UPDATE, April 16, 2016: Reporter Will Evans followed up on what’s happened since we first told you about the discrimination many temp workers face. An updated version of the original episode can be heard below.
Business is booming for staffing agencies across the country – the temporary jobs sector is one of our fastest-growing industries in terms of employment. But there’s another side to the temp world: a blatant system of racial discrimination that evokes practices of America’s pre-civil rights era.
This hour of Reveal will explore this type of discrimination and look at how it’s affecting people around the country. We begin in Tennessee with two sisters, born in Russia, who ended up recruiting workers for a temp agency. And they claim some people were hired not based on their résumé, but on the color of their skin.
- Read: Alabama temp agency to keep discrimination probe results secret
Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.
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Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.
Section 1 of 3 [00:00:00 – 00:14:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. When companies need workers, they often call up temp agencies.
Speaker 2: She called me on the phone and said that she had a order.
Al: An order for workers, and here’s what they’re looking for.
Anastasia: They wanted, you know, the usual, country boys, and I said, “No, I don’t know,” so she started saying that they like white guys over there and not to send anybody black.
Al: These requests are coming from companies around the country.
Anastasia: They would use a “W” or a smiley face to signal that they preferred a white worker.
Speaker 3: We probably would have some clients who said they only wanted clean-cut white guys. They basically told you exactly what they were looking for.
Al: A look inside America’s temp industry where companies use code words to hide blatant discrimination, coming up on Reveal.
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Al: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. If you have ever applied for a temp job, you know, it’s a little weird, because, a lot of the time, you don’t even know what job you’re applying for. You just fill out a form with your work history and skills and wait for a call. The temp agency looks for a company that needs someone like you, it could be an office job, factory work, construction, almost any job out there, but sometimes it’s not your skills they care about.
Speaker 5: The construction company, they will call in the morning and say, “I need like 10 laborers, do me a favor, do not send me any monkeys, send me crackers, I don’t want any monkeys on my site.”
Al: These are the kind of calls some temp agencies are getting from clients. Hiring workers based on their skin color isn’t just racist, it’s illegal, so sometimes temp agencies rely on code words to hide what’s going on.
Speaker 2: Basically, they refer to people as either a vanilla cupcake or a chocolate cupcake.
Speaker 3: They will say, “No kitties, don’t send me no kitties,” which that refers to homosexual people or women.
Speaker 6: That’s what’s crazy, is it’s not really a code word, I mean, everybody knows what the hell it means, you know, big hands, small hands, big hands is man, small hands is woman, blue eyes, brown eyes, that type of thing.
Al: Our reporter, Will Evans, made these recordings as a part of his investigation into job discrimination at temp or staffing agencies. You might not think it would affect that many people, but the temp industry has come back roaring since the recession, and now employs as many as 14 million people a year. We are going to spend the next hour looking at this type of discrimination and how it’s affecting people around the country.
We begin in Tennessee with 2 sisters born in Russia, who ended up recruiting workers for a temp agency that handles, well, all sorts of requests. Here’s Will.
Will: Oksana and Anastasia Istomin are chatting with me in their apartment in Chattanooga, Tennessee. They point out this painting on their living room wall. Giant rock formations jut from the sea, silhouetted by the sun.
Anastasia: That’s where we’re from, that’s the Sea of Japan, right there.
Oksana: My grandfather painted that.
Will: It’s beautiful.
Anastasia: Dad’s dad.
Oksana: And the one by the door, he painted that one as well, downstairs.
Will: Oksana and Anastasia were born in Nakhodka, that’s in Russia’s far east. It was during the Cold War. The sisters’ parents were religious activists, part of an underground Pentecostal church. At that time, Soviet authorities were cracking down on Protestant Christians and others they saw as a threat. Oksana is the older of the two sisters, she is 37. One of her earliest memories is of a late night visit from the KGB.
Oksana: They dragged my dad out of the house by his hair, out of the apartment and we didn’t see him for six months, didn’t know if he was alive, dead, where he was.
Will: The father eventually got released, and after many years of trying to leave the Soviet Union, the family got refugee visas that allowed them to immigrate, to the United States. They ended up setting in southeastern Tennessee in 1990. Their parents had heard that people here took their religion very seriously.
Oksana: The buckle of the bible belt.
Will: They talked about that?
Anastasia: Oh, that was the selling point.
Will: All grown up, the sisters also ended up working together, just across the street from their apartment complex, at a place called Automation Personnel Services. It’s a staffing company, with branches across the south. It provides temp workers for offices, industrial plants and warehouses. At Automation, the sisters were recruiters. They would interview people looking for jobs and take down their information, and when an order for workers came in, it was the sisters’ job to go through their stable of applicants and find the right match, but it wasn’t long before the sisters started getting unusual requests from an Automation sales rep. Here’s Anastasia.
Anastasia: She called me on the phone and said that she had a order and said that they wanted, you know, the usual, country boys, and I said, “No, I don’t know,” so she started saying that they liked white guys over there and not to send anybody black.
Will: This type of request wasn’t written down. It was supposed to be subtle.
Anastasia: They would try to make it sound, I guess, more gentle or delicate than it actually is and they would say, “You know, country boys, the usual.”
Oksana: It sounds a lot nicer than, “No black people.”
Will: The temps have no idea, right?
Oksana: Oh, God, no.
Anastasia: Absolutely not.
Oksana: No, of course not.
Anastasia: Absolutely not.
Will: To be clear, Automation would hire African Americans, they would just send them to the companies that would accept workers of all races, and if there wasn’t an opening that day, those black workers would be out of luck. It wasn’t always just about race, some companies only wanted young workers, others wanted men, still others requested women.
How often did that kind of stuff happen?
Oksana: On a daily basis.
Anastasia: Weekly, daily basis.
Oksana: Weekly, daily. All the time. To the point of where it is just common.
Will: Remember, in the Soviet Union, the sisters and their family were singled out and treated harshly. That’s why they came to America.
Oksana: I know what it’s like to be persecuted and to see American citizens be treated like [bleep] because of the color of their skin is just, of all countries in the world, this is the country that it shouldn’t be happening in.
Will: Temporary jobs are one of the fastest growing parts of America’s economy, but I was finding that hiring discrimination among staffing agencies is a big problem. I came across Automation when I turned up 2 recent lawsuits where former recruiters accused the company of discrimination. One settled and one was thrown out, but I was struck by a similarity. Both recruiters said they were told to send only white workers to certain clients, so I started reaching out to people who had worked at Automation. I found the Istomin sisters, and then I spoke to Christie Ragland, she was the office manager at a branch in Kennesaw, Georgia. It’s a bit hard to hear her, because of the phone connection. She is describing one of Automation’s customers.
Christie: He would call and say things like, “We don’t want any black thugs,” that’s exactly how he would say it.
Will: No black thugs, and the guy who said this, Christie says he was a manager at Magnum Products, a company that makes drywall compound. He wanted workers, but only white ones.
Christie: I didn’t like it, me personally, I tried not to deal with him, because I am African American, and it made me feel a certain type of way.
Will: But Christie says her boss at Automation told her to give the manager what he wanted.
Christie: She actually sat down and had a conversation with me about him and said that he wanted these special type clients, and she said, “He’s racist as hell,” that’s exactly what she said, “but at the end of the day, he helps our billable hours and he’s looking for a certain type of person and we have to send him exactly what he’s looking for.”
Will: Christie says she was fired in 2015, after telling her boss that she didn’t want to be office manager any more. As for that drywall company, I spoke with a manager there, not the guy Christie was talking about, he called the allegations, “heresay crap.”
I talked to more than 2 dozen former Automation employees, who told me this type of discrimination was common. The people I talked to were recruiters, office managers, and sales reps, from six states. They told me Automation would often send out temp workers, not based on their experience or skills, but because of their race, age or gender. It was simple, whatever a hiring company wanted, Automation would deliver.
Mark: What you’re describing is the typical situation that’s found all over the country, many different staffing agencies.
Will: Mark Bendick is an economist, who has also testified in discrimination lawsuits. I turned to him because he has done some of the only studies that try to quantify job discrimination in the staffing industry, and for his studies, Mark uses undercover testing. A team of researchers pull together lots of people, usually college students and pick 2 who seem the most similar, except one of them is black and one is white. They give them virtually identical resumes, have them dress alike and even train them to talk the same way.
Mark: So, that by the time they are ready to go out and look for jobs, an employer has little to choose between them. In situations like that, unfortunately, we’ve observed discrimination as often as 2 times out of 3, with employment agencies.
Will: I put these findings to the Staffing Industry Association and an official there disagreed, saying, “This kind of discrimination is very rare, at least no more common than in any other industry,” but Mark says he has found that the rate of discrimination in the temp industry is actually higher than when a company selects its own workers.
Mark: Employers often select staffing agencies specifically to do their dirty work, to discriminate for them. The employers like to think, “Well, if we just hire from the pool of people who are sent to us by the staffing agency, then we are not discriminating.”
Will: So, why does this happen, anyway? Mark says it’s often driven by bigotry and stereotypes that people of a certain race or ethnicity work harder than others.
Speaker 12: Automation Personnel Services is one of the most admired companies in the staffing industry, specializing in light industrial and administrative, clerical opportunities.
Will: Automation was founded in 1990, as the temp industry boomed, Automation boomed right along with it. In 2014, the company hit 180 Million Dollars in revenue. Automation’s president, Steve Nordness, built the business from scratch, and he is an interesting character, he’s known for his speech he gives to all his employees about how he once fired an entire branch office for discriminating. We wanted to be sure to talk to Steve. We spent weeks calling and emailing, we went to his office, and his house. Eventually, a PR company sent us this audiotape.
Steve: Let me tell you about Automation Personnel Services.
Will: That’s Steve.
Steve: We have a very strict, zero-tolerance policy against discrimination. It isn’t just illegal, it’s immoral. That’s why we train all our employees on Steve’s rule. The rule states that if any employee acts against our guiding principles, not only is that person subject to termination, but the entire office, as well.
Will: Steve’s story about firing an entire branch is something of a legend at Automation, so I tried to get more details from company Vice President, Randy Watts.
When did Steve fire an entire branch.
Randy: To be honest with you, I don’t recall exactly, it was probably more than 10 years ago.
Will: Do you remember what the issue was?
Randy: I really don’t, other than it was a violation of our hiring practices.
Will: But, it was discrimination?
Randy: Again, I really don’t recall. It was a long time ago.
Will: Do you remember where?
Randy: I don’t, to be honest.
Will: It’s clear that Automation has an official policy against discrimination, but I was hearing something different from people who worked in its branch offices. Candy McDermott was an office manager for Automation in Huntsville, Alabama. Just after coming back from corporate training and hearing about Steve’s rule, Candy says her supervisor took her aside. The supervisor explained that some of Automation’s clients had special requests.
Candy: She would say, “Now, we can’t put this in the computer, but I’m telling you, they are only going to take these type of people. They want women, they want Hispanics, this is just between us, we can’t tell anybody we’re doing it.”
Will: Some of these requests came from small, regional companies you have never heard of, but Candy says they also came from one of Automation’s biggest clients in the area, LG Electronics, the huge South Korean company that makes everything …
Section 2 of 3 [00:14:00 – 00:28:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Voice Over 1: LG Electronics, a huge South Korean company that makes everything from washing machines to cell phones.
Joaquin: We’re just coming off the freeway here in Huntsville, Alabama. There’s the LG warehouse right there, big LG complex. Got the American flag, the Korean flag and the LG flag.
Voice Over 1: LG’s operation in Huntsville is one of the company’s largest in the US and is located in a special customs zone. The company keeps it’s labor force flexible by using lots of temp workers. Candy McDermott said the operation is so big that automation has a staffing coordinator posted at LG.
Candy: The coordinator that was out there would actually call and say, “You know, they only want Hispanics.” That was the request. They had to be Hispanic.
Voice Over 1: Four other former automation employees also told me that LG specifically wanted Latinos and got them. Sandra Keith, a former automation recruiter, told me these orders were coming directly from an LG warehouse manager. She says she knows this because he told her himself while she was posted at LG.
Sandra: Don’t know exactly what his reasons were behind that but he would just flat out say, “Hey, we need some more Hispanics”, or, “Hey, we need some more Mexicans over here. You guys got any?” Those would be his exact words.
Joaquin: So you were expected to basically comply with that request?
Sandra: Yes. Nothing more, nothing less.
Joaquin: Do you think that any black workers, white workers didn’t get jobs as a result?
Sandra: Absolutely. Absolutely. With that particular company, absolutely.
Voice Over 1: LG declined my requests to visit the warehouse and talk to managers. Instead, I spoke with John Taylor, vice president for public affairs and communications. I told him what I had heard about worker discrimination at the LG facility.
John: I’m not sure what a few former, disgruntled employees may say, but the fact is that this is not in accordance with our policy and, if we did find that this was going on, it would be dealt with swiftly and strongly.
Voice Over 1: He said LG investigated and found nothing wrong.
John: I wish we could help you with your story but it just doesn’t seem to be anything there.
Voice Over 1: Automation officials told me the same thing. They had investigated in Huntsville and all those other branches where I had heard about problems. They found no proof of any discrimination. Kelly Breckenridge is automation’s corporate council.
Kelly: I’m not an easy person to get around, believe me. I can say with confidence that APS does not discriminate.
Voice Over 1: Both LG and automation did say that the work force at the warehouse is overwhelmingly Latino. Both companies pointed to a high concentration of Latinos living nearby.
Kelly: That particular customer you’re referring to is in an area that’s demographically more Hispanics than any other.
Voice Over 1: There are some neighborhoods not too far from LG with large numbers of Latinos but automation recruits workers from around Huntsville, not just specific neighborhoods. Here’s the problem, according to automation, 75% of the temp workers at the LG warehouse are Latino, but according to US census data the Huntsville area is less that 5% Latino.
There were a bunch of people at the Huntsville branch who found working at automation distasteful. Sandra Keith quit her job there, so did Candy McDermott.
Candy: It was like routine. I left work. I came home in tears. I would walk straight to the bathroom and hurl my guts out. Before I went to work in the morning, same thing, sick to my stomach.
Joaquin: Because of …
Candy: Just, you knew what you were going to go through that day. What you would have to do to earn that paycheck.
Voice Over 1: This is actually a big theme that emerged in my reporting. A lot of these recruiters started out really believing in their work, feeling enthusiastic. They were helping people down on their luck get a job.
Oxanna: One of the most important things in life is having a job.
Voice Over 1: That’s Oxanna [Esdominigan 00:18:16]. We met her and her sister Anastasia earlier in the story.
Anastasia: And, to have an opportunity to help people improve their life, that’s why I got into recruiting.
Voice Over 1: And then they find themselves stuck in this terrible position. Having to lie to job applicants, telling them it just didn’t work out but knowing that the real reason was their race or gender or age. Many of the people I talked to said they went along with the discrimination because, well, they needed a job too, and if they didn’t give customers what they wanted, they thought they’d get fired.
Oxanna says she tested out that theory. It was in 2013. She got a request for a warehouse worker from Chattanooga Shooting Supplies, a gun wholesaler. It was a last minute order and only one qualified applicant was available.
Oxanna: He had the skills. He had the experience. He was dressed appropriately and fit the perfect criteria for what they were looking for. Expect for one thing. He was Indian.
Voice Over 1: According to Oxanna and her sister, this was one of those businesses that wanted only country boys. I called them to confirm what the sisters told me but a manager referred me back to automation. Oxanna says she was ready to send the worker to the warehouse. Just then, her boss called her into her office.
Oxanna: And I explained to her his qualifications and everything. She said, ” I don’t think it’s a good idea to send him.” And I said, “Why not?” She says, “Well, I don’t think he’ll feel comfortable there.” I said, “Well, can you please explain to me why he wouldn’t feel comfortable there? He’s here looking for a job and he’s willing to go.” She’s like, “Well, they prefer somebody who’s white.” I reminded her of what Steve said, the president of the company, about taking racist orders, basically.
Voice Over 1: So, Oxanna says she sent the man anyway. A week later, she says automation fired her. Supposedly for some unrelated reason, not showing up at a job site. Oxanna says it was made up but she didn’t even fight it. She was done and she doesn’t regret it.
Oxanna: Honestly, I learned a lot in this industry and I know exactly what I’m willing to do and what I’m not willing to do. It took me working there to realize that. That just completely is such a double standard, for me personally. Me, being here in this country for the opportunities and denying people the same opportunities.
Voice Over 2: That story was from Reveals, Will Evans and Michael Montgomery. Now it’s the job of the equal employment opportunity commission, the EEOC, to enforce federal anti-discrimination laws. Our investigation found that the commission has received complaints about automation personnel services but, no one could give us details. That’s because everything the commission investigates is kept secret, unless it files a lawsuit. So far, that hasn’t happened with automation. Still, we did speak with the chair of the EEOC, Jenny Yang, and she confirmed a lot of what we found out about the temp industry.
Jenny: We do see significant job discrimination continuing and one of the concerns we have about the growing temporary workforce is that those workers are now some of our most vulnerable workers because they can’t be assured they have a job the next day. We had a case, for example, where this temporary agency had classified their workers and they would comply with discriminatory requests by the employer. When two employees opposed that discrimination, they were fired. This employer would use photos of the temporary workers to determine their race and gender. Then they had code words. For example, they would say, “Hockey player”, “Vanilla cupcake”, or, “Someone like you and me.” Or they would use a W or a smiley face to signal that they preferred a white worker.
Voice Over 2: Why do you think this problem still persists? I mean, at this point, you think it would die off.
Jenny: Well, I think for us, addressing the problems in the temporary workforce are even harder than in other employers, because the information is harder to identify. Workers at one employer may actually be placed by many different staffing agencies, so if you are investigating the source of the problem, there are many different pieces to the puzzle, many different responsible parties. It is much harder to try to establish what is going on in a particular employer.
Voice Over 2: You’ve got a case backlog of some seventy-five thousand complaints. Do you have the resources necessary to deal with that type of backlog?
Jenny: Well, unfortunately, the demand for our services have always exceeded our available resources. We currently have what we call our workload of seventy-six thousand charges and we have about five-hundred fifty investigators who are fully trained to handle this case load. On average now, a filer waits less than ten months to get a resolution of a charge.
Voice Over 2: What is it about the temp industry that, basically, this type of discrimination is able to flourish?
Jenny: I think there are a number of issues. Because many employers are now relying on a staffing agency to send them their workers, they, sometimes mistakenly, believe they are not responsible for either the working conditions of those workers or for the types of hiring that’s done. They think they can perhaps insulate themselves from responsibility for discriminatory criteria when, in fact, they can’t.
Voice Over 2: Have we failed in tackling this problem and, if so, what are the tools that we can use to change that?
Jenny: There remain many biases that people have stereotype notions about who’s going to be successful in a particular type of job. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen is that often people rely on those notions, rather than giving a chance based on their experience. We’ve seen that in the staffing agency where, in particular, staffing agencies are refusing to place African American employees based on their race and they are terminating employees when they complain about that, as well as limited assignments that individuals may have. That is something that we see recurring. We want to be able to provide opportunities for all workers and we think this is a very important area for companies to be looking at.
Voice Over 2: That was Jenny Yang, chair of the equal employment opportunity commission. Now, we found lawsuits across the country against temp agencies and employers. Some were filed by federal regulators, others by workers themselves. Recently, in Chicago, lawmakers tried to come up with their own solution, but, they ran into unexpected road blocks. That story next on Reveal, from the center for investigative reporting and PRX.
From the center for investigative reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Leadson. Supplying temporary workers, or staffing, is now its own industry and one of America’s fasting growing, in terms of jobs. The ground zero of blue collar temp work is Chicago. It’s where the first modern industrial staffing company was founded seventy years ago. Today, the Chicago area has about nine-hundred registered temp offices. Many are large hiring halls with long wooden benches. Some workers are selected quickly. Others might spend the whole day sitting and waiting and waiting and waiting. This has created tensions between Latino and black job seekers.
From WBEZ, Chip Mitchell tells a story.
Leoni: For twelve years, right?
Chip: Leoni [Bee-key-etti 00:26:21] is like a lot of labor organizers. He talks up what workers have in common.
Leoni: We’re all workers. We all get up in the morning and sell our labor to someone else, right?
Chip: He want them to feel a sense of togetherness.
Leoni: We’re going to clap real slow at first and then get faster and faster. Ready? Real slow at first.
Chip: But, clapping is one thing, real solidarity another. Leoni’s at a community center on Chicago’s west side. He’s talking to about fifty workers. They’re all temps so a lot of them won’t be around for long. Another thing is that some of them Latino and some are African American. Here’s the really hard part, to get them working together, Leoni’s got to ask some of them to make big sacrifices.
Leoni: Si se puede. Se puede?
Crowd: Si se puede.
Leoni: Can we do it? Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.
Chip: Now I’m going to talk about those sacrifices and which workers would need to make them, but first I got to tell you how Leoni got into this situation. There was this group called the Chicago worker’s collaborative. It focused mostly on Latino temps. Leoni became executive director about six years ago and he proposed reaching out to more African Americans.
Leoni: It just felt, to me, in this economy we’re going to have as much pressure as we possible could have to reform the temp staffing sector, until we have workers of all backgrounds united.
Chip: He hired the group’s first black organizer. He moved the group’s main office to a mostly black neighborhood.
Leoni: It forced us to talk with African American workers, not just now and then, but everyday.
Section 3 of 3 [00:28:00 – 00:52:34] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Leone: Talk with African American workers not just now and then but everyday.
Will Evans: What Leone heard surprised him. While the Latino workers main concerns were getting cheated out of pay or harassed by a boss or injured, the Black temps said their problem was getting assigned to work in the first place. One of them was Kenny Flowers, a 39 year old father of five.
I went with Kenny one day to this office. It was in a strip mall just outside Chicago.
Kenny: I haven’t have a full-time job in about 9 or 10 years.
Will Evans: He was trying for temp work in a factory or maybe one of those industrial bakeries. Chicago has a lot of these kinds of jobs. The temp agency waiting room was overflowing into the parking lot. It was around noon and the agency had already filled most of the day’s jobs.
Kenny: Well, I tried three days straight to get work here, and I didn’t get sent out.
Will Evans: On this day, nearly all the people left waiting were Black. I asked Kenny what he thought was going on.
Kenny: I see more Latinos going out than I do African American or any other race.
Will Evans: Why would that be?
Kenny: Because they’re not documented.
Will Evans: Not documented as in not living in this country legally. Kenny said that the Latinos get the jobs because they’re less likely to complain about pay or conditions. That’s the sort of thing [Leone 00:29:22] heard from African Americans. At the same time, he heard resentment from Latinos in his group, resentment about Black workers.
Leone: That they can get all these other public subsidies if they don’t work. They can get food stamps. They can get unemployment. They can get all these stuff that I don’t even know about. I can’t get any of that because I have no documents.
Will Evans: [Leone 00:29:40] said that the Latinos see the African Americans …
Leone: That some of them have been two, three days in a row at four in the morning, but guess what? I’m going to get in the van at the temp agency if I’m allowed to get on the van.
Will Evans: Now, if anyone had the experience for organizing a cross racial and ethnic lines, it was [Leone 00:30:00]. For nearly his entire adult life, he had been working with people at the bottom of the labor market.
Leone: Organizing farm workers, organizing poultry workers, meat packing workers, janitors, lots of Latinos and African Americans and lots of tension.
Will Evans: Why would anyone throw themselves into this kind of racial tension? To understand that, we got to go back further. [Leone’s 00:30:28] parents were both immigrants. His mother Mexican. His father Italian. They got divorced. Then …
Leone: My mom remarried to Garry.
Will Evans: Garry Flemming who was African American. Leone says his stepfather had a big influence. There was this one time …
Leone: I was 9 or 10 playing with some friends. Garry was sitting on the doorstep. He was kind of within earshot. I think some of the kids were making jokes about Jewish people, about Asian people, probably about a lot of different groups.
Will Evans: His stepfather called him over.
Leone: I said, “We’re just joking, Garry. It’s not like we really think that. We’re just screwing around.” He said, “You see, Leo, think about it from a minute. I’m Black. Your mom is Mexican.” He’s like, “You’re a little guy. You may not notice this but a lot of people don’t like that we’re together.” He said, “It’s very dangerous to go along with those kind of stereotypes because they can lead some people to use that and divide us and hurt us. You wouldn’t want that, would you?” I said, “No, Garry.” He could see how upset I was. He picked me up and I sat on his lap.
Will Evans: Leone’s stepfather had grown up in the ’40s and ’50s as the Civil Rights Movement was getting off the ground. As an adult, he’d worked in anti-war and social justice campaigns. Leone said he was always posing this question.
Leone: Who wins when poor people are divided?
Will Evans: Years later, Leone was trying to bring this Latino and African American temp workers together, at least that was the goal. He knew that they first have to feel safe, so he started by having them go to separate meetings to air out some misconceptions.
Male: I got you mixed up with warehouse workers.
Will Evans: This meeting was on Chicago South Side in a Black neighborhood.
Leone: I just want to say a couple of words.
Will Evans: Leone brought up a common complaint that Black workers had. It’s about how the Latinos seem to get treated better because the people who ran the temp agency spoke Spanish to him. Leone told the Black workers they might be surprised at what the Latino temps were hearing.
Leone: Stuff like get your asses on the bus or I’m going to slap you all. I mean-
Leone: They treat them really bad. They don’t pay them. A lot of the women get sexually molested. Then when they start to complain, just like, “I’m going to call immigration.” Some of the Latinos born here, they get, “I’m tired of you saying stuff. I’m going to call your PO.”
Will Evans: PO, like parole officer. “The same threat the boss has used on Black temps just out of prison,” he said.
Leone: Look at how they do us, man. It’s almost the same thing. It’s just like …
Will Evans: Some of the workers at these meetings, both the Black and the Latino temps, they became Leone’s troops in an anti-discrimination campaign. They leafleted outside temp agencies. They helped other workers fill out forms so they could make legal complaints. About a year ago, they decided to take their battle to the state capital. They helped create legislation that would require temp agencies to keep records on the race, ethnicity and gender of all jobs seekers. Leone said it could be as simple as contact sheet with check boxes.
Leone: However we can do it, super easy.
Will Evans: That way the agency could be held accountable if they discriminated. Leone led dozens of temps in a lobbying effort. The bill passed at the Illinois senate in the spring of 2015. Then it came to a house committee.
Kenneth Dunkin : Good morning. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I’m presenting [inaudible 00:33:48].
Will Evans: Representative Kenneth Dunkin sponsored the bill in the house. His district stretches through mostly Black neighborhood of Chicago.
Kenneth Dunkin : The reason that we’re here is there been a problem with English speaking citizens coming into these temporary agencies, but they choose a non-English speaking, possibly someone who maybe a US citizen or not. They treat them like crap.
Will Evans: Not long into the hearing, the staffing firms made their case.
Male: I represent [inaudible 00:34:19]. I represent staffing services association of Illinois.
Will Evans: It’s a trade group of 25 blue collar temp agencies.
Male: This mandate will cost millions of dollars for small businesses in Illinois and result in a loss of jobs because it adds a massive paperwork requirement to the industry.
Will Evans: He also objected to the fact that the job applicants themselves would be identifying their race.
Male: I support getting legislation that would have correct data, but we’re going to have false data about race that is going to be used for litigation. I would appreciation a no vote. Thank you.
Will Evans: Staffing companies didn’t like the bill, but what happened next caught Leone’s group flatfooted.
Male: [Arroyo 00:34:57]
Male: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Will Evans: [Luisia Arroyo 00:35:00] represents a Chicago district that’s almost two-thirds Latino.
Luisa Arroyo: You don’t have to have legislation to do this because you’re hurting people in my community. You’re hurting the people that I’m putting to work in my community, and you’re hurting a lot of these agencies that are, majority, probably in the Latino communities. Should they hire more Afro-Americans? Maybe so …
Will Evans: At this point, the conversation got more heated.
Luisa Arroyo: Latinos-
Kenneth Dunkin : This is not about Africans, this is about a simple identification-
Luisa Arroyo: What does the bill say? This bill says that you have to identify …
Kenneth Dunkin : The ethnicity. It’s not about African Americans, it’s not about white, it’s about, “Who is in front of me that’s applying?” That’s really what it is. It’s a check off box.
Luisa Arroyo: If it isn’t about Afro-Americans, how come you don’t have some Latinos that are complaining, or other people …
Will Evans: When his bill started going up in flames, Leone wasn’t at the hearing.
Leone: I was driving early in the morning, cup of coffee …
Will Evans: His stepfather, Garry Flemming, the guy who had schooled him about racial divisions, he had passed away.
Leone: Just coming out of the funeral home, cremating my stepfather’s remains …
Will Evans: Leone’s staff told him on the phone about how race had divided the two lawmakers.
Leone: I felt sick to my stomach, very upset.
Will Evans: The bill stalled. A few weeks later, six temp agencies, and one of their lobbyists, donated campaign funds to representative Arroyo. The total was $5,250. I asked them for an interview about this. I asked several times. I haven’t heard back. That’s what happened in the legislature. Now, Leone’s group wants to try again, maybe come up with a new state bill, or even propose a county ordinance. He’ll need to raise another army, this time with Latino workers playing a bigger role.
Female: [Spanish 00:36:49]
Leone: [Spanish 00:36:51]
Will Evans: Leone meets with a dozen temps in a small apartment, in Cicero, a mostly Latino suburb near Chicago. I was allowed in, if I agreed not to use their names. He tells the workers how the anti-discrimination bill stalled.
Leone: [Spanish 00:37:06]
Will Evans: He says if Latino temps don’t unite with Black temps, they won’t make progress against stuff like wage theft and sexual harassment. Most of the workers at this meeting say they’ll do it, they’ll join forces with the African Americans.
Female: [Spanish 00:37:26]
Will Evans: This woman says she’ll help. She’s a single mother who works through a staffing agency at a candy factory. After the meeting, though, I catch up with her outside and she doesn’t sound so sure about it.
Female: [Spanish 00:37:38]
Will Evans: She says the factory is already replacing Latinos with African Americans. She says that’s ever since some Black temps brought a class action lawsuit against the company. The woman’s worried about how all this anti-discrimination campaigning will affect Latino workers like her. I had to ask Leone something, it’s about the sacrifice he’s asking the Latinos to make, to give up their status as the preferred workers among the city’s blue collar temps, to give more opportunities to Black workers. Many of these Latino temps are living hand to mouth.
How can you ask them to risk their jobs?
Leone: What we’re asking people to do is consider a strategy that, we sincerely believe, is beneficial to African Americans, and Latinos, in the long run. It would be great if we could do this a different way, but history shows us that social change necessarily has a certain amount of sacrifice in it.
Will Evans: There’s a little station her on Chicago’s southwest side where you can get on a bus with bright gold stripes, you can get on it and go all the way to central Mexico. Right next door, there’s this storefront. It’s an office of one of the state’s biggest temp agencies, and Leone Bicchieri gets to talk with a stream of workers.
Leone: It’s payday at Elite Staffing, and what I’m doing today is handing out some literature here, some in English, some in Spanish.
Will Evans: He hands a leaflet to a young woman.
Leone: [Spanish 00:39:11]
Will Evans: She seems in a hurry, and walks on.
Leone: A lot of times when I’m pushing this racial unity, it gets frustrating.
Will Evans: When he’s feeling that way, Leone says, he often remembers his stepfather.
Leone: I start remembering that day when I was a little kid, laughing at those racial jokes …
Will Evans: He remembers his stepfather’s lesson about who wins when poor people are divided. If Leone’s group manages to get legislation passed, it could be the first law in the country aimed at stopping discrimination in temporary staffing.
Leone: I’m not going to give up. Garry wouldn’t want it, and I don’t want it.
Al Letson: That story was from Chip Mitchell of WBEZ. One last thing. A staffing firm in Chicago is now suing Leone Bicchieri for defamation, claiming that he and the Chicago Workers Collaborative are out to destroy the city’s temp agencies. The thing is, the company itself is facing a lawsuit brought on by alleging job discrimination. When we come back, America’s long battle over jobs and justice.
Clifford Alex: If you don’t have a job, you can’t support your family, you can’t pay for some extra education, you can’t buy a good meal. It certainly is going to affect your freedom.
Al Letson: That’s next, on Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. All this hour, we’ve been looking at job discrimination across the country, especially in the temp industry. With lots of people out of work, it deepens the economic divide.
Clifford Alex: If you look at Black people today, the net worth of the average Black family is a little over $6,000. The net worth of a white family is over $91,000.
Al Letson: That’s Clifford Alexander. Alexander is 82. He served four presidents, and was the first African American to chair the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, just two years after it opened in 1965.
Clifford Alex: Those figures I gave you are today’s figures, not yesterday’s figures. It is still an act of economic discrimination to keep people from job opportunities.
Al Letson: Here’s the thing about race. We don’t like to talk about it. America would prefer to ignore the issue until something hits the news cycle that demands our attention. The only way to make change is to deal with the facts. Clifford Alexander has been dealing with the facts since he was a young man. When he was still in his 20’s, he went to work in the White House for President John F. Kennedy, just as the Civil Rights Movement was heating up.
Al Letson: When hundreds of thousands of people marched on Washington in 1963, Alexander was there to hear the speeches.
Male: We want employment, and with it, we want the pride and responsibility and self respect that goes with equal access to jobs.
Clifford Alex: The march itself was a glorious, glorious thing. I was there with my wife, Adele, and our daughter, Elizabeth, was in a stroller at the time.
Al Letson: He was also reporting back to Kennedy’s advisors at the White House.
Clifford Alex: The president was somewhat skeptical as to what would take place, was then making a decision as to meet with the leadership of the march. Fortunately, he did do this.
Martin L King: I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up …
Al Letson: The speech by Martin Luther King is so iconic and beautiful, but I think what happens is that that speech gets remembered, and then the idea that the march was actually about jobs and freedom gets left behind.
Clifford Alex: The jobs and freedom part, actually, are not coincidental. They are connected. If you don’t have a job, you don’t any economic wherewithal, you can’t support your family, you can’t pay for some extra education, you can’t buy a good meal. It certainly is going to affect your freedom.
Al Letson: Three months after the march on Washington, JFK was assassinated. Alexander began working for Lyndon Johnson, who was trying to get a divided congress to approve the Civil Rights Act, which would guarantee equal opportunities in the workplace. One of the bill’s biggest opponents was Richard Russell, a democratic senator from Georgia. His fight about civil rights went back decades.
Richard Russell: They’re trying to use this cry of economic opportunity to strike down the system with separation of the races.
Al Letson: This is Russell in the 1950s speaking out against an earlier bill banning job discrimination.
Richard Russell: This bill, of course, strikes down a fundamental and sacred civil right, and that is the right of a man to choose his own associates in business.
Clifford Alex: What you heard from Richard Russell was the swansong of bigoted people who saw in themselves, because they were right, a superiority to somebody who wasn’t. That is a constant, unfortunately, in American and worldwide society, that the color of your skin can affect how you are regarded.
Al Letson: Richard Russell led one of the longest filibusters in senate history, but Johnson won and congress passed the Civil Rights Act. Alexander was there when the president signed the historic bill into law on July 2nd, 1964.
Lyndon Johnson: Let us lay aside irrelevant differences and make our nation whole.
Clifford Alex: When he signed that act, it was the culmination of what so many of us, including my late parents, and millions of other people, white and black, of goodwill, did in this society.
Al Letson: There were some big compromises, compromises that still resonate today. The act outlawed job discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, and sex. It created an agency to enforce the ban, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. So far so good, but lawmakers did something else. They ensured that the commission had no power to force companies to end discrimination. Even so, the law was a lightning rod in the presidential election of 1964. This is audio of president Johnson speaking with his national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy. Johnson is angry about a newspaper ad put out by the Goldwater campaign.
Lyndon Johnson: [inaudible 00:45:58] clean, pink cheeked boy, and got fired, [inaudible 00:46:06]. Then they’ve got a [inaudible 00:46:07] looking negro boy with his teeth showing, grinning, saying, “Hired!” It says, “Employee, read this. If you lose your job because Johnson’s civil rights bill, this is your last chance. Vote to put an end to racial favoritism, vote to protect your job, vote to protect your family, vote to protect your home. Employers, read this, this is your last chance. Save your freedom, run your own business as you choose.”
Clifford Alex: That was the President Johnson I knew. He loved to feel sorry for himself and all that he was fighting for. It does tell you a lot about the candidate on the other side. Goldwater was bigot. We need to call bigots, bigots, and when you run that kind of stuff, and that was a great part of their campaign, it does tell you what it was like in America in 1964.
Al Letson: Goldwater lost the 64 election, Johnson stayed in office, and in 1965 the EEOC opened its doors. It was a huge victory. Now, there was hope that jobs were open to everyone.
The Supremes: Girls, have you got the kind of man everyone looks up to?
Al Letson: That’s The Supremes. That song was written for them as part of a PR campaign led by big business, and supported by the government. They wanted to convince minorities that discrimination was over.
The Supremes: There was a time when the world was fickle, and it may have been hard to succeed, but times have changed now and school and training is all you really need.
Al Letson: It wasn’t that simple. In 1967, President Johnson appointed Clifford Alexander to lead the EEOC. Alexander wanted the commission to have real enforcement authority like other federal agencies. Cease and desist powers, to order businesses to stop discriminating, but congress wouldn’t budge. The commission had no teeth. Alexander figured if he couldn’t order companies to end discrimination, at least he could shame them. He called public hearings. In New York, he went after advertising agencies and the media for excluding women and minorities. In Los Angeles, he targeted the defense industry, financial companies, and Hollywood.
Clifford Alex: The real story was that they never received the kind of opportunities that they should according to their skills and talents. It was, at that time, a “step and fetch it”, tap dancing image of Black people that was conveyed by the movie industry. Again, this is what creates the image of us.
Al Letson: Alexander’s tactics enraged conservative lawmakers. The Republican leader of the senate, Everett Dirksen, publicly accused him of harassing businesses.
Clifford Alex: Because I was something of a smart ass, I said to him, “If that’s the charge, I plead guilty.” Senator Dirksen said, “Somebody in this room should be fired.” Well, I was the “somebody” that should be fired. President Nixon, in his grand way, decided that I should not be head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. One of the great treasures of my life is that I made the “Nixon’s enemies” list.
Al Letson: Three years later, congress did give the EEOC authority to sue companies. Alexander says that didn’t go far enough. “Lawmakers should give the commission more power and more resources.” “In the end, he says, it’s up to employers, especially large corporations, to tackle workplace discrimination.”
Clifford Alex: I haven’t heard any of the Fortune 500, or any other significant high level white business executive take this on as his or her most important issue. They take on the issue of the environment, they take on the issue of international affairs, but they do not take on this issue with the severity and seriousness that they should.
Al Letson: After heading the EEOC, Clifford Alexander became the first Black man to serve as Secretary of the Army. That was under Jimmy Carter. He was also a law partner, a TV commentator, and a business consultant. Today, he continues his lifelong effort to champion equal opportunities in the workplace.
We want to continue exposing discrimination in the workplace and we need your help. If you have a story to share, let us know, no matter what kind of discrimination you’ve experienced. Age, race, gender, sexuality, disability. You can give us a better understanding of how it plays out on the job. Go to revealnews.org/workplace and tell us your story.
We want to take WBEZ in Chicago and reporter Chip Mitchell for working with us on this show. It was reported by Will Evans and edited by Deb George. Our lead producer was Michael Montgomery. Reveal’s produced by Stan Alcon, Fernanda Camerena, Julia B. Chan, Delaney Hall, Peter Haden, Neena Satija, Ike Sriskandarajah, Laura Starecheski, and Amy Walters. Our lead sound designer and engineer is, my man, “J Briggsy”, Mr. Jim Briggs. We had help from Rob [Spate 00:51:39] and John [Peraddi 00:51:40]. Fernando Diaz and Amy Pyle provided additional editorial support.
Our head of studio is Christa Scharfenberg. Susanne Reber is our executive editor, and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting, and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.