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For years, hangmen’s nooses dangled in Georgia Power plants across the state. But the power company’s white supervisors say they never noticed them until Georgia Power and its parent company, Southern Co., were sued by 13 black employees last year, according to depositions in the case. Now those nooses, one of them looped around the throat of a black doll and another wrapped around a skeleton, have emerged as a lightning rod in the litigation. Next month, attorneys for the 13 plaintiffs will ask for class action certification. They will claim that the nooses symbolize a pervasive company culture that systematically shortchanges African-Americans in promotions and pay. The nooses were the dark side of a “Southern Style,” plaintiffs say, the company’s own description of a subjective profile of the ideal employee. Black employees, the plaintiffs say, were alienated by a “Southern Style” that included meetings such as one in 1999 with an antebellum theme where marketing department managers sang and danced to “Dixie.” NEW GRAFFITI Hangmen’s nooses appear to be the new graffiti of racial harassment across the nation, says David B. Grinberg, an official with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington. He says the EEOC has filed or resolved more than 20 suits in the past few years involving the display of a hangman’s noose. Dozens more charges involving nooses are pending with EEOC offices across the country, he says. “It’s a deeply troubling trend,” Grinberg says. “It fundamentally threatens not only a person’s livelihood but their very life existence. The implicit threat is that they’re going to be killed.” Steven J. Rosenwasser, an attorney with Atlanta’s Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore who is representing the plaintiffs, calls the hangman’s nooses “the single most chilling representation of racial harassment.” Rosenwasser is working with Bondurant partner Michael B. Terry, Los Angeles attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and Atlanta lawyer Hezekiah Sistrunk Jr. The attorneys intend to petition U.S. District Judge Orinda D. Evans to certify the case as a class action next month. Cooper v. Georgia Power, No. 00-CV-2231 (N.D. Ga. Aug. 28, 2000). The potential class includes as many as 2,400 employees, Rosenwasser says. Georgia Power employs about 9,000 people. Georgia Power attorneys insist that the emphasis on nooses is misplaced. Some of the “nooses,” they say, were only knotted rope used by linemen in their jobs. And if there were nooses, they say, white workers didn’t realize it could be offensive to their African-American co-workers. “None of the nooses we found had ever been used to harass anyone or intimidate anyone,” says Stephen W. Riddell of Atlanta’s Troutman Sanders, which represents Georgia Power in the litigation. “It’s a totally subjective viewpoint as to what’s a noose and not a noose,” says Riddell. “Many people will tell you a hangman’s noose will require 13 coils �. Some of them are pieces of rope tied into knots as opposed to a traditional hangman’s noose.” Nonetheless, Riddell says that since the suit was filed the company has removed anything even vaguely resembling a noose in an effort not to offend anyone. Riddell, who also represents Southern Co., says allegations of disparity in pay and promotions simply aren’t true. “The Southern Co. and Georgia Power want to be the top companies in the United States on diversity,” he says. “Long before any lawsuit was filed, this was a company looking to improve diversity in its management corps.” The company’s African-American employees didn’t complain about nooses on company property until after the race discrimination suit was filed, Riddell says. “We have a very, very strong affirmative action policy and complaint procedure,” he says. Noose complaints, he asserts, “never happened.” DEFINING ‘SOUTHERN STYLE’ Besides interpreting when a knotted rope is a noose, lawyers on both sides are likely to argue over the meaning of the company’s self-described “Southern Style.” “Southern Style,” according to Georgia Power’s 1999 Merit Increase and Incentive Pay Allocation Guidelines, “can significantly impact overall performance.” Rosenwasser says the term “Southern Style” is so subjective that its definition “depends on who you ask and how they’re applying it.” “Anybody who works at the Southern Co. knows what that is,” Georgia Power spokesman Michael L. Tyndall says. “Southern Style” certainly doesn’t refer to Old South manners, he says. “It’s the Golden Rule approach. Don’t lie. Don’t cheat … It’s a way of doing business that the Southern Co. wants all its employees to try and emulate.” “Outside the company, it could be confusing. But all our employees know that’s in reference to desired behaviors of Southern Co. employees,” says Tyndall. Coca-Cola Co. — which is finalizing a $192.5 million settlement in its own race discrimination suit — faced a similar problem with a personnel evaluation that emphasized a Coke employee’s ability to blend in or “fit” with co-workers and supervisors. Every performance evaluation included the question, “Does this person fit?” according to Coke Chairman Douglas Daft. And whether an employee “fit” too often took precedence over objective job performance criteria. Diversity fell victim to that “ill-conceived form,” Daft said at a November meeting with employees. Riddell insists the Southern Co. style is “racially neutral. There’s no race connotation in it. We certainly don’t mean ‘Southern Style’ like the Old South � That’s not what it’s all about.” But plaintiffs’ attorneys suggest the nooses may reflect Southern Style’s ugly underbelly. WORKER: WATCHED NOOSE HUNG Tommy G. Trimiar was, for years, the only African-American employee among 15 to 20 linemen and staff at Georgia Power’s Cornelia facility until he was terminated last year. Trimiar says on the day in 1997 that he returned from disability leave, one of his co-workers tied a hangman’s noose in front of him and hung it inside the plant. When Trimiar asked, “What are you doing that for?” he said his co-worker “gave me a smirky smile. Nothing else was said. He hung it up in the operating tool room where we all gather in the morning.” Trimiar, a former lineman who worked for Georgia Power for 29 years, had injured his back two years earlier lifting a transformer pad. Diagnosed with a herniated disc and torn muscles, doctors ordered him not to do heavy construction work. Trimiar says he was demoted and his wages were docked. Injured white employees were given easier assignments, he says, while he was still expected to do heavy lifting. “He was treated differently with his injury than he would have been if he was white,” says Trimiar’s attorney, Darrell T. Farr of Ausband & Associates. “There are other examples of white employees at Georgia Power in the same position who suffered physical injuries. The power company has bent over backwards to accommodate them � He was not only not accommodated. He was harassed because of his injury.” Trimiar says the back injury forced him to take short-term disability leave in 1997. The company placed him on short-term disability a second time in 1999 and promised to retire him on long-term disability. Instead, Trimiar says, he was fired in July 2000 for failing to return from leave. The noose, he says, was a clear symbol that he wasn’t wanted. “I was the only African-American that worked there,” he recalls. “That [a noose] was something my ancestors died from. I’m sure it wasn’t put up for a white guy.” At least three supervisors and a company vice president from Atlanta saw the noose during the three years it was left hanging in Cornelia, according to Trimiar. “A blind man could see it,” he says. “Nobody said anything.” Trimiar says he never complained about the noose or attempted to remove it. “When you say anything, you’re a troublemaker,” he says. Trimiar is not a plaintiff in the Georgia Power suit, although he has submitted an affidavit in the case. But Farr says Trimiar has received a separate right-to-sue notice from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Trimiar intends to sue Georgia Power for wrongful termination within the next 90 days, Farr says. Riddell says that Trimiar never mentioned a noose in his original EEOC complaint. “He amended his complaint at the last minute to add allegations about the noose. If the noose was so intimidating and harassing to him, why didn’t he raise that when he filed with the EEOC initially?” he asks. In an August news conference, Georgia Power President David Ratcliffe acknowledged that a company investigation begun after the race discrimination suit was filed had found five nooses at Georgia Power facilities, including the one in Cornelia. All but one, he said, “were not intended to harass or intimidate employees.” Only one noose, which a white manager dangled in front of a black employee in 1994, was considered “more troubling” than the others, Ratcliffe said. “His [the manager's] actions were offensive to me and to this company,” he said. Ratcliffe did not identify the plant or the manager in question, saying only that he has retired. After speaking with the Georgia Power worker who tied the Cornelia noose, Ratcliffe said, “I � do not believe he intended to intimidate or harass his fellow employees. However, it did show an unacceptable level of insensitivity and poor judgment.” Ratcliffe said he had asked that employee to apologize to his co-workers “and to anyone who might have been offended by his actions.” Trimiar says no one ever apologized to him. The Cornelia plant was not the only Georgia Power facility with a noose. “They were found hanging in at least eight different company facilities,” Rosenwasser says. Other locations included Forest Park, Dalton, Athens, and McDonough, according to court records. At least two were found hanging in Cornelia. Rosenwasser says the fact that nooses have been on display in multiple Georgia Power plants suggests, “It is more of a systemic problem.” “Their [Georgia Power's] own investigations indicate they were hanging in highly visible areas,” he says. “I think it’s a good indication of the overall company atmosphere and culture with respect to diversity.” Few African-Americans complained about the nooses or their frightening symbolism, Rosenwasser acknowledges. “Because of the fear of retaliation, a lot of people did not complain. More importantly, in a lot of these incidences, supervisors and managers knew they were there and didn’t do a lot about it. A lot of African-Americans felt that complaining wouldn’t solve the problem.” But despite what Georgia Power attorneys describe as a strong affirmative action program, Rosenwasser insists company supervisors made no effort to remove or take down the nooses until after the suit was filed. “The general theme is that they weren’t aware that hangmen’s nooses were offensive to African-Americans before we filed the lawsuit.” The suit follows a 1994 investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Contract Compliance Programs that cited Georgia Power for discrimination against minorities and women. And the company is still technically under a 27-year-old consent order stemming from another race discrimination suit. In 1974, Georgia Power’s African-American employees filed a class action race discrimination suit against the company that made many of the same allegations of racial bias as the current suit. Georgia Power settled that case by entering into a consent order that is still binding. That order required the power company to facilitate the hiring and promotion of African-Americans in positions where they could eventually advance into supervisory and management roles. But, according to the Cooper suit, “Georgia Power has reverted to many of the discriminatory policies and practices the order specifically enjoined.” Riddell says that Georgia Power complied with the conditions of the consent order years ago. The fact that the order is still in effect and the case has not been dismissed is simply a legal oversight, he says. “Neither side necessarily went back and cleaned up the legal record … For all intents and purposes, it’s resolved.” But in 1994, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) issued a notice citing Georgia Power for violating federal anti-discrimination laws in salaries and promotions. The OFCCP’s 1994 order found that Georgia Power failed to ensure that minorities and women were paid salaries comparable to those of their white, male peers. The company also failed to ensure that minorities and women, particularly black women, received promotions comparable to those given to the company’s white male employees, according to the conciliation agreement Georgia Power signed. According to the current complaint, since 1994 the OFCCP has issued at least a dozen notices of violations to other Southern Co. subsidiaries. Riddell says the OFCCP investigation determined that “a pretty limited number of middle-management folks were at pay levels a little bit below where they should be. We made some adjustments … The book’s closed on that.”

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