"I was mad then -- and I'm still mad," forwns Brian F. Weber, a tinge of bitterness in his soft-spoken drawl.
His eyes dart across a nest but cramped kitchen. They linger over a disorderly accumulation of tattered news clippings, wrinkled magazine covers and juzzy photographs which relate the details of his four-year court battle, a kind of blue-collar version of the Bakke reverse discrimination case.
Weber's bitterness has mellowed since the morning four years ago wehen he filed a grievance with his local union alleging that he had been bypassed for an on-the-job training program because of his company's policy to promote a quota of blacks.The complaint has inched its way through the judiciary system and now is awaiting final action from the U.S. Supreme Court, a decision which could revolutionize the interpretation of civil rights in America.
To many blue-collar workers across the nation, 32-year-old Brian Weber is ascending rapidly to hero status. To some blacks, however, he is nothing more than a Southern racist.
Neither description really seems to fit the quiet, congenial man.
"Everybody wants to take a picture of him in a hard hat and paint an image of a conservative, maybe even a racist, if possible," grumbles Michael R. Fontham, Weber's 32-year-old court-appointed attorney. "But he's a reasonable, articulate man, not particularly concerned with race."
The setting alone is conducive to masconceptions: Brian Weber, product of a tiny, conservative Laouisiana town, employed as a lab technician for 10 years at Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation; officer in his local union.
But Weber defies stereotyping. He cites lawbooks with the familiarity of an attorney and fuields publicity as adeptly as a politician.
After four years of scattered attention for his legal akirmihes with reverse discrimination, Weber was catapulted to national recognition recently when the U.S. Supreme Court decided to accept the case. A groggy Weber received the information in an early morning telephone call from a New Orleans television reporter Dec. 11. And the phone hasn't stopped ringing since.
The Kaiser factory, which had experienced a scattering of television cameras and newspaper reporters during the proceedings of the past four years, was suddenly flooded with national media entourages.
"At first the plant was pretty good about letting them come in and do filming inside the buildings, but then the cameras started getting in the way of the men's work and now they won't let them inside the gates," Weber says.
Weber's white-frame duplex apartment in nearby Lutcher is no refuge from the barrage of telephone calls. They awake him in the morning, follow him to work and await him on his return in the evening. "I knew there would be a lot of phone calls -- but it turned out to be more than I expected."
Several nights the jangling of the phone has been so incessant that Weber has left for the night, seeking relief with parents or friends.
At 6 o'clock one Tuesday morning, a Massachusetts radio announcer greeted Weber with a live telephone interview.
"I had talked so much Monday, I was hoarse and had a cold on top of that," he reminisced, shaking his head. Whih a trace of a smile, he sputtered, "I sure would hate to hear how that one came out."
Weber says he is not ducking publicity, howeyer. "The number of people involved in this whole case fascinates me -- I welcome the publicity because people need to know what is going on."
And, when the high court delivers the final word? "I'm leaving here and going on vacation," grins Weber, running fingers through a thatch of thinning brown hair.
A Faumiliar Name
Repercussions of Weber's fame have rippled through his hometown.
"Everybody at the plant jokes about me being a celebrity," Weber says, almost reluctant to use the word "celebrity" himself. "But, the guys know I'm still just me. They keep me as one of them, and don't put me in a celebrity class."
The name Brian Weber was familiar to eberyone in Gramercy long before it blossomed in the national spotlight.
Weber's roots dig deep into this rural, Mississippi River community of 2,698. He spent his childhood in neighboring Reserve, La., where his father operated a small grocery. (Now, it's a supermarket," he footnotes.) He turned down a scholarship from Louisiana State University to marry his high-school sweetheart.
It is a locale which retains tradition. Perched on the river bank levee, high above the town, by the charred remains of hulking topee-like bonfire structures, burned during a century-old Christmas Eve ritual. The local folks explain that "les feux de joie ," the "fires of joy" were once used to guide Papa Noel, the Creole-Cajun Santa Claus on his holiday visit to homes in the fog-shrouded river bottoms.
The town's most conspicuous no-name bar squats beside the main thoroughfare, afternoon rendezvous for workers at the half dozen chemical, sugar and oil refineries that dominate the local skylines.
Two turns and one stoplight off the main highway is the tin-roofed, clapboard duplex Weber temporarily calls home. ("I have a nice brick house," he apologizes. Weber is in the process of settling a divorce with his former highschool seeetheart.)
The house sits unobtrusively on a tiny plot of grass, almost a carbon copy of the neighboring frame house.
He clambers up the back steps as a fierce rain storm begins to pelt the metal roof mercilissly. Plopping two soggy bags of groceries on the kitchen table, he moves through a cramped bedroom and into a living room, adorned with a massive "Elvis in Concert" poster. The other walls in the house are barren with the exception of a small painting and a poster depicting Luckenbach, Tex.
When he's not responding to media queries and questions from his colleagues, Weber escapes in the music of his own celebrity favorite -- Elvis Presley.
Next to the "Repeal Right-to-Work" union sticker on the bumper of his oliver-green car is a faded yellow and black declaration: "Aug. 16, I was there."
He commemorated the first anniversary of Presley's death with a vacation trip to Memphis and a visit to the graveside. His modest apartment displays the memorabilia: an Elvis candle sits stop the refrigerator. The huge poster smothers an entire wall in the living room, portraying a dozen pictures of the gyrating, singing star.
The week of the singer's death, Weber purchased a television video recorder in order to catch every Elvis special and old Elvis flick shown. He now has 10 tapes of Elvis movies.
The conversation is interrupted repeatedly by the muffled ring of the phone on the bedroom table. Weber disappears through the adjoining doorway. A hardy greeting is followed by deep inaudible tones. He ambles back to the sofa, a grin creeping over his tanned face.
"A friend of mine. She's painting me a ceramic bust of Elvis."
Or. "Another friend, reminding me about a party."
It's not all business.
Suddenly in a corner of the sofa, Weber begins to unwrap the story, deliberately, with increasing eagerness.
Weber's own brainchild had backfired.
As a union official, he had been instrumental in the fight to initiate on-the-job training programs at the aluminum plant. He pushed local company officials and nudged the leaders of the United Steelworkers of America until it become an integral part of contract negotiations in 1974.
Weber returned from the 1974 Atlantic City Steelworkers convention elated to find the notices of a new training program tacked to the worksite bulletin boards. He barely glanced at the fine print explaining that the company agreed to give 50 percent of the spots in the program to minority workers.
"I didn't believe they would do it -- I figured they just put it in writing to keep the government happy, but would never stick to it."
Brian Weber submitted his bid for one of the 13 positions to be filled. Then came the rejection -- and with it, the realization that seven of the jobs had been filled with black colleagues, most of whom had less seniority than many whites who had applied. In a system that pegged every more on seniority, employes were stunned.
As a member of the union grievance committee, Weber had handled dozens of cases for disgruntled employes. Now it was his turn.
"I had treated everybody equally and hadn't slighted people, so I didn't think it was right at all that now I was being discriminated against because I was white." Weber bristles at any suggestion that his court action was inspired by racial prejudices.
His brow furrowed, Weber uncasily recalls an era in the not-too-distant past when blacks were the victims of relentless discrimination. "I was 16 years old when they were trying to wipe out the poll tax in Mississippi, a system which was used primarily to keep the blacks from voting. That had a particularly strong impact on me. Blacks were being treated very unjustly."
But then, he said, "They [the government] started telling grocery stores and restaurants -- you people have to serve everybody. I never did agree with that. If it's your private place, it's your business who you serve and don't serve."
As for his own case, Weber notes that a laborer who is accepted into an on-the-job training program for a skilled craft can expect to earn an additional $10,000-$15,000 annually, including benefits and overtime. In addition, Weber says the crafts jobs provide "Security," a major concern in this community of close family ties.
"The people at this plant are not transients -- they are all family types who will stick to the job. Most of us will never leave," Wber says. A short silence. He regrets that the commitments of the past hectic week have kept him separated from his three children who reside with their mother 10 miles away. He had attended a party for one of the youngsters earlier in the afternoon, the first time he had seen them in a week.
His daughter, age 11, and boys, 9 and 7, were bubbling with chatter of Daddy's television and newspaper exposure.
Among many white coworkers at the plant, Weber receives warm, enthusiastic support.
The aluminum chemical plant of almost 800 employes is a second home to the many workers whose employment spans more than a decade.
An easygoing, amiable guard booms a salutation as Weber tramps into the guardhouse. A coworker is draining the last cup of coffee from a battered percolator. The second guard, a lanky young worker, is polishing his gleaming black boots for the second time that day.
All eyes dart in Weber's direction. He uncomfortably motions a move outside the glass cubicle.
Even before his fame singled him out among the plant's employes, Weber's hard that served as a tribute to his individuality. The decal of an American eagle glares at all. The sprawling bird is offset by the side decal of the American flag.
A burly laborer pulls a pickup truck to a halt in the parking lot where Weber is standing. He leans out the window and a husky voice booms, "We're with ya, all the way, man. Ya got a good thing going."
Weber smiles his thanks.
Reaction is not puite so cordial among the blacks. Although Weber said he was given "the cold shoulder by some blacks" for only a couple of days, animosity cuts deep in the black community.
Kernell Goudia, 33, was hired by Kaiser 11 years ago. He is the only black employe in the metals instrument department. He obtained that job through the affirmative-action program.
"I didn't think the case would go to the Supreme Court. I thought the courts would realise we've been kept down and under. Is the program fair? None of us had any expericnce. How could we get into the training programs otherwise? We didn't have the damn seniority.
"If Weber wins the suit, we'll be back where we were 20 years ago. The blacks are hoping he loses."
Blacks who don't know Weber personally are his most rabid opponents, howeber. Rashad Ail, a black railroad worker, helped organize the New Orleans Committee to Overturn the Weber Decision and Defend Affirmative Action. The group has conducted several rallies which have attracted 50-80 participants.
"I think the dude is a straight-up racist. He's sort of a Klansman without a sheet speaking for the antiblack wing of the country," Ali charges.
Colleague Goudia counters: "I respect Brian for doing what he did. He's not a snake in the grass. He told people what was on his mind."
Weber says he was prepared for the harsh criticism leveled at him since the suit began. "I expected that. Everybody thinks that because you're trying to have your rights, you're 'anti' the other people."
Weber says he received virtually no support from the Steelworkers Union; he took his complaint to court. And the long legal trek began.
With no money for an attorney, Weber selected a young local attorney with a record of interests in civil-rights cases eanging from pregnant teachers to state prisoners. "I never thought the thing would diag out four years," sighs Weber. "At each step, I thought it would be resolved right there."
At each step, judges ruled in Weber's favor. And, at each step, Kaiser and the Steelworkers Union sought a higher decision. The next decision, finally, may be the last.
It is almost luck that Brian Weber's name will be attached to the blue-collar revers-discrimination case that will be mulled over by the highest court in the nation at the end of March.
"It could have been anybody's case; it was just a matter of timing when the courts would act on one," Fontham states. Weber's petition actually was filed as a class-action suit on behalf of about 30 white Kaiser employes.
Even if the Supreme Court rules in Weber's favor, the lab technician is not assured of obtaining the fob he seeks as a welder and pipe-fitter.
"But, there are several men in the class-action suit who could get into the program immediately," Weber says, adding, "I just may have to wait awhile."
He folds his arms, ainks a little deeper into the sofa. Hie eyes wander to the glossy paper tribute to Elvis.
He has discovered a new use for the video recorder: He doesn't have to miss the news reports of another country-boy-gone-big, Brian Weber.
"I guess if we win, I'll be considered a hero to some," he says.