San Diego Captain Thomas McPhatter, 74, USN, retired from the Navy Chaplain Corps, stands up. He looks gravely at the dozen people gathered around, mostly African-Americans like him. The meeting comes to order.
"In your own way, I want you to be as candid as you can be, without blowing your stack," McPhatter says, his voice resonating in the Tubman-Chavez Cultural Center hall in Encanto. "The power does come from the people, and I feel most people want justice and equality and fairness. So let us make known to San Diego what's going on."
It doesn't take long.
"The morale at 32nd Street Commissary is as low as whale poop," says Clifford McJunkins, 65, vice president of the employees' union, the National Federation of Federal Workers, Local 63. "It's hit the bottom of the deepest sea-floor."
"I'm so sick of this," says Kathy Hodges, a spunky 40-year-old African-American who works in the produce section. "Like I told one of the stewards of our union, I'm not going to be like the rest of the guys in here. They can sit back and get slapped in the face, but I'm not going to be slapped in my face. They're not going to make me feel like I'm nothing."
The first mention of Filipino employees comes from Earl Dodd. "We have Filipino employees that treat our delivery people so bad," he says. "About two months ago, one of the bread drivers came in late, maybe five minutes late. And the Filipino receiver cursed the guy out. I mean, he really humiliated this guy in front of a lot of other bread guys."
Pretty soon, the word "Filipino" creeps in everywhere. Speakers refer to Filipino employees as if they were the favored group at 32nd Street; they claim they form the majority at all levels, getting most of the promotions.
"No one here is anti-Filipino," says McPhatter. "But we are certainly anti-imparity. Where they are unfairly being [selected for employment], at the expense of everybody else, you're getting into a different thing. I've always been a champion of underdogs. I see people laboring. I see things I don't like. I go into the commissary store and it looks like you're in Manila or Subic Bay! I've been a deputy equal employment opportunity officer. [EEO rules] say that the work force should reflect the population."
Dodd says he feels management is soft on Filipinos. "We've had many, many instances in this store where Filipinos have pulled knives on other employees, have beaten up vendor-stockers [and gotten away with it]," he says. "One instance lately, we had a Filipino jump on an employee in the frozen-food storage locker, beat the boy up.... The guy who did it is still there."
"Had it been one of us African-Americans," says McJunkins, "we would have been gone. Fired. I mean, gone."
One after another, the stories pour out, detailing a decade of frustrations on a job where African-American, Hispanic, and white employees at the commissary -- officially titled Naval Station San Diego Commissary -- say they feel like an excluded minority.
That, they say, is why they're going for broke: putting their jobs on the line, going public with a journalist. Kathy Hodges says, "We just aren't going to take this sitting in the back seat no more."
Last May the revolt started. Kathy Hodges was passed over in favor of a white woman she says had lower qualifications for a WL-5 job, the "working leader" position in the store's produce section. It was her second rejection in two years. "They had overlooked Kathy Hodges before," says union steward William Banks. "And she was definitely the most qualified person for the job, according to the ratings. So this time it really just set the whole thing off. It was a blatant slap in the face. [Her rejection] really made a lot of people mad."
Talk began about "fighting back" to get rid of the management team at 32nd Street.
"At first we just started out with blacks," says Kathy Hodges. "We let them know that we were having a secret meeting, word of mouth. Then we found out [people like] Cheryl Hahn, the [white] office manager -- she had been having trouble with management for a long time. We asked other whites and Mexicans having problems with management to join forces with us."
Thirty people showed up at last summer's weekly meetings, looking for ways to force the resignation of their bosses. But 30 is a minority at the gigantic 32nd Street store. The commissary is the biggest in the county, serving San Diego military personnel and their families, saving them an average 33 percent on mainstream supermarket prices. The 58,000-square-foot commissary generated $56 million in sales in fiscal year 1996, making it the 11th-highest earner among the Department of Defense's 299 commissaries worldwide. At peak hours, 32nd Street opens up 25 checkstands.
You'd never know anything was amiss by looking at the store. Beside the modern (1989) building's main doors, a list of awards announces first place for various promotions. Inside, a quick scan leaves the impression the majority of workers may be Filipino, but there's also a fair representation of white, African-American, and Hispanic staff.
At nearby Pacific Fleet trolley station, Devon, an 18-year-old African-American and her Mexican-American friend Karina have just tried to get applications for commissary jobs. "We left," says Devon. "The lady just ignored us. She processed everybody else even though we were ahead. My mom says it's always been like this here."
Ruth McConnell, the (Caucasian) president of the union, believes management favors Filipinos in the better-paying positions of responsibility because they're compliant. "It's human nature. [The commissary store officer] comes to me and tells me to jump, I'm going to ask him why, how high, or what? He tells a Filipino to jump, he'll jump. No questions."
But isn't that reverse racism?
Union vice president McJunkins denies it. "This is about favoritism. Hell, my wife is Filipino." Kathy Hodges, the African-American passed over for produce section leader, says she has nothing against Filipinos. "The Filipinos, they're human beings just like you and me. I think it's basically 'who [the management] can control the best.' Coming from their history, I guess they felt like this is nothing compared to [the work and pay] where they come from. But what they don't realize is: forget where you come from. You don't have to take the trash. You're not going to treat me like I'm some sort of slave under your feet. That happened to my forefathers. I'm not my forefathers."