A visitor wouldn't feel the tension.
When you enter the tiny Stanly County factory town of 1,500 people between shift changes at Alcoa's massive Badin Works aluminum smelting factory, the streets are empty. A few fishermen might be putting a boat into Badin Lake, which hugs the red brick stores and weathered frame houses in town.But the last four months are hard to explain. Four months of lawsuits and angry protesters. Threats of dismissals and rumors of ``trouble.' A parade of reporters and photographers, camera crews and curiosity seekers.
Badin, say Alcoa workers and townspeople, will never be the same. It has a permanent case of media-circus fatigue, and race relations have never been worse. The embarrassment and hurt run deep in this quintessential company town, where even the welcome signs have Alcoa's stamp on them. ``Welcome to Badin,' says the left half of the blue and white sign. The right simply says, ``Alcoa.'
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In April, more than 80 black workers sued Alcoa in federal court in Greensboro, charging that the company practiced systemic discrimination by passing them over for promotions and paying them less than white workers for the same hazardous jobs. Alcoa refused to comment on the suit but banned all Confederate flag symbols from its company parking lot. That set off a round of protests from flag supporters, who gathered outside the factory gates day after day waving Confederate flags and protesting against what they say is a blow to their Southern heritage.
Four months later, the protests have become less frequent, but not much else has changed. Two weeks ago, a federal judge denied Alcoa's motion to dismiss the suit. A trial date has not been set. Vehicles with Confederate flag license plates or decals still are not allowed in Alcoa's parking lot, although workers said the company recently relented on license plates that have small Confederate flags commemorating the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization. Those plates were issued by the state. Alcoa would not confirm that the policy had been amended.
And every day, a dozen or so trucks and cars are parked on a street adjacent to the parking lot. All of them have Confederate flag license plates. Or decals. Or large flags planted in the beds of pickups that flutter lazily in the breeze.
As a trickle of workers walked through Alcoa's gates toward their cars recently, they stopped to consider what has changed.
``It's senseless,' said Herman Harris, pointing to the large Confederate flag flying in the bed of a blue pickup. ``It's Alcoa's property. If they say they don't want that, then take it off.'
Harris, who is black, and has worked for Alcoa for 23 years, said the flags and the protesters don't bother him as much as the way he has been treated by white co-workers and supervisors.
A couple of years ago, a white co-worker came up to Harris and two other black employees who were sitting on a bench during break and said something about ``three monkeys,' Harris said.
``We went to our supervisor but nothing was done. They had him write an apology. He wrote something on a scrap of paper, didn't sign or date it. I can take that apology and $1 and buy a cup of coffee,' Harris said.
Harris said he joined the lawsuit against Alcoa because of that incident. Discrimination is commonplace at Badin Works, he said.
``You name it, it's been done. I've been passed over. People say things.'
The suit alleges that white workers swung hangman ropes in reference to Ku Klux Klan activities, and told black employees that their lives were worth less than white employees' lives so they did not deserve hazardous job bonuses.
As Harris pulled out of the parking lot, a white pickup drove by, its horn beeping out the opening bars of ``Dixie' over and over as it passed the factory gates.
A few minutes later, Gary Whitley pulled his pickup onto the street next to the parking lot. Two Confederate emblems decorated his license plate. One of them was a Sons of Confederate Veterans decal.
``It's worse than it's ever been between the races,' said Whitley, a 27-year employee. ``You hear rumors all the time. Some tiny little threats, too. Like the black workers are going to cause trouble, that sort of thing.'
Whitley says he has no plans to remove the Confederate flags from his truck.
``Alcoa says it's racist, but it's my heritage. My great-great grandfather was a Confederate veteran.'
Whitley said he didn't know what battles his ancestor had fought in, but that his service was important enough to him to apply for the Sons of Confederate Veterans tag.
``I'll park it on the street until I'm done working here,' Whitley said.
Whitley reserved his harshest words for union President Allen Williams, who many white workers believe is responsible for the ban.
``He is not much of a man in my mind,' Whitley said. ``He's just stirring things up.'
Williams, who is black, said he merely followed up on longstanding complaints against offensive materials, which has always been banned under company policy.
``This is nothing new,' Williams said. ``A couple of guys wore Malcolm X T-shirts and hats a couple of years ago and they made them take it out of the plant. It's clearly outlined in the company's good conduct policy that you can't bring material that is offensive to others onto company property.'
Williams agreed that race relations have worsened since the ban.
``I don't know how things can get better when you have a group of people standing outside the gates waving Confederate flags. They say to me, 'How's it going?' I don't answer. I choose not to speak to people holding something in their hands that offends me. Then they say,``What's the matter? Can't you talk?' '
Still, most workers at Badin Works get along, Williams said.
``Whites and blacks worked together good before this all started and most of them still work together good,' Williams said. ``It's just a handful of people. I understand they want to honor their ancestors, but they should do it in the privacy of their own home, not on company property.'
Alcoa officials will not comment on the ban aside from a tersely worded statement saying the decision had been made ``after due consultation with employees' and was ``not related to any litigation, current or prospective. It is a management decision in keeping with Alcoa's values.'
Attorney Roman Pibl said the black workers' suit asks for compensatory and punitive damages. Under federal law, there is no cap on the amount a jury could award the workers.
At the boat launch across from the factory, Teddy Matthews, who has lived near Badin most of his life, measured his words carefully.
``This whole mess just makes us look like something out of a comic book: 'Look at the dumb crackers,' ' Matthews said. ``But most people - black and white alike - get along here. That never makes the papers.'
If there is one thing most people in Badin seem to agree on, it's that they're tired of hearing about Confederate flags.
``It's gotten old more than anything else,' said Mac Cauble, who has worked at Alcoa for one year. ``When it first happened, it was a big thing and now it's just tiring.'