Perkins joined the United Steelworkers to help do “right by working class people.”
Alex Perkins began working at the Graphic Packaging International paper mill in Macon, Georgia in 2003. As a 22-year-old Black man, he felt fortunate to find union employment in a depressed city that had seen the loss of many of its major manufacturing companies and the well-paying jobs they provided.
But once he landed on the factory floor, he faced a whole new set of challenges.
Perkins started his paper mill career in production on the number 1 paper machine. That is where he got his first taste of job discrimination, one that led him to a new calling as a union organizer.
“Everything is based on seniority, and in the paper mill you work in a line of progression,” Perkins said. “I got hired months before two of my white coworkers, and I got to look at the schedule and noticed they were being set up on the higher paying jobs than I was. It was a $6 an hour wage difference from the bottom job and the next job up.
“I just call it what it is, the good old boy system. They tried to manipulate the system. So, I reached out to the shop steward on my shift, and was told by an African American man to just keep coming to work and that everything would work itself out.
“Well, I finally spoke to one of the older shop stewards, Mr. Curtis Middleton, who was the most senior employee in the paper machine department at the time, and the company resolved the issue and put a new policy in writing that this would never happen again. Mr. Middleton then told me I should think about getting more involved in the union.”
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Perkins became a shop steward, and a year later was elected vice president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 572. He served five years as vice president, and eventually was elevated to president and District 9 Staff Representative.
Perkins’ parents divorced when he was 9 years old and he was raised, along with his two brothers, primarily by his mother. To support the young family, his mother worked a retail sales job while going to college full-time, eventually becoming a Registered Nurse.
It would be an understatement to say she instilled in him a work ethic that serves him well today.
“My mom is a very, very strong woman, and I would have to say she had been my motivation all through life because of all the adversity and hardships I saw her endure when I was growing up,” Perkins said. “It really molded me into the person I am, because no matter what we went through, she always kept a smile on her face and kept pushing forward to achieve her goals. She never let anything stop her from getting to where she wanted to be in life and being successful.”
That same fighting spirit proved to be alive and well in her son as he became a union advocate and demonstrated he was willing to stand up for what was right when involved with the injustices of union employees and the discrimination of Black men.
A job at the Graphic Packaging paper mill (formerly Riverwood International) is one of the most lucrative lines of work in Macon for someone without a college education. The company makes paper that is used for food and beverage packaging, like 12-pack boxes of Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Budweiser, Heineken, cereal boxes, frozen dinner boxes and drinking cups. It employs approximately 600 employees, with the USW representing every rank-and-file employee except the machinists and electricians.
After Perkins graduated high school, he attended Macon State College while working full-time at the YKK zipper company. But he got laid off at YKK, and his girlfriend was expecting a baby, so he knew he had to find a well-paying job to support his young family.
He found plenty of work as a temporary employee at Snelling Personnel in Macon, and later worked for a contractor at Georgia Power.
But Perkins knew working at the paper mill would provide a secure future. And even though his father and grandfather worked at the mill, Perkins did not get hired until his third application and interview.
Macon is a city with a population of more than 150,000, centrally located in the state of Georgia about 85 miles southeast of Atlanta. Nearly 68 percent of Macon residents are Black, and they are well represented at Graphic Packaging, Perkins says.
“The local union make up was like 50-50 Black and white,” Perkins said. “It was a real reflection of the membership, which was good. I think for the most part, everybody that works in the mill is kind of like family oriented. We spend so much time with our coworkers that they become an extension of your family.”
But like most families, there are bound to be grudges and disagreements, and in the Deep South they often rear their ugly heads in the form of racial acrimony.
“I have seen racism in the workplace with some of my coworkers,” Perkins said. “I have seen guys terminated from the paper mill for hanging a noose on the crane at the paper machine where I work. And that was just the first noose I saw working in the mill.
“Maybe a year later, one of my coworkers, who is now a vice president of the local, came and got me and said they found a noose over by the core saw, hanging from an I-beam.
“Then a couple of months later, some contract workers were working out in the tank farm, and my younger brother was working cleaning out the inside of the tank, and when he came back from his break, someone had hung a noose on the outside of the tank he was working on.
“I have to give the company credit; they were very proactive. They went and got the noose, took pictures before they cut it down and did an investigation. Nobody confessed but the company sent that whole crew out of the mill and they couldn’t come back to work at the mill anymore. This was right after the Jena Louisiana incident in 2006 where nooses were hung at Jena High School, which had only a 10 percent Black student population.”
Perkins is passionate about his work with the USW and protecting the rights of all Steelworkers regardless of their racial background. He has organized and negotiated contracts all throughout USW District 9, which covers most of the Southeastern United States. He has also served as the NextGen coordinator for District 9, a program that pairs up veteran steelworkers with new hires to share their experience, advanced skills and safety tips.
Perkins is married with three children and owns a house in Macon as well as a late-model automobile – all the staples that go together with a well-paying, middle-class manufacturing job.
But being born and raised in Macon, Perkins has had to endure the injustices of inequality and tries to do his best to stand up and be counted as a man who demands to see the end of all of the hate.
“I feel really strongly about the stance that Colin Kaepernick took in trying to promote the whole Black Lives Matter movement,” he said. “This creates conversation, and without conversation and discussing the problem that Black men are facing in the world today, there is never going to be any change.
“I support the Black Lives Matter movement fully and moving forward I just think that more people need to educate themselves on the true meaning of what they stand for, because a lot of people are uneducated and they just look at the words Black Lives Matter and they assume, well, all lives matter. That really irks me, because we are having a problem in this country with Black men being killed, senseless killing of Black men, and people don’t want to face the realization that this has been an ongoing problem for years and years.
“If we don’t do something to fix it, it is going to continue.”
People that have decent jobs in Macon often call Perkins to inquire if they are hiring at Graphic Packaging and to see if he can help them secure a position. Even though many of America’s paper mills have gone out of business, Graphic Packaging continues to prosper. It is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. In these trying times, that seems like an invitation to job security.
“The thing is you don’t need a job at Graphic Packaging, you just need a union at your job,” Perkins said. “All the good jobs in Georgia are union jobs. I try to help people organize and I think that has gotten me to where I am today because I’ve been a vocal spokesman for the union and organizing and helping people and doing what’s right by working class people.
“But at the same time when it all relates back to race, I hate to see my Black people mistreated and I am not going to stand for it and I am not going to stand back and watch people continue to be paid unfair wages. The least I can do is help them organize.”
Perkins knows first-hand the injustices of being harassed by police for driving his new Cadillac in a Black neighborhood to pick up one of his friends to go out and watch Monday Night Football. He is aware of the attitudes that if you are a Black man in the South, you are not supposed to have a new car or home or enjoy a middle-class life.
“I was at the USW Civil Rights Convention in Alabama a couple years back, and somebody asked a question in class about why don’t the good old boys like unions in this day and age,” Perkins said. “One of the stewards from my local made a statement that the reason is because when the oppressor is introduced to equality, they feel oppressed. I’ve never forgotten what he said because it resonated and really spoke to you.
“Think about it, when the oppressor is introduced to equality, they feel oppressed. Maybe this is what we are going through in America today.”
Editor’s note: This is the latest in an occasional series of interviews with Black factory workers about racism in the United States and their experiences in the manufacturing industry. If you or someone you know would like to take part, please email [email protected].
See the previous entries: No Stranger to Adversity, Syracuse Steelworker Keith Odume is an Advocate for Change; Manufacturing Offered Opportunity for Black Workers Like E.J. Jenkins, But Inequalities Persist; and As a Black Woman in a Factory Dominated by White Men, Monica Mabin Faced Double Discrimination.