“You are fooling with the wrong Black woman,” Mabin recalls telling one supervisor.
In 1993, Monica Mabin moved to Danville, Va., to work at the local Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company plant. Born and raised in Madisonville, Ky., Mabin had worked for two years at the Goodyear facility in her hometown before being laid off in 1991 when the company closed the plant.
Mabin had thoughts of continuing her education in Kentucky, but being the single mother of a young daughter, Mabin decided to apply for a job transfer.
“I had my daughter when I was 18 and even though my heart was set on going to school, I came to Danville so I could provide a living for her,” Mabin said.
Mabin began her tenure in Danville as a press operator, one of the most strenuous jobs in the plant. A Black woman working in a mostly white man’s factory, she immediately faced derogatory remarks about her gender and race.
She recalled being told that she could never handle the job because it was man’s work. Supervisors and co-workers tried to break her spirit, but Mabin persevered.
She can now boast of an impressive 31-year career at Goodyear.
“I had a supervisor come right up to me and look me up and down and say, ‘You’re too small for the job, you’ll never make it,” Mabin said. “Well, I let him have it too. I said, ‘Nobody ever tells me that I can’t do anything, I promise you. I have the mentality that I can do whatever I set my mind to.’
“He even went up to the office and told them, ‘That girl needs to be moved.’ He kept saying I was too small or whatever, but there was more to it. I did that job for 5-and-a-half years and never had an accident or anything. I did more work than the men and this guy told me I would never be able to do the job.”
The job entailed moving the large aviation tires Goodyear was manufacturing for Boeing and military aircraft. When the rubber came off the presses, Mabin had to stack the tires, which weighed as much as 185 pounds each, on a floor stand where they would be picked up by trucks.
“When I came to Danville, there were very few women here,” Mabin said. “You may have had 30 to 40 in the plant that had at least 1,600 employees.
“They were very disrespectful to women when I came here. I had a supervisor and I was the only woman on his shift at that time on the presses, and he would stand behind the presses and watch me all night. He would always nitpick with me and one day he and I got into it and I told him, ‘You are fooling with the wrong Black woman.’
“I walked to the office and met the shop steward. The most important thing was I kept notes and other people had witnessed it as well. There was another guy named David that used to run the press beside me, and he was white. He couldn’t understand why this supervisor was picking on me, but after we went to the office, I didn’t have any more problems with him. But I finally had to address it.”
In her early days at the Danville plant, Mabin often had to stand up and fight gender and racial discrimination. It was the unfortunate culture back in the 1990s. There was a small percentage of women employees and Black workers comprised only about one-fifth of the workforce, she recalled.
“The business center manager did not like me and would not talk directly to me,” Mabin said. “He would talk to my labor trainer and refer to me as her, girl and she. He would be two feet away from me, but he wouldn’t say anything directly to me. It was all the good old boys’ mentality.
“I finally got real mad at him one day and I wrote Miss Gray – that was my maiden name – on my gloves and I put my hands in his face and told him from now on I suggest you call me Miss Gray. My name is not her, it’s not girl, it’s not she.
“They were terrible to me. Me, being a woman and Black, I think I had a dose of both against me, to be honest with you.”
Mabin recalls sitting in the break area when she first came to Danville and being accosted by an older white man.
“This guy was standing there with his arms folded and he said, ‘Oh, so you are one of those women that are taking the men’s jobs, huh? A woman doesn’t have a place here,’” she said. “Then he just got up and left. It didn’t bother me in the least bit. I’ve always been very strong willed.”
Mabin knew she had to be tough to survive and provide a prosperous life for her daughter while navigating in a world full of southern inequality.
She moved through a series of five different jobs during her career at Goodyear, and today she is an Aero Inspector in the Aero department. Her job is to check the high-quality airplane tires before they leave the factory and are put on Boeing aircraft and other military jets.
At the age of 51, she now lives a middle-class life, with a good-paying job and excellent benefits. She owns a house in Danville that is completely paid for and is occupied by her 33-year-old daughter and 12-year-old grandson.
“My success comes from struggling when you are young,” Mabin said. “You find out you never want your kids to go through what you went through. I’ve always been a go-getter for that reason.
“I didn’t have much of anything growing up. Back when my mom divorced my stepdad, I was eight years old, and it was just her and five children. I was the oldest girl and had a whole lot of responsibility fall on me.
“I know what it is not to have so when I had my daughter, I made a promise I wouldn’t raise her that way and she would not know that life.”
Mabin got married seven years ago to a fellow Goodyear employee. She has also restarted her educational pursuits taking online classes, and has earned her cosmetology license and a real estate sales certification.
A member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 831, she serves as a lead organizer, alternate shop steward and is active in the Women of Steel, where she is the chairperson and team captain for the annual Relay for Life event. Mabin also was the lead organizer when the nearby Nestle plant (now Buitoni) workers became members of the USW three years ago. They signed their second contract with the union last week and have 85 percent membership.
“We have a lot of Black union officials now, both men and women. We have a good balance now, and I am hoping for more change in the city.” Monica Mabin
Mabin says that there have been changes since the 1990s, with the plant attaining parity with Black and white workers. The city of Danville also reflects this demographic makeup, with nearly an equal amount of both Black and white residents.
But attitudes are not as easily changed in the city of 43,000, which has history of frightening racial disparity that dates to before the Civil War.
“Danville is one the most racist places I’ve ever lived,” Mabin said. “As many Blacks as there are here, there still is that Jim Crow mentality.
“We have definitely had racial problems a lot in the plant in the past. But in some departments, it was more dominant than others. It was because of the old-time business center managers. They held on to their departments until we got younger people in that had been around and were not going to put up with it.
“I had a supervisor when I came here from Kentucky saying, ‘Hey boys, it’s time to get moving.’ Who in the world is a boy? That’s what he would say to the Black guys, ‘y’all boys.’ I mean who does this?
“But things are changing a bit. We have a lot of Black union officials now, both men and women. We have a good balance now, and I am hoping for more change in the city.”
As the grandmother of a 12-year-old Black child, Mabin is most certainly concerned about his future in the next few years as a Black teenager and emerging adult. Disgusted with senseless killings of Black men like George Floyd, Mabin knows the United States is a long way from justice and racial equality.
“My grandson, TeKar, he matters,” Mabin said. “I’m really disgusted that we are still dealing with that kind of racism in 2020. And my main focus is to make it better for him. I worry about him coming up.”
After the killing of George Floyd, Mabin noticed an even larger presence of President Trump posters and Make America Great Again signs in her city.
“There was a statement put on the TV screen a few weeks ago by our CEO saying they wouldn’t tolerate racism,” Mabin said. “They were talking about the George Floyd incident. They said racism wouldn’t be tolerated and anybody that engaged in it would be sent out. Since then, the Trump stickers on toolboxes had to be removed.
“I still feel we have a great divide,” she added. “I am surprised in 2020 that we still have a great divide. I’m hopeful for the future. I am for the protests, but I am not for the riots. We had a couple of protests here and they were peaceful, and the police participated and walked to the courthouse with everybody.
“As a whole, the majority hasn’t changed much, but the police department in Danville has been trying to reach out to the Black community. They even went to my church when my pastor held a community day and some of the officers came to speak and show that there is some kind of healing.
“We have gotten good participation from the police department and the chief but when you look at the rest of the people, you never know down here.
“I just want a better and safer life for my grandson.”
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 and Manufacturing Offered Opportunity for Black Workers Like E.J. Jenkins, But Inequalities Persist.