Chicago Publisher Takes Discrimination Heat

Just days after goading Texaco Inc. to settle the decade's most highly charged bias suit, Jesse Jackson has thrown the full weight of his crusade against workplace prejudice against a huge Chicago printing company.

Today, the firm - the R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company - answers the accusations of bigotry in court. Donnelley plans to file a response to a $500 million class-action suit alleging it laid off a disproportionate number of blacks when it shut down a Chicago plant in 1994. The company calls the charge of discrimination "reckless, false, and inflammatory."

If Donnelley were like hundreds of other US companies sued each year on racial grounds, it could expect the litigation to eventually fade from the public mind. But Donnelley is not so fortunate - its headquarters is not far from that of the Rev. Mr. Jackson and his Rainbow-PUSH Action Network. And Jackson confronts Donnelley with the same brio he used against Texaco to help win a more than $115 million settlement there.

After two meetings with top Donnelley executives, Jackson has given the company until Jan. 15 - the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. - to propose a settlement and issue a plan for promoting racial diversity and fairness. After that, Jackson intends to launch a corporate boycott.

By targeting Donnelley with much fanfare so soon after the Texaco settlement, Jackson seems to be heralding a rise in litigation over on-the-job racial discrimination.

But legal and business experts say the recent prominence of such cases will not necessarily trigger a sudden growth in their numbers. Indeed, before the Texaco scandal, a federal tally suggested that the number of racial discrimination claims against US firms is leveling off.

The number of claims has fallen from a peak of 31,688 in fiscal year 1993 to 26,287 in fiscal year 1996, or a decline of 17 percent, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (This represents the number of charges filed, not the number of lawsuits.)

Bias suits could eventually surge if the White House weighs in on the issue, and the media and the growing number of lawyers, consultants, and other professionals profiting from workplace diversity keep the matter at the forefront of public debate, say civil rights and legal experts.

At the least, the high-profile Texaco case could make juries more sympathetic to plaintiffs. It also has probably spurred corporations to step up internal diversity programs and to quickly and quietly settle disputes out of court.

Jackson has in the past several years launched boycotts against several companies, including Anheuser-Busch, Revlon, and Nike.

"The future of such litigation will depend on the response of the White House, civil rights activists, and the media," says Frederick Lynch, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "If they find another Texaco case, that will feed the diversity machine," says Mr. Lynch, author of "The Diversity Machine: The Drive to Change the White Male Workplace."

Jackson's recent targets are just two of several large companies that have recently come under close scrutiny for their treatment of minorities.

Several black workers at Shell Oil Company claim in a recent suit that they cannot advance through a "glass ceiling." Last month HFS Inc. ordered its Avis Inc. rental car subsidiary to cut ties to a Carolina franchisee accused of turning away black customers. And early this month a federal jury in Richmond, Va., determined that Circuit City Stores Inc. had systematically discriminated against black workers.

The Clinton administration would indirectly spur more workplace bias suits if it backs an attack by civil rights groups against California's anti-affirmative action Proposition 209, say legal and civil rights experts. The ballot initiative, passed last month, bans preferences for gender or race in public contracting, employment, and education.

At first glace, the Donnelley case seems to offer ammunition for both the agents and targets of the "diversity machine." Donnelley says minorities make up 13 percent of its total work force and of its management and professional staff.

The company expanded its payroll by 23 percent from 1994 to 1995, but took on 40 percent more minority employees. Although it cut total staff by 3 percent from 1995 to 1996, its minority representation rose by 8 percent, according to a company statement.

The plaintiffs claim that in 1994 Donnelley laid off nearly all of the 575 African-Americans employees at a printing plant but transferred about one-third of 400 white workers to other facilities.

Also, over a period of several years, Donnelley systematically discharged veteran black workers just before they qualified for a pension, says Candace Gorman, attorney for the plaintiffs. It then rehired many of them soon after enough time had elapsed to completely strip them of their seniority, she says. "Donnelley poses one of the most racially offensive set of work force practices I have ever seen," she says.

Donnelley spokesman William Lowe denies the accusations. "In any big organization you may find instances of discrimination," he says. "In instances where Donnelley has discovered such actions, Donnelley has acted and those actions have included the firing of people involved. As a company we have a sound and solid record in terms of employment practices."

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