Belleville Plant Agrees To Cooperate With Employee Leading Black Lives Matter Protest
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
Organizers of a Black Lives Matter protest march set to begin at Empire Comfort Systems in Belleville on Friday have accused the company of allowing racial discrimination and recently producing a calendar that included artwork they deemed racist.
In a meeting Wednesday morning, the two sides came together and agreed to cooperate. An Empire executive plans to march with the crowd, and the company has offered to make signs in its print shop.
The protest’s main organizer is J.D. Dixon, 32, of Belleville, a black machinist who’s worked three years at the Empire plant, making gas fireplaces. He said he’s filed multiple grievances with the union and human-resources department about harassment by white supervisors and co-workers, and that no one has been held accountable.
“It’s past ridiculous,” Dixon said Tuesday, before the company announced it would participate in the protest. “Am I scared? Yes. Am I nervous? Yes. But I don’t think that fear should hinder anybody from doing what’s right, and I know this is right.”
Empire representatives say it would be disingenuous to claim that an 88-year-old company has never had problems with race or sex discrimination, but that they’re committed to maintaining an environment of equality and respect for all employees.
“We have a diverse workforce, and we’re trying to help all of our team members change their attitudes and make sure they’re respectful of all races and creeds,” said Vice President of Sales and Marketing Adam Hickman in an interview Tuesday.
Empire President Nick Bauer, the fourth generation of his family to run the business, asked for “tolerance, understanding and unity” in a letter to employees last week.
Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and systemic racism have been held in communities across the United States and Metro East since the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer put his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed and face down on a street.
The Belleville march is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. Friday. That day is known as Juneteeth, which historically celebrates the end of slavery in the United States.
Hickman has offered to speak briefly to protesters before the march, according to Ron O’Connor, a public relations consultant to Empire. O’Connor said the company also will hang a banner on its building that reads “We are Better Together” and provide water and shelter.
Children submitted drawings for calendar
Empire Comfort Systems, formerly Empire Stove Co., was founded in 1932, although its roots go back to 1911, when Henry Bauer opened a sheet-metal shop in Belleville. Today, the company sells heaters, fireplaces, wood-burning stoves and barbecue grills. It declined to reveal the number of employees at its Belleville headquarters, citing proprietary reasons.
Two years ago, Empire invited employees’ children ages 5 to 12 to submit artwork for a 2019 safety-themed calendar that was handed out at the annual Christmas party, O’Connor said. Thirteen drawings were submitted, prompting the printer to add an extra month.
The drawing for January 2020 is the one that became controversial. It shows what appears to be a white man with a red ball cap driving a forklift and plowing into a restroom-style stick figure that is shaded black. The message reads, “CAUTION” and “WATCH FOR FORKLIFTS.”
Dixon said he and other black employees found the artwork to be hurtful and threatening in light of past harassment and jokes told after the calendar was posted in the plant and offices. They believe it was drawn by an adult.
“They intentionally made the driver white, and they intentionally made the hat red, and in these times, that’s an indication of a Trump hat,” Dixon said.
In his letter, Bauer stated that a child patterned the drawing off a poster from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The image is actually from a commercial sign sold by SmartSign, but the resemblance is unmistakable.
Bauer apologized to employees who may have been offended by the drawing.
“We have instructed our managers to remove any remaining safety calendars that may be posted in any of our facilities,” he wrote. “If you know of one, please point it out to your supervisor so we can ensure all calendars are removed.”
Grievances reported to NAACP in January
Dixon said that racially-driven harassment by supervisors and co-workers against Empire’s black employees has included disrespectful comments, yelling, cursing and generally unequal treatment. The company declined to comment on personnel matters.
Union leader Earl Owens, who is black, verified that Dixon and others have filed complaints related to allegations of racial discrimination. He said most were not dealt with adequately, particularly if they involved supervisors.
“It’s not the entire company,” Owens said Wednesday. “There are a lot of people who are wonderful people, and they’re a joy to work with. But there are some that I honestly go out of my way to avoid.”
Owens, 39, of Belleville, is a lead painter who’s been working at Empire for six years and vice president of Boilermakers Local S7, which represents about 200 unionized employees, including 40 to 50 who are black.
Owens plans to march on Friday. When a reporter told him that a company representative had offered to join protesters, he laughed.
“They may not necessarily have seen the error of their ways, but they saw how the climate was trending, and (this is) for the sake of the self-preservation of the company,” Owens said. “... We’ve been in talks with them, asking ‘How do we bridge the gap?’ ‘How do we stop this from happening again?’ So I’m more than happy to work with them.”
Owens called the calendar drawing “appalling.” Dixon said it was the “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” prompting him to go to the East St. Louis chapter of the NAACP in late January.
“When you keep reporting the same issues and nothing is done about it, and they tell you, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to take care of it,’ but then they never take care of it, you have to go to another entity or organization to get help,” Dixon said.
NAACP representative Stanley Franklin said he later met with a group of other black Empire employees.
“They felt like the black employees were having to work twice as hard as their white counterparts,” he said. “That’s the way it was explained to me.”
Case complicated by COVID-19 pandemic
There’s disagreement on what happened next to address Dixon’s complaints. Franklin said he scheduled a meeting with Empire management and went to its Belleville offices in February or early March but was told he had the date wrong, which he rejects. O’Connor said the company and its attorneys have reached out to the NAACP multiple times in recent weeks and received no response.
Franklin acknowledged that the NAACP office has been closed since late March due to the COVID-19 shutdown but said he’s been checking messages. Both he and Hickman expressed hope that the two parties can resume communications and work to resolve problems now that Illinois is reopening.
Empire believes the message of the calendar drawing was misinterpreted by a “well-meaning but upset,” second-generation employee, according to a media statement Monday. It didn’t mention Dixon by name.
Dixon’s father, Reginald, and wife, Iesha, also work at the plant.
“The company understands that people of different backgrounds can interpret a word, a phrase or a drawing differently,” the Empire statement read.
“We’re working to improve our dialogue regarding race and discrimination in the workplace. Our management and our employee union both encourage all employees to report any and all concerns or experiences of harassment or discrimination of any type and to file a complaint under the company’s Harassment Policy.”
Does Franklin think the calendar drawing was racist?
“Yes,” he said. “It had a racial overtone,” particularly in light of past and present comments made by white employees.
Protest details shared on social media
Dixon and other protest organizers announced the Belleville march and mentioned Dixon’s accusations against Empire on a Facebook page called Supporters of Black Lives Matter St. Louis. Na Tasha Pulver shared them Tuesday on a Facebook page called Metro-East BLM Protests.
Pulver, 28, an IT specialist who lives in Shiloh, plans to join the march.
“I don’t know (the organizers) personally,” she said. “All I know is their story has been shared on social media, so of course all I can do is go there and listen to their truth.”
Pulver said she tends to believe Dixon’s accusations because she’s a black woman who has faced racism and she has friends and family members who have reported similar experiences at their workplaces and in everyday life.
Plans call for protesters to begin Friday at Empire on Freeburg Avenue and march north on Charles Street, west on Main Street to Public Square, south on Illinois Street and southeast on Freeburg, ending back at the starting point.
Hickman said Empire managers expect to operate “business as usual,” noting that production doesn’t occur on Fridays, so only office employees are on the job. He and O’Connor said the company is viewing it as an opportunity to increase dialogue about race relations.
“(Protesters) have a First Amendment right,” O’Connor said. “As long as the police chief allows them to use the street and as long as they’re not using our property, we’ll cooperate with them.”
Teri Maddox is a reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
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