Early this year, Jesse L. Jackson appeared in Seattle with Boeing Co. chief executive Philip Condit to announce a $15 million settlement of a discrimination suit filed by Boeing's African American employees. Jackson called it "a significant step in the long journey to making Boeing the best that it can be."
Now, however, about 1,600 of Boeing's minority employees are challenging the settlement and questioning whether Jackson was aggressive enough in his talks with Condit preceding the actual negotiations. Instead of bringing pressure to win worker concessions, as Jackson has done on behalf of black workers at several other major corporations, the employees say he became too cozy with management in order to push his own agenda.
"He takes our problem and uses it for his benefit. But our problems haven't been solved," said Kevin Biglow of Wichita, one of the employees objecting to the settlement.
Jackson played no role in the actual settlement discussions, but Condit later credited him with helping to create an atmosphere that made settlement possible.
Since the terms were announced in January, Boeing has donated $50,000 to one of Jackson's nonprofit groups, the Wall Street Project. It furnished corporate jets to fly him to various plant sites to meet with minority workers. Condit went to Chicago in April to tell a Jackson group that Boeing was hiring some minority firms to manage part of the company's pension funds.
In April, Condit, at Jackson's request, tried to find a long-range jet to fly a Jackson-led entourage to Belgrade to negotiate the release of three American prisoners of war. The trip would have cost between $300,000 and $800,000 but was canceled when U.S. government officials said they could not guarantee the plane's safety. Jackson's group ultimately flew by commercial airline to neighboring Croatia and traveled by land to Belgrade.
Jackson said in an interview that Boeing's recent support for him has nothing to do with his role in negotiating a quiet end to the discrimination suit. It merely reflects his progress, he said, in pushing major American corporations to pay attention to minorities and offer better business opportunities.
Boeing spokesman Peter Conte said the company's recent dealings with Jackson were unrelated to the settlement. "Phil Condit came to recognize and appreciate Reverend Jackson's viewpoint and came to discover they share many of the same goals," he added.
Jackson got involved in the Boeing case nearly a year ago, at the request of Seattle lawyer Oscar Desper III, who represented black workers in discrimination suits filed earlier in the year. It was not a new role for Jackson. In late 1996 and early 1997, he threatened boycotts against Texaco and Mitsubishi before those companies agreed to increase advancement opportunities for minorities and women.
Desper said he asked Jackson to help "turn the spotlight on Boeing," and Jackson first met with Condit last September. Press reports at the time indicated that Jackson and Condit hit it off. Jackson described Condit as a "man with a tough business mind, an open mind and a gentle spirit."
The settlement affects 20,000 current and former Boeing employees. After the terms were announced, some of them protested that too much of the money was to go to lawyers and toward Boeing affirmative-action programs. They challenged the agreement in April.
Alan B. Epstein, a Philadelphia lawyer who represents them, said workers would get only about $7 million of the proposed $15 million offer.
In court papers, Epstein asked Boeing to provide information about any payments from the company or Desper to Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. Epstein told a federal judge in May that he was not alleging that Jackson engaged in fraud or collusion. He said he believed the civil rights leader was misled about the settlement's effects.
The judge allowed opponents to depose Boeing officials and Desper last week and is set to decide in September whether to approve the settlement.
Just after the settlement was announced in January, Boeing made its $50,000 donation to the Wall Street Project.
Jackson set up the project in January 1997 to work as a "trade bureau" for African American financiers and said it would use a "combination of persuasion and pressure" to influence companies to hire minorities. Jackson has been pleased with the effort, which he cited in March as one reason he will not run for president next year.
He reported earlier this year that the project prodded eight major corporations to include project members in stock and bond offerings. Minority firms pay between $250 to $2,500 a year, depending on their size, to join Jackson's project.
Jackson said in an interview that Boeing's contribution, one of 20 $50,000 corporate donations to sponsor an annual fund-raising dinner, was "reasonable but not a substitute to equal opportunity and jobs."
About April 20, Jackson asked for Condit's help finding air transportation to Belgrade. Mark
Schlansky, who until last month was director of international trade policy at Boeing's Washington office, said in an interview that he was asked to try to get a plane for Jackson through his nonprofit Uplift International, which has ferried medical supplies to Vietnam and Indonesia and set up medical programs there. The estimated cost was $300,000 to $800,000, he said.
Conte said Boeing turned to the nonprofit because it "has a proven track record of arranging charters and special flights on short notice or unusual circumstances, such as this."
Conte said Jackson's asking for air transportation to Belgrade "was an atypical request and an atypical response on our part" but was for a worthy cause.
In planning the trip, Jackson said, it was natural to approach Boeing. "If you want to go fishing, you look for somebody who's got a fishing boat. If you want to take a long flight, you look for someone who's got an airplane," he said.
At Boeing, some employees believe Jackson's involvement in the discrimination case was an advantage. Solomon Williams, the original plaintiff in the case, said he thought Jackson performed a valuable role. "The Reverend Jackson plays in a different league than we do," he said. "I'm glad he stepped in to help."
But Nadine McClam-Brown, part of the group challenging the settlement in court, said the company's relationship with Jackson turned into "a partnership--'You give me a little bit and I'll give you a little bit.' "
Boeing's mistake, she said, was to believe that African American workers would "follow Jesse blindly" without examining the particulars of the deal.
McClam-Brown, an engineer at Boeing's military helicopter plant in Philadelphia, said Jackson's "focus has changed in recent years."
"He's a politician, he's a businessman. We respect Jesse. He's doing what he has to do," she said. "But he does not speak for us. He has shown he is not truly for us."
Jackson said he is not surprised that Boeing's African American employees are split over the settlement. "We simply supported the workers in their quest to end patterns of discrimination, which are very obvious," he said.
"I'm concerned about the workers, and the union, and the pension managers. . . . In a company that big, all of those areas are important. It's not like if they do something for the workers and don't use people of color at ad agencies we're not still dissatisfied. We have the right to participate . . . at every level in Boeing."
Staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.
JACKSON'S BUSINESS BATTLES
Jesse Jackson's efforts to influence Corporate America's behavior have given him a role in:
* The selection of Utendahl Capital Partners, a minority-owned firm, as co-manager of Pepsi Bottling Group's $2.3 billion initial public offering.
* A $60 million investment by Georgetown Partners, a minority-owned firm, in a joint partnership with GTE to buy part of Ameritech's wireless business.
* The selection of Blaylock & Partners as co-manager in a record-breaking $8 billion bond issue from AT&T.