The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, escalating a feud with NationsBank Corp., has joined with a civil rights organization to request a Justice Department investigation of NationsBank's lending practices.
Allied with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the group once led by Martin Luther King, the union is piling allegations of loan bias on top of a longstanding labor-policy dispute with the Charlotte, N.C.-based superregional banking company.
Both sets of charges were intermingled at the protesters' joint press conference last week. The discussion repeatedly veered from mortgage lending to the Teamsters' allegation of unfair labor practices at a contractor it uses to transport checks.
The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, president of the SCLC, at one point admonished reporters not to be too transfixed on the labor issues.
"Don't take us off on this tangent," the civil rights leader pleaded. "The fact that there are other disputes seems to me to be inconsequential, if not irrelevant."
The two organizations held their press conference Thursday at SCLC's Atlanta headquarters. Their call for an investigation of NationsBank was accompanied by the release of a study by Patrick Bond, an assistant professor at John Hopkins University, showing that NationsBank rejected blacks for mortgage loans more often than white applicants in Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, and Washington.
The press conference came a few weeks after the Teamsters filed fair- lending complaints in connection with two pending NationsBank acquisitions in Florida. The union asked federal regulators to disapprove the acquisitions on the ground that NationsBank doesn't lend enough to minorities.
The Teamsters request cited the same Home Mortgage Disclosure Act information used in Prof. Bond's study.
But the message the Teamsters and SCLC sent last week clearly had as much to do with the union's dispute with Borg-Warner Security Corp. as with fair-lending. The SCLC's public resolution asked NationsBank "to repair its relations with its employees and its borrowers," but also to lobby Borg- Warner to "reform its labor practices."
Borg-Warner owns the Pony Express courier service, which the Teamsters have been trying to organize. Since a failed strike against Pony Express last summer, the Teamsters have been putting public pressure on companies that work with Pony Express or Borg-Warner.
NationsBank has become a Teamsters target because it uses Pony Express in several cities to transport canceled checks and other documents to the Federal Reserve. NationsBank, so far, has declined to drop Pony Express as one of its vendors.
"The Borg-Warner/Pony Express dispute is not our dispute and won't influence our practices," Catherine Bessant, NationsBank's director of community investment, said in a telephone interview.
Bartlett Naylor, the Teamsters' corporate affairs national coordinator, responded: "It is true that we're fighting for justice for 4,000 Pony Express employees.
"But we're fighting for justice for 1.4 million Teamsters, many hundreds of thousands of whom live in the South and many of whom are Africa-American and may or may not be suffering lending discrimination at NationsBank."
Mr. Naylor also warned that the Teamsters will continue its action against NationsBank by filing lawsuits in Atlanta and Washington "within the next couple of months."
Rev. Lowery seemed uncomfortable with the Teamsters' exclusive focus on NationsBank. He went out of his way to point out that the Teamsters, not the SCLC, had called the press conference. He also insisted the SCLC was not singling out NationsBank in particular.
Indeed, the home mortgage data cited in Prof. Bond's report showed other Atlanta banks with higher denial ratios for minorities than NationsBank.
"We're not just concerned about NationsBank," Dr. Lowery said. "We're concerned about all the banks. But NationsBank, having such a grasp of the market, is of central interest to all of us.
With assets of $184 billion, NationsBank is the largest banking company in the Southeast and the third-largest in the country.