The Civil Rights Responsibilities of U.S. Steel

The case of delegating the responsibility of complete social change to a certain individual or corporation has never been exemplified more than in the case of U.S. Steel or, more directly, Tennessee Coal and Iron (a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, hereafter abbreviated TCI). In the push for civil rights in the early 1960s, Birmingham, Alabama was a hotspot for strife and, sometimes violent, confrontation. At the time, integration was a topic that was being broached in many different areas of the country, Birmingham included, and was not well received for the most part. As the biggest employer in the city, TCI was looked to for guidance in the problems at hand. For years, U.S. Steel and TCI had implemented a program of non-discriminatory hiring and promotion practices. Still, there was a good deal of worker segregation still present in the plant. Black and white workers still wouldn’t fraternize. In response, U.S. Steel participated in a human relations committee in 1960 that was focused on solving common problems, including those of segregation. In 1961, President Kennedy issued executive order 10925, prohibiting discrimination in the workplace.

With the continued aggression in Birmingham, more attention was focused on its biggest employer. Even though TCI had policies dating back to 1918 requiring the company was still called out to deal more effectively with the social well being of the city and itself. An article in The New York Times offered a solution. The article suggested that TCI and U.S. Steel use their “bank connections” and suppliers in a kind of economic coercion game. If pressure could be applied to the vendors and associates of TCI, then more change could be effected in regard to social equality. Arthur Weibel, president of TCI, stated that they would not resort to economic coercion to solve Birmingham’s racial problems. TCI and U.S. Steel was summarily criticized in the press and taken to task under the belief that they had said, in effect, that they “had done enough.”

TCI has a definite responsibility in regard to helping the community of Birmingham. As any citizen, TCI was and should be held responsible for their own actions. They are not responsible for the community at large. Their responsibility should end at their front gates, and no farther. By setting an example for the rest of the community, TCI and U.S. Steel fulfilled their commitment. The U.S. Government treats corporations as individuals for tax and legal issues, and the community should be under the same sensibility. As far as achieving social justice for the community’s minority population, TCI was doing it’s share. Far above the majority of other large corporations, TCI and U.S. Steel had instituted policies of racial equality long before President Kennedy’s edict or the nation’s call for it. Their responsibility to the community was being played out in their responsibility to their work force.

The press was uniformly harsh in their treatment of the comments made by Mr. Weibel. Many articles appeared that made TCI and U.S. Steel into racial monsters, who cared for the conventions of big business only and not for the minority workers that made them their millions. Quotes from Mr. Weibel and Mr. Blough (whose response to the press will be handled shortly) were taken out of context and used to make TCI out to be an uncaring representative of the steel industry, with little or no concern for the hard-working individuals that peopled their plants. This was simply not the case. The press, eager for a scapegoat in the violence in Birmingham, has historically picked the most faceless member of a community as the ogre. Since TCI was the largest employer in the area, showing a huge margin between them and the next competitor, they were immediately turned into the big business monster that was needed to bring the population away from the responsibilities of their thoughts and actions. A major corporation with thousands of employees and a team of upper echelon management is easier to blame than a church full of good people with the wrong ideas of equality.

In response to much of the criticism directed towards TCI and U.S. Steel, and causing quite a bit more, Robert Blough, the chairman of the board of directors of U.S. Steel. Blough contended that the use of any economic force to bring about some kind of change was “repugnant.” He went on further to state that, “…we have fulfilled our responsibility in the Birmingham area – whatever responsibility we have as a corporation or as individuals working within a corporation, because, after all, a corporation is nothing but individuals.” This was taken by the press and a few politicians to mean that U.S. Steel takes no responsibility for the plight of Birmingham in regard to the issues of racial inequality. This is another example of TCI and U.S. Steel being taken out of context. Mr. Blough and U.S. Steel have taken great pains, throughout their organization, to make the working conditions of their employees good. They are pro-integration and anti-discrimination. In a community made up largely of U.S. Steel employees that kind of example has a direct effect on the community at large. By taking snippets of statements made by Blough and Weibel, the press and the politicians painted a picture of U.S. Steel non-involvement in the issues surrounding Birmingham. As correctly stated by both Weibel and Blough, a corporation’s first responsibility is to the individuals that make up the corporation, and that is exactly what they had done.

The idea that “economic coercion” from TCI and U.S. Steel could force a better attitude to minority workers in Birmingham and abroad would be valid if TCI’s position was strong enough to back it up. Whether it is or not is of no regard, since the practice of “economic coercion” is simply another version of blackmail and unethical. For example, if TCI had put an economic sanction on their bank, requiring them to hire more minority employees or suffer the closing of the TCI account, there would be a backlash even greater than TCI’s “non-involvement in integration” problems. Although the end result of the blackmailing would be a positive effect, the fact still remains that the process itself is unethical and immoral. The term “economic coercion” itself is just a candy-coated term for strong-arm business tactics. Bough was correct in calling the practice “repugnant.”

The unkind hand dealt to TCI and U.S. Steel from the press and the politicians is understandable, but not acceptable. The country was clamoring for an answer to the atrocities being committed in Birmingham, and to some small degree TCI and U.S. Steel were the perfect ones to blame. Never was TCI or U.S. Steel directly accused by the media as being a racist corporation or not practicing non-discriminatory behavior, but was nonetheless labeled adversely. There was never a direct comment on sanctions that TCI and U.S. Steel had already implemented in trying to abolish segregation but the underlying theme of most of the press pieces was concerned with TCI’s and U.S. Steel’s lack of action. On writer stated that Blough refused to “…take a stand in Birmingham” while Representative Ryan of New York in the Congressional Record implied that the third quarter gains in U.S. Steel stock were due to the unappreciated efforts of the company’s minority workers. These stances are understandable in the sense that the country needed an answer or a villain to a very serious problem and the press and the nation’s leaders tried to comply at the expense of a major corporation. On the other hand, the press and politicians could be using U.S. Steel as an example. In an effort to promote integration throughout the country the media focused on Birmingham, the local hotspot for racial activity, and took U.S. Steel to task due to it’s location as the epicenter of Birmingham’s workforce. In any event, the media took a stance against a basically good corporation that was interested and concerned for the welfare of its employees. Without any good reason to deride U.S. Steel, the media suggested that the company use its influence to coerce other corporations into adopting integration. When U.S. Steel responded on the standpoint that that type of practice was “repugnant” and had no place in business, the media had their villain.

Both Mr. Blough and Mr. Weibel, in their professional and private lives, worked very hard for racial equality in a time that was not very receptive to that practice. In fact, U.S. Steel had been practicing integration and a limited concept of equal rights in 1918, almost fifty years before the nation exploded in strife over the issue. The choice of the media and politicians to accuse U.S. Steel and TCI of “not doing enough” was an unfair move to both the corporation and the minority people of the area. At a time when a corporation that practiced integration and favorable hiring and promotion policies, and the practicing of such was a rarity, that corporation should of been showcased as a model. This would of affected more change than the “economic coercion” practices suggested by the media or the accusations that the company just wasn’t doing their share for racial equality.

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