By Bob Egelko and Demian Bulwa, 08/03/2000

The nation’s largest wholesale baker, maker of Wonder Bread and Twinkies, has been ordered to pay one of the nation’s largest racial discrimination damage awards: $121 million to past and present black employees who said they were abused and denied promotions at facilities in San Francisco, Oakland and Santa Clara.

The San Francisco jury verdict ordering punitive damages for 17 plaintiffs Wednesday was in addition to $11 million awarded Monday to the same employees, and four others, for financial losses and emotional distress allegedly suffered while working for Wonder Bread and its parent company, Interstate Brands Corp. of Kansas City, Mo.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Stuart Pollak said he planned to cut the $11 million in half because some of the events had taken place before the period covered by the suit, but workers’ jubilation was unabated as they celebrated into the evening at a South-of-Market restaurant.

“I feel blessed,” said Harold Jones Jr., 43, of Richmond, who was awarded almost $14 million in punitive damages, which he said he would use first to help his family.

“It’s not about the money,” he said. “It’s the idea of trying to get Wonder Bread to change. They refused to change, and they may not change now.”

Jones, a former route salesman in Oakland, claimed he had been fired from the company because of his race after he confronted a supervisor who ordered him to sweep a parking lot, even though he was on light duty after a workplace shoulder injury.

Attorney Angela Alioto The jury of 12 sent a message to IBC that “it will not tolerate institutionalized discriminatory practices in San Francisco,” said Waukeen McCoy, an attorney for three plaintiffs. Attorney Angela Alioto, who represented the other 18, said jurors had made the award large enough that “it deters all of corporate America.”

Interstate Brands plans to appeal, said attorney Kathleen Maylin. The company, which took over the San Francisco bakery from Ralston Purina in 1995, contends workers blamed it for events that took place many years earlier. The suit was filed in 1998, and by law covers actions during the previous year.

“We don’t believe there was evidence presented to support the award for punitive damages or for compensatory damages,” Maylin said. She also claimed “extensive legal errors” by Pollak, who will hear the company’s request to reduce or overturn the verdict.

The San Francisco bakery has a work force as diverse as The City’s population, and the company has strong anti-discrimination policies and grievance procedures through its union, Maylin said. Interstate Brands owns 67 bread and cake bakeries from coast to coast.

The plaintiffs, all men, had worked at the San Francisco bakery for as long as 30 years and said discrimination was deeply rooted. Some referred to the plant as the “White House.”

They claimed the bakery, and distribution warehouses in Oakland and Santa Clara, no longer hired blacks and did not promote their current 31 black employees beyond entry level — except one who was given a foreman’s job that they said no one else wanted.

One worker said he had been called “boy,” and others said a racially motivated supervisor had called them “too lazy.” Some said black employees were barred from one of the restrooms, an allegation the company denied. Blacks also said they had been told not to meet as a group for fear they’d form a gang.

Response to complaints ranged from brush-offs to retaliation, including dismissal, the employees said.

Maliciousness alleged The jury’s verdict Monday found 17 of the 21 employees eligible for punitive damages on the grounds that the company had treated them maliciously. It deadlocked on one plaintiff’s award, which will be heard again. Individual punitive damage awards ranged from about $2.5 million to $18 million.

The 18 plaintiffs represented by Alioto, as well as one juror, gathered Wednesday evening at Don Ramon’s restaurant on 11th Street, where they drank beer and margaritas, spoke to TV and newspaper reporters and hugged each other. They chanted “green, green, green,” and one asked aloud, “Where’s Fortune magazine at?”

“We sliced up Wonder Bread in 12 different ways,” Alioto announced at the party. Later, she said, “You couldn’t write a law that would be as effective as a verdict like this in fighting racism in America. Corporate America needed this verdict.”

Willie Wilkerson, a 62-year-old Oakland resident who has been a machine operator in San Francisco for 25 years and whose case for punitive damages was deadlocked, said, “I think it’s a step forward for black people.” But like his colleagues, he said Wonder Bread in San Francisco, which has no black managers, had a long way to go.

“When you never move up in 25 years, and have Caucasian people getting promoted to foreman in six months, it’s got to be skin color,” Wilkerson said. “If you’re not qualified in 25 years, you’re never going to be qualified.”