There have been times in the 20 year history of the National Black Chamber of Commerce that we had to put on our agenda a major lawsuit. It is in our mission to promote the interests of Black entrepreneurs. Much of that is advocacy, public policy, procurement enhancement, etc. But sometimes you can bundle that all up and give it a steroid shot by filing a lawsuit against an entity that seems to oppose all of that. Such was the matter with US West. The 14 state telecom (now known as Quest) was a powerful force in the industry. It was developing a reputation as being aloof to Black businesses and, believe it or not, the Colorado Black Chamber of Commerce was afraid to confront them on this important matter.
Every now and then I would get a complaint about them. I decided to go over to the General Services Administration (GSA) and look at telecom minority participation records. Every report had US West dead last in minority participation. Specifically Black participation was a zero, "nada", "goose egg", down right nothing. Thus, I sent out a message on the next eblast to our database: "If you feel your company has been discriminated against by US West contact our office for follow up".
We got seven complaints. Three of the complaints were by trucking companies (located in Phoenix, Omaha and Des Moines). Their contracts were abruptly cancelled on the same day within a 20 minute period and were replaced with white owned trucking companies. It definitely smelled like a conspiracy. The other firms were a supplier, a janitorial firm and two IT firms. Seven complaints were enough to start a war. We all met in St. Louis at the law firm of our selected attorney. We unanimously decided to file a discrimination lawsuit. We filed it and the war was officially on.
It was our intention to expand this complaint into a class action lawsuit but we would have to have meaningful participation from Black firms in Denver, the base of US West. Therefore, we asked for a meeting with the management of the Colorado Black Chamber of Commerce. We went there and explained the merits of the lawsuit. We asked the 40+ businesses there had any of them done business with US West, the corporate giant of their hometown. Not one hand went up. We assume they would be in support but to our surprise they were horrified. "I can’t mess with US West!" "They could destroy my company". "They could destroy my business". Wow! I felt like Harriet Tubman trying to convince slaves to jump the fence and run to freedom. They had no will to fight.
Finally, our attorney stood up and stated, "Listen! We have come to this town to put our foot up US West’s behind and if you want to get in the way we will put our foot up yours." The timid group thought we were crazy. Sleepy towns like Indianapolis, Denver, etc. need to be shaken. Controversy can be your ally in these types of situation. From this meeting we decided to get right up into US West’s face. We announced that being that we had a major lawsuit in Denver; the NBCC would bring its annual convention to the city.
The times were getting contentious and then I got a phone call from one of the opposing attorneys. He said, "Mr. Alford your attorney is about to miss a very serious deadline in filing. If he doesn’t produce required documents, which were seriously past due, by next Friday the judge will throw your lawsuit out." Besides being shocked I wondered why they were helping us. I had to act quickly. I went to my old friend in Indianapolis, Attorney Robert Webster (white veteran of the civil rights bus rider movement who worked on Indianapolis cases with us). He took over and saved our case.
US West hired my childhood companion and first cousin as a vice president. They got the intelligence on my mind from him. He later told me "I let them know that you could not be intimidated and had a bite like a pit bulldog. It is best to settle with him." At the same time I was given some very sexy controversy about one of the executives who was in the chain of command over their minority business office. In the last deposition, I told it all (hoping it was true). They abruptly ended the deposition.
That same day CEO Richard McCormack offered me a flight back to DC on their corporate jet. He informed me he would be on the plane also (a planned meeting he had in DC). We flew out and discussed our philosophies through the air. At the end of the flight he said they would settle the case. They did and our guys got paid!
The Black folks in Denver still can’t figure out how we were successful and are still alive. As one of their Black businesses told me recently, "Denver Black businesses are pushovers". There is some truth to that.
Harry C. Alford is the co-founder, President and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.