I was born in King N. C. raised in the area between Tobaccoville and King doing farm work, dairy operations, and raising tobacco, along with the attendant grain crops and the animals necessary for any farm operation in the mid 1900’s.
I graduated from Old Richmond High School in 1954 and High Point College in 1959.
Coming to RJR
I went to work for RJR in June 1954, left regular employment in August 1955 to continue my education at High Point College. Reynolds always had a summer job for me as well as many other of their employees’ children. A real boon for all families who were employed by RJR. After graduation I worked for NCNB, chasing past dues and then as a salesman for Carnation Co. before once again beginning a work/employee association with RJR. I was in a supervisory role with RJR until the late 1960s when I moved into a staff position as Personnel Assistant to one of the three Cigarette Manufacturing Plant Managers at that time. During my time in a direct supervisory role, I was promoted to a position called Department Foreman. At this level you directly supervised Line Supervisors but not directly any hourly paid employees. I was trained and acted as Factory Manager and Assistant Factory Manager until I began working in the staff position already referenced.
I was in the 2nd and 3rd level Supervisory positions during the Turbulent 60’s. We had National Guardsmen guarding the entrances and buildings for a short time during this period. I had no problems in the Factories. Our employees, Black and White knew each other well, having worked in close proximity for many years, doing the high paying jobs provided by RJR. The working relationships were normal and without problem in the areas I worked. The problems which did exist were the routine job related instances, rather than personal incidents regarding race, and the activity outside the factories. I had the Midnight ‘til 8Am shift, and employees made a premium for working that shift and all wanted the work and money.
My assignment as I began assuming the duties of Personnel Assistant to the Plant Manager was to put into place a new company policy of promoting the hourly paid work force strictly by seniority. It would take too many words to explain the program of training and promotion which the new policy demanded, other than to say I received my instructions from the Superintendent of all Tobacco Manufacturing, then was sent into the position of Personnel Assistant to one of the Cigarette Manufacturing Plant Managers.
I was told while receiving my instructions from the Superintendent I had no authority, or direct supervision, only the dictate of implementing this new policy. With that sobering set of duties explained, I set up training schedules, training procedures, seniority lists of all job labor grades and jobs within the labor grades and the reporting necessary to assure compliance with the new policy.
RJR Cigarette Manufacturing (and let me here detail why I continue to say Cigarette Manufacturing) RJR also manufactured Plug and Scrap Chewing Tobacco as well as Pipe Smoking products. Separately also, was shipping of these products, but my duties at that time were confined to Cigarette Manufacturing hourly employees.
As this policy was implemented, the work force had Labor Grades 1 through 9. The history of the work force prior to this change would show that very few white employees held labor grades 1 and 2, a few more in 3, and with almost all the 4 and above being held by white employees, except for one Department staffed with black operators and inspectors. Also, even though the policy was implemented for all shifts, day and night, the culture of the day shift employees and the night shift employees was not quite the same. The day shift people were there because it had always been the policy to allow the most senior in any job classification go to the day shift if they so chose. Many chose to stay on night shift because of faster promotion and the differential paid for working nights. The day shift people were more mature in years let’s say, and more set in their ways, most having reached the labor grade designation they would maintain during their remaining years.
Prior to the new policy, when promotions did come on either shift, the supervisors rewarded and chose the person they wanted and/or felt most qualified. The day shift supervisors, Department Foremen, Assistant Factory Managers and Factory Manages were “most senior” also, as compared with those on Night Shift.
This is where some differences began to appear in the reaction to the new policy. The Day Shift Supervisors actually had fewer people with full capabilities to handle well the new job requirements when a higher labor grade opening came. Now, they had no choice but to follow seniority. No more picking who they favored. All were offered on a seniority basis the training and promotion and if successful, the new job. Mandated. However, many hourly paid on day shift just didn’t want the higher classifications. They liked what they had, could do it well and had no need for advancement.
We designed a form which they then signed which stated they did not want to be trained for or wanted the new job. Some in line management had to be restrained from offering too much encouragement to the prospective trainee as to why the opportunity should be declined. My one bit of authority was to insist on having the decline form signed in my office. Sometimes, the person changed their mind and took the training! Sometimes it was fun.
The Plant Manager I worked for always backed me fully in the training regimen established. My office was adjacent to his and even though he could close the doors, he never did when conversing with the Factory Manager or Department Foremen concerning their displeasure with the people they now had to train and use if the training was successful. It was left with me to decide if the training regimen was adhered to and followed to allow for “qualified” or “disqualified”. His favorite reply to their many displeasures and criticisms of the person and or the new policy which they related to him was: “Well, its whatever Bill says”. We got the policy implemented.
Why would this create any problems in a heretofore racially divided workforce? Almost all the labor grade 1 and 2 people were black. They also had the most years in service, so when a labor grade 3 became available, a black employee had the seniority. Labor grade 3 jobs then quickly became almost all black because of seniority. Labor grade 4 jobs then when open were by policy offered to the employee with the most seniority. Almost all with seniority were black. Then as it follows when a Labor grade 5 job became open, the employee with the most seniority was almost always black, and it follows all the way up in that manner. When the day shift “promote who I want” driven Supervisory finally accepted that the new policy would be implemented, things smoothed out. The same problems did not exist on Night Shift. The younger people were more flexible. However, I then had another Plant Manager added and with his entourage of Supervisory Foremen and Managers, both day and night. This particular Plant Manager was not as cooperative, and before the program was fully implemented, our relationship ended.
During the implementation period within this assigned Plant, I was summoned to the Tobacco Manufacturing Superintendents office again, and someone else was assigned to my position as Personnel Assistant, and I became a Staff Member for the Superintendent. My highest job attainment at RJR. My last assignment at RJR was to write job descriptions for all supervisory personnel in all Tobacco Manufacturing Divisions.
The Plug and Smoking Tobacco Divisions were like the father of the Cigarette Manufacturing Divisions, and their world was quite different, I think mainly because Corporate had decided these were becoming less significant to RJR and would be allowed to operate as long as they added to the bottom line, but mainly because they really had been there from the beginning. They didn’t get much attention.
I was one of the first to be offered a transfer into the newly formed International Tobacco Manufacturing. I didn’t really like the answer to questions I got concerning where I would go or when I might come back. I took this into consideration for my future plans.
My short career at RJR had some great moments. I think the best work I did was the work I have already described. It was an important time for RJR Tobacco, its changing policies to adapt to a new manufacturing culture and its place in the community. I believe I contributed to a successful change, and to all the employees being more ready to accept the changes demanded.
I left RJR in early 1970 to take a job with Interstate Securities, a New York Stock Exchange Company. I left for the opportunity to make more money. I felt I was leaving security for opportunity. The only bad thing about leaving the security of a job with RJR was having to begin each month in my newly chosen job with zero in earnings. Work as a broker was strictly on what you produced. That was different.
Bill McGee had a relatively short career with RJR, but he was there during the period of great change in personnel policy and relations with the workforce. He has given an inside look at what it was like to be frontline management, dealing with a workforce in a time of evolutionary change. He went on to a successful career as an investment broker in Winston-Salem.
Bill and his wife Diane live in the Clemmons area and have been long-time friends. Diane Bingham McGee and I grew up together from the age of eight, and we share many memories of our days at Clemmons School that now date back more than seventy years. It is friends like these, and the entire Bingham family, that have made my walk down Tobacco Road so meaningful. GAH