When Mark Covington applied for a clerical position at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory eight years ago, he unknowingly underwent a battery of genetic tests.
“The Lab ran urine and blood tests for sickle cell anemia and syphilis,” said Covington, an African American. “They didn’t tell me about it, and they even re-tested me later, after I was hired.”
Covington and seven others claimed that tests performed on minority workers were not done on Caucasians. They sued the labs for violation of their civil rights and won.
Now an organizer with CUE, the Coalition of University Employees, Covington and his union are leveling new charges of racial discrimination against the Labs. The union represents 240 clerics in the labs.
Claiming that people of color receive no training programs, that advancement is based on arbitrary and undefined standards, and that new hires are given higher wages than employees who have been there for years, CUE filed a discrimination suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Program on Aug. 22.
“Seventy-five percent of the lowest level clerics at the Labs are ethnic minorities. At the higher levels, they number only 28 percent.” said Covington.
Clerics are “the glue of the lab” said Alyce Herrera, spokesperson for CUE. “They do scientific reports, power point presentations, they keep the offices going.”
Ron Kolb, spokesperson for LBNL, defended the lab and dismissed the union’s charges as a negotiating tool.
“The suit is a surprise to us,” Kolb said. “But the charges are nothing new. We’ve been at the negotiating table with CUE for two and a half years now. It’s just a bargaining tactic.”
Kolb said the heart of negotiations is the pay system, which is “based on market rates and is merit based.”
“CUE wants built-in raises based on seniority. The implication is that we are not paying at market rates, but the fact is that we pay 10 percent higher than what the UC schools pay already. Raises are based upon personal performance levels, not seniority,” Kolb said.
“Raises are not based on any kinds of standards at all,” he said. “The different classifications of administrative assistant are vague, arbitrary, and there is no step system to get a promotion.
Because of that, you see people who have been employees the longest clustered at the bottom of the wage scale and responsibility scale. New hires are getting between a dollar and a half to three dollars more per hour.”
Kolb blames that on the lengthy negotiations between the labs and CUE.
“There have been no raises in the last two and a half years for those already employed because there is no deal brokered,” he said.
“In the meantime, we’ve had to hire new people, and we’ve hired at market rates, which have increased.
“After the deal is done, all of the older employees represented by CUE will receive eight to 10 percent in back pay, and whatever the contract allows for raises.”
Covington is still concerned with the issue of people of color bumping their heads on the glass ceiling.
“Why are the stats so different at different levels of responsibility and pay? I don’t think that it’s because minorities are less capable. It speaks to the management of the labs. Opportunities for advancement aren’t available to minorities here. There is no training that’s been outlined – to advance, minorities often have to leave the department.”
“Those stats are probably right,” Kolb said. “But of themselves they don’t prove any discrimination.
“We would deny that advances people make in the labs have any basis in their ethnicity. These numbers are no different than numbers which pervade the entire UC system.”
But Covington calls such words an admission of a bigger problem rather than a justification of the lab conditions.
“The labs are just a small part of a larger problem. As diverse as this area is, we still see these good ol’ boy networks.”
The EEOC suit comes on the heels of Wen Ho Lee’s release from a New Mexico prison.
The university has managed security and personnel decisions at a troika of nuclear laboratories across the nation since the Cold War, including Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the Atomic bomb was created.
It was there that Dr. Wen Ho Lee was arrested on secret evidence for allegedly passing national secrets to an unidentified foreign nation.
In solitary confinement for the last eight months in a New Mexico prison, critics of Lee’s arrest claimed that the Los Alamos Labs, also administered by the UC system, singled Lee out because of his race.
With no evidence to hold him, Lee finally returned home after posting $1 million in bail.
Covington said he thinks the advances made by people of color in America since the Civil Rights Era have rapidly deteriorated.
“Its just another national lab managed by the university where these kinds of issues keep rearing their ugly heads,” Covington said.
“Diversity issues are no longer in fashion, and people here in Berkeley think that it’s not like that here, that it could never be that way here. But you just have to ask yourself, why is all ‘the diversity’ stuck at the bottom?”
Spokesperson Linda Li said the EEOC will conduct a 180 day investigation, after which it will either recommend that the Department of Justice take a case up against the university, or dismiss the suit if it finds no evidence of discrimination.
Kolb said, “We welcome any EEOC investigation. We have proof that we are not discriminating.”