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Affirmative Action in Birmingham, Alabama

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Affirmative Action in Birmingham, Alabama
John R. Melville
Wayland Baptist University
Business Ethics
The Birmingham Fire Department had been plagued with declining employee proficiency and turmoil over the past 4-years from affirmative action issues. A study was conducted to review the historical issues involved with the affirmative action programs that were affecting fire fighters and to develop recommendations for changes. The study determined that racial turmoil was generated within the department because of affirmative action polices that placed hiring and promotion quotas on the department and the ongoing associated legal litigation. The recommended changes from the study are to develop internal anti-discrimination policy and race relations educational programs, development of a fire fighters academy, and adding performance values to promotions. Department morale, teamwork, and proficiency are expected to improve with the implementation of the recommendations.
Affirmative Action in Birmingham, Alabama I am the new chief of the Birmingham, Alabama fire department. My first challenge within the department is to review current hiring and training practices, and to implement changes that will improve employee morale and department efficiency. I reviewed the past history of the department and discovered that employee proficiency; inter-relations and morale had steadily declined during the past four years from affirmative action issues. The specific issues were about racial inequality with past hiring practices, and the use of racial quotas for hiring and promotions to make up for past injustices. A review of the city’s history revealed that past practices in discriminative hiring and racial inequality against blacks went back to 1872, when Birmingham was founded as an industrial center. This came to a head in the early sixties when the civil rights movement reached Birmingham. Birmingham and the rest of the state resisted federally mandated changes to segregation and civil rights. Civil rights activist, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, lead demonstrations and boycotted white owned business that supported segregation practices. Segregation was put to rest within the city, but only after the federal government became involved and the Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1964. Affirmative action was introduced to the fire department in 1968 when the first black employee was hired. Other blacks were hired, but only after the NAACP filed a federal lawsuit against the department, city and county. In 1977, Hiring quotas were introduced to the department after a Judge Pointer, of the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Alabama ruled that the tests were unfair to blacks and that future tests would not be. He ordered that “the test should certify a percentage of blacks equivalent to the percentage of blacks taking the exam” (Hosmer, 1994). The ruling was upheld in appeals court. In 1981 the city and county negotiated a set of agreements with the NAACP and black litigants. The six-year agreement provided that hiring and promotions would be based on percentage by racial division. The fire department was given a short time annual quota that over half of new hires or promotions to lieutenant would be black, and a long-term goal that 28% of the total force would be black. By 1989 27.9% of the total force was black (Hosmer, 1994). The impact of this agreement was many qualified white firemen were passed over for promotion. The result was that fourteen firefighters sued, alleging that city and board hiring and promotion policies were discriminatory and violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Judge Pointer struck down the suit, but the fire fighters won on appeal. Birmingham could actively recruit blacks and offer training to qualify applicants for positions, but the city could not overlook whites who had were equally qualified and had higher scores. The city and board has appealed the ruling. Civil rights groups have sued to extend the previous agreement to and raise the hiring and promotion objective to fifty percent, which represented Birmingham’s racial distribution. Those cases are still pending a hearing. My first plan of action was to identify the benefits and harms of the current situation within the department, city and county. I found that the NAACP and black fire fighters have gained the most from imposed affirmative action programs. The department population is almost 28 percent black as of the current date. Until the policy was overturned, quotas required that at least 50% of new hires and lieutenants be black. The civil rights movements made great progress with the court ordered affirmative action programs. The process forced Birmingham and Jefferson County to acknowledge wrongful past practices and to make amends through court imposed hiring goals. The city and county have suffered the brunt of the legal onslaught from both sides of the affirmative action issue. They reached an out of court settlement with the NAACP and black litigants only to be sued by white fireman. The white fire fighters have suffered the greatest loss from the city and county affirmative action programs. Fire fighters who placed high on the promotion list found that they were passed over for promotion by blacks with lower scores. Some firefighters scored high enough on several annual exams to be promoted, only to be passed over because of quota allocations. Finally, another group that is hurt by the division within the fire department is the general public that we are meant to serve. With the morale among the firefighters so low, their work will, to some extent, be affected. To work at their optimum, firefighters need to be able to work together as a team. The annual quotas required by the agreements between the city and county with the NAACP and black litigants has caused a backlash of problems. While we are correcting past discrimination practices, are we creating new discriminations? Now that we have this backlash of problems, how do we improve the morale of the firefighters? The easiest thing to do would be to simply let things within the department follow the natural course of events. The big issue with affirmative action is with the city and county board. They are under fire from both sides, and the courts will decide what is right. However, if nothing is done from within the department, the morale of the firefighters will not improve and the teamwork will be affected. I have walked into a situation that I consider tense. Emotions run high within the department over past practices and more recent hiring restrictions. I could lose my job or even receive allegations of racism if I do not handle the problems correctly. The first course of action should be to implement a zero tolerance policy for racial discrimination. All employees within the department would be held to the same standard for equitable treatment within the workplace. We need to bring the firefighters “together amid all our diversity, so that we can find common ground and move forward as one” (Clinton, 1996). Those that are not willing to work with the zero tolerance policies would face punishment that would range from an adverse counseling to removal based on the city’s published table of penalties. Furthermore, I could recommend that Jefferson County implement a fire fighters academy that would replace the city’s current testing policy for employment. The county board would process enrollment applications and complete any required medical or legal screening and handle administrative requirements. The academy would receive trainees based on an as needed, first come-first serve basis. This training would meet minimum state and federal standards for firefighter certification. Experienced firemen who were certified to teach technical subject areas would staff the academy cadre. The city or county representatives would round out the training with classes on race relations, ethics, and problem solving skills and basic educational skills for those who need it. Remedial training would be provided to anyone who failed course examinations. The Fire Department of Birmingham could become the model for their positive affirmative action programs if fair hiring practices were followed versus legally installed quota systems. For the current firefighters, I could institute training programs that would cover a range of subjects concerning race relations, ethnic diversity, sensitivity towards others, and team building. Programs such as a Fireman’s Olympics competition that would be held between firehouses would supplement the team building. The department would also host social functions to benefit city wide charitable programs. Fire officers would also receive monthly management level training in race relations, ethics, employee relations, supervision, and leadership techniques. I would also ask the city to support team building training for the different firehouses. I would be proud to be associated with positive changes in fire department morale. Also, by improving on the teamwork among the firefighters, I will improve the efficiency of the entire group. Every firefighter will benefit from improved relations from within the fire department. Also, I could recommend that the city and county adopt an employee appraisal system that would be used as a basis for merit raises and input for merit promotions. The appraisal would be combined with the written test so those employees are promoted based on knowledge and performance. Further, employees would be required to meet minimum training requirements before promotions eligibility. This would be a more equitable process for promotions. The proposed actions that I am considering should be seen as a first attempt to bring employees together as a team. Working toward a common goal of mutual respect and understanding will be stressed. “These are difficult issues, charged with emotion. We need to have a new vision that upholds justice, rewards work, honors individual merit, and restores the fundamental civil rights principle of equality under the law” (Wilson, 1996). The proposed actions that I suggest to the city and county fall within legal requirements. There is no conflict with the current affirmative action legal ruling or the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In closing, “affirmative Action programs were originally designed to help qualified minorities receive employment in areas that they were once denied” (Holloway, 1997). I believe that the Birmingham Fire Department can meet that goal without restricting the rights of others and become a model for other agencies within the city and county to emulate.

Clinton, President Bill (1996). President Bill Clinton, "Mend It, Don't End It". Retrieved August 23, 1999 from the World Wide Web:
Hosmer, L. (1994). Case 5-5 Affirmative Action in Birmingham, Alabama. In K. Strand (Ed.), Moral Leadership in Business (1st ed., pp. 178-189). United States of America: Irwin/McGraw Hill.
Holloway, K. (1997, April 15). Civil Rights: a status report. Retrieved August 22, 1999 from the World Wide Web:
Wilson, Pete (1996). Pete Wilson, "The Minority-Majority Society". Retrieved August 23, 1999 from the World Wide Web:

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