 1998, Davis was sitting in his living room watching the evening news when he saw an interview with a man named Norman Ross. Ross was a college-educated KCPL meter reader who had been denied promotions for 20 years. Ross had filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the company. Davis just stared at the TV.
Then he phoned Ross, and the two had a long talk.
When Norman Ross started at KCPL in 1979, he believed in the American dream. He wanted to move up the ladder at the company, increase his salary, and buy a nice house. Ross, along with his three siblings, had been raised in poverty by Ross’ grandmother in Topeka. His mother had constant health problems, and he had never known his father. Ross grew up with the desire to work hard and better his position in society. When he graduated from Penn Valley Community College, he became the first in his family to get a degree.Ross started working at KCPL without thinking too much about discrimination. He imagined he would work hard, get along with his supervisors, and be promoted. One thing nagged at him, though. It seemed as though a large number of other African-Americans were hired by KCPL around the same time as he. That raised questions: Had KCPL hired a large group of black workers under pressure? Had there been complaints of discrimination or racism?
Ross worked as a plant helper, doing the same job Davis had done when KCPL rehired him in 1968. Ross figured that starting out sweeping floors at the power plant would pay off and that he’d get promoted quickly. After all, several managers did not have even associate’s degrees. He also planned to go back to school and get his bachelor’s degree in computer science.
But a year later, when Ross was offered another position, it wasn’t a promotion — it was another entry-level job. Ross became a meter reader, a job that would not have been available to him a decade earlier.
The position was unique within the company. After completing a route of about 300 houses, a meter reader would get paid for a full day’s work — no matter how long it took. At the time, Ross says, he was an “exercise-aholic” and would jog from house to house and sometimes complete the route in three hours. The job was not one he wanted to stay in, however. Meter readers had to be out in the harsh weather. Often they got chased by dogs and had to climb fences.
But he was good at his job and became known as the “running meter reader.” Supervisors praised him in his annual reviews, one saying he “learns quickly, progresses rapidly, and makes few mistakes.” He remembers sometimes taking out the garbage or getting the mail for elderly customers on his route.
“I took my job very seriously,” he says.
Ross imagined that KCPL held many opportunities for advancement. He enrolled at Rockhurst College (now University) in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in computer systems management. He used his extra time to study and often held second, part-time jobs — as a tile layer, a janitor, even as an aerobics instructor. And Ross learned COBOL, a computer programming language that was in high demand. He received his degree in May of 1989, expecting that it would help him move up in the company.
But Ross didn’t know that Dan Davidson, the white manager of customer operations who oversaw several departments, including that of meter reading — and who made $84,000 a year without even an associate’s degree — had vowed that there would “never be a nigger or a spic” in a supervisory position in any of his departments. That comment would only come out later, as evidence in a discrimination lawsuit against KCPL.
Ross did, however, know something was wrong. He saw it all around him.
“Indifferent and hostile — that was their attitude. African-Americans were just looked down upon. And especially if you showed any signs of intelligence, you were treated different, as if you were some kind of threat,” Ross remembers. “There were comments directed toward me — ‘Don’t mess with the intelligent one.’ There were times I was extremely frustrated … the only thing I really had control of in the situation was my attitude. I had to work within the system.”
As they had with Davis, other black workers would ask Ross what they could do about the problems. Despite supervisors’ knowledge that Ross wanted to move up in the company, he remained a meter reader while whites got promoted around him. In 1990, after Ross failed to get a computer position for which he had applied, he and a black female employee decided to write a letter to Joe Ann Alexander, manager of employee relations, who was also black.
“That was my death knell,” he says of the decision. “They were arrogant about their approach to the whole racial problem at Kansas City Power & Light. And it didn’t just stop at the racial, the African-American issue. This spilled over into how Hispanics and females in general were being treated. And I made that very clear in the letter.”
Nothing came of the letter and a subsequent meeting with Alexander, except that Ross solidified his belief that vocal minorities were blacklisted at KCPL. By 1996, there were still no black supervisors in the meter-reading department, just as Davidson had promised.
“When you complained, you were setting yourself up. Either you’re going out the door or they’d make it miserable for you … through intimidation and subjective evaluations,” Ross says. “If you buck the system, you’re not going to go very far at Kansas City Power & Light. They wanted people like me to quit. That way, they wouldn’t have to deal with the issue.”
E-mails between supervisors, later presented in court, showed that bosses felt that Ross was making a bother of himself, constantly seeking promotions and complaining about racism and discrimination.
Ross says most white employees knew better than to make derogatory comments within his earshot, but he heard of such slurs from other black employees. Then, in 1995, while Alexander was giving a seminar on racial harassment, Ross overheard white employees repeatedly calling her a “black bitch.” He went to talk with Alexander about the comments, hoping that she would take swift action to let employees know such comments would not be tolerated. Instead, he says, Alexander just shrugged her shoulders.
“I went to her and I looked to her in good faith because it really concerned me. Those people use that word, and then when you start saying ‘black’ in front of it, it has a racial overtone. She just said that’s kind of the way it is and that was it.”
Alexander did not return phone calls for this story.
In public, Alexander would claim that the company had a “zero-tolerance” policy when it came to discrimination and racism.
That year, Ross also learned that KCPL planned to phase out meter readers over a period of a few years, replacing them with an automated system called Cell Net. Ross’ desire for a promotion became urgent — he was worried that he would end up jobless after all the time he had put in at KCPL. He and other meter readers received memos from the company, notifying them that they were welcome to apply for janitorial positions. After 16 years and excellent reviews from his supervisors, Ross was insulted.
After getting his bachelor’s degree, Ross had taken more courses in computers as well as in business communications. He had applied for 13 jobs within the company.
KCPL denied him interviews for several of the positions and, with other positions, passed him over in favor of white candidates — sometimes with less experience and education.
In June of 1998, Ross filed a lawsuit. Attorney Dennis Egan of the Popham Law Firm represented him. Finally in 1999, as discovery for his lawsuit was under way, Ross obtained a promotion to a computer position. He had applied for the job before and had been turned down for an interview. After promoting Ross, the company spent $10,000 to send him to an intensive training class. A year later, he again was promoted to programmer analyst.
Ross doesn’t believe it was a coincidence that he was promoted after he filed his lawsuit. But the company’s efforts to appease Ross came too late.
Norman Ross’ suit was the first in what looks to be a torrent of racial discrimination cases that could force Kansas City Power & Light to pay out millions in lost wages, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees to blacks, Hispanics, and females. The utility company now operates in Kansas and Missouri, owns four power plants, and employs 800 managers and 1,400 union members; its net worth is $864 million.On July 3, a U.S. District Court jury of eight (two blacks and six whites) found that KCPL had denied Ross two promotions because of his race, and awarded him $16,000 in lost wages and $1.5 million in punitive damages. Ross is still waiting for the judge’s final ruling on whether to reduce the amount of damages, and KCPL is expected to appeal.
And at the end of August, three black women who had been passed over for promotions in favor of white candidates settled out of court with KCPL for undisclosed amounts. Dennis Egan, who represented Ross and the three women, expects to file a class-action lawsuit on behalf of up to 50 minority and female employees who claim the company fostered a hostile work environment and discriminated against them. Hispanic employees and former employees, one of whom testified on behalf of Ross, also have a lawsuit pending (see story on page 18). A white man who was fired after complaining about what he believed to be the disproportionately harsh discipline of a black coworker also is suing.
“Having a total of 60 people coming forward with what we believe are meritorious claims should put KCPL on notice,” Egan says.
Kansas City Power & Light officials refused to comment for this story.
Egan had called a variety of current and former KCPL employees to testify on Ross’ behalf. His lawsuit alleged that he’d been discriminated against when the company denied him five of the positions for which he had applied (one union position, four computer positions). The jury found in favor of Ross on two of the five positions.
Testimony in Ross’ case revealed that some white employees got better positions than minorities without even applying. A white woman named Vicki Barczak, a meter reader who had been hired eight years after Ross and had less formal education, was promoted to manager over meter services in 1998. Dan Davidson, who had commented that no “niggers and spics” would become supervisors as long as he was around and who had no college degree, had been promoted in the same manner in 1994.
Other instances of discrimination and managers’ failure to address it emerged in court.
George Crump, a black employee who works in the sales department, testified that he talked with Joe Ann Alexander about three African-American women who did not get promotions. Alexander told him she believed their supervisor was discriminating against them, but she failed to take action.
Mike Craig, the manager of employee benefits, testified that he had spoken with Bailus Tate about the lack of promotions and step-ups (temporary supervisory positions) for minorities and that Tate said step-ups “were basically the department head’s decision and that there was really nothing HR could do about it.”
Alexander also admitted on the stand that she did not know why an African-American female with a college degree who took a position as a programmer analyst in 1999 received only $1,000 as a signing bonus while two white males who did not yet have degrees received $3,000 signing bonuses for similar positions.
Records of KCPL hirings from 1995 through 1999 show that out of 409 new employees, 27 were black males; some of them held janitorial positions and a few were managers.
“You can’t lay the blame on every nonminority individual at Kansas City Power & Light,” Ross says. “There were just certain people who had the power to change the system who did not. They refused to deal with the issue, whether it was overt racism or subtle racism.”
In court, Alexander said that Kansas City Power & Light subscribed to a “zero-tolerance” policy when it came to harassment or discrimination based on one’s race.
But other employees testified that a white employee who had commented that “there should have been more niggers and bitches in (the) Oklahoma City (bombing)” got just eight hours of suspension without pay after Alexander investigated (and company policy allowed a vacation day to cover such suspensions). Alexander indicated that “zero tolerance” at KCPL does not mean immediate termination of individuals who make racist comments.
“Discharge to us equates to capital punishment. And … we do not believe that every time someone makes a mistake or says something that they are to suffer capital punishment,” Alexander said.
In closing arguments, Egan urged the jury to come down hard on KCPL with high punitive damages, arguing that such an award could spur management to root out discrimination, take racial harassment seriously, and actively promote minorities and women. KCPL never listened to Ross, he told the jury, but hitting the company financially would force it to address the problem.
It appears the $1.5 million in punitive damages the jury awarded to Ross has caught the company’s attention. At the end of August, KCPL decided that its law firm, Bioff Singer and Finucane, which had represented the company in Ross’ case, needed reinforcements. The company hired the high-profile Shughart Thompson & Kilroy to help with the upcoming litigation.
Egan says he expects much more evidence of a hostile environment at KCPL to be admitted by the judge in the class-action suit, which will be much broader.
In Ross’ case, Egan says, “We could have brought other people who had heard racial slurs, but the jury would say, ‘Was that isolated?’ That will not be a problem with the class action. That will go across all the boundaries and all the pattern and practice.”
But it won’t go back to 1967.Ron Davis, now 59, sometimes thinks about people his age who are getting ready to retire while he still struggles in entry-level positions. He says he has paid for his outspokenness — he recently left a job at an electric business after being accused of causing “racial problems.”
“It really does bother me. I’ve been out of work now three months — house payment due, utility bills due. It ain’t no fun. I just look myself in the mirror and say, ‘Everybody else that graduated from high school with you is retired, holding a good job, or living good, and you’re still going through some of this bullshit, so to speak.’ It ain’t nothing to be happy and proud of, but everybody has to do what they think is right.”
Davis had mixed emotions when he saw news of Norman Ross’ lawsuit on television. “It’s just ironic how, after all of those years, when I saw this young fellow on TV talking about the discrimination that he was going through, it was the same as what it was when I was there. I was glad to see a person like him stepping up to do something about it. But I felt kind of sad. It made me realize that the fight and the struggle is still going on.”