When 53-year-old Bob McCoy completed 20 years on the job at the Library of Congress, he might have expected the same celebration accorded to his co-workers in the copyright division. It’s generally a big deal: The office throws a party for you, rewards you with a commemorative silver lapel pin, and runs a photo of you in its newsletter.
But there was no party for McCoy. And there was no photograph. A supervisor handed McCoy the lapel pin in an envelope without saying a word. When he reached 30 years of service last year, there was no recognition whatsoever from management.
Carolyn Torsell knows how McCoy feels. A senior reference librarian in the Congressional Research Service (CRS), Torsell earned several promotions from 1971 to 1982, her first 11 years at the library. Since then, she has been promoted once. “It shouldn’t take 14 years to get a promotion,” she says, crying.
The careers of McCoy and Torsell, who are both black, appear to be casualties of a 15-year legal battle between library management and its black employees over hiring and promotion practices. McCoy and Torsell’s troubles on the job began after they joined a 1982 employment discrimination suit charging that the library systematically squeezed blacks out of promotions and top management positions. In 1992, the plaintiffs prevailed: Federal Judge Norma Holloway Johnson awarded the plaintiffs $8.5 million in compensation and wrung a pledge from the library to end discrimination in personnel decisions.
At the time, the plaintiffs cheered the decision as reward for the sacrifices they had made in pursuit of racial equality at work. But now, four years later, they have come to agree that their victory exists only on paper: Library management, they say, continues to treat its black employees like office temps, and the plaintiffs haven’t seen a penny of their monetary award.
Not that a big payday is what they were after. “My hope was that the whole process would be made fairer for young black professionals,” says McCoy, who’s supposed to get $13,000 in back pay, a fraction of the $100,000 he claims to have lost to discrimination. Howard Cook, a 61-year-old former library employee who started the case, says he doesn’t mind if he dies before he gets his share of the award: “The main purpose was to break down racial discrimination in hiring and promotions,” he says. Although the $8.5-million award looks enormous, there are 2,000 eligible payees; the average award would be $4,250.
The plaintiffs all offer compelling stories of racism on the part of the white brass under the library’s gilded dome. McCoy, for example, says that in 30 years of service his white bosses have repeatedly picked less-qualified whites for jobs he says he deserved. The pattern began in 1976, when McCoy applied for a copyright opening in the library. Although the job required skills that McCoy had learned in the position he had held for 10 years, management picked a white woman who had worked at the library for one year in an unrelated job. “I felt a great deal of despair, and that turned into a certain amount of anger,” he recalls. McCoy sued, got the job, and hasn’t been promoted since.
Protests against the library’s personnel policies began in 1971, when McCoy and a group of black co-workers staged a sit-in at the main reading room. Management called the police, and scores of protesters were arrested. Thirteen protesters were fired.
Then in 1975, Cook, McCoy, and other black employees filed a class-action complaint with the library’s equal employment opportunity office. The library took until 1982 to deny their complaint, forcing Cook to move the case to federal court.
For 10 years, savvy Justice Department attorneys kept the case bottled up in the courthouse anteroom. “[They] opposed everything we did,” says Marc Fleischaker, attorney for the plaintiffs. “They filed every procedural violation they could.”
McCoy expected his standing in the library to improve after the 1992 decision, which gave the library’s affirmative action office the authority to review hirings and promotions.
Last September, however, library management transferred the review powers to the library’s personnel office. Denise Banks, who heads the affirmative action office, said that the change mutes its voice in personnel moves: “This practice is inappropriate…if the intent (of the reviews) is to maintain objectivity.”
Despite repeated protests from black library employees, library management refuses to reverse the change. Furthermore, management claims it’s heeding Johnson’s order because the personnel office is conducting the same reviews that the affirmative action office formerly performed: “This has been a tempest in a teapot,” says associate librarian Suzanne Thorin.
Although the plaintiffs believe that the reviews have compromised the library’s equal employment practices, they can’t be sure: Library management has rebuffed their requests to inspect the reviews.
By the plaintiffs’ account, the library has stiffed Congress as well as the court. In 1993, Rep. William Clay (D-Mo.), then chairman of the House subcommittee on libraries and memorials, held two hearings on racial discrimination at the library and later issued a report documenting a range of abuses. Clay ordered Librarian James Billington to move blacks into senior management and professional positions. He also told Billington to hire a deputy librarian who would manage affirmative action.
Billington promptly hired Hiram Davis, an African-American, as deputy librarian in 1994. But last January Billington reassigned Davis, making him head of a new training division and replacing him with a retired white Army general until a permanent replacement is found.
According to the plaintiffs, Billington and his advisers never wanted a deputy librarian and kept Davis under wraps during his one-year stint in the post. “They only hired him because Clay told them to,” says Al Hyson, one of the plaintiffs. “They didn’t give him resources. They didn’t give him the authority to run the office.”
Billington’s other attempts to put blacks in top positions also appeared halfhearted. In 1993 he picked Lloyd Pauls and Carolyn Brown, black library executives, to join his decision-making team. Pauls and Brown were the first blacks to serve on the team, but Billington removed them both when he restructured the team last fall.
Lawyer Fleischaker charges that Billington’s actions are part of a well-established pattern: “The library’s white managers saw no reason to change the system—and it worked well for them,” he says.
Library spokeswoman Jill Brett rejected several requests to interview Billington on the plaintiffs’ allegations of continued employment discrimination at the library. Banks agreed to an interview but was ordered by management not to talk.
Thorin, however, was allowed to frame the library’s official response to the charges: “There was discrimination before and in some cases there still is. That’s just life,” she says. “I hope we’re changing. We’re not changing as fast as some people would like, but I think we’re changing.” And she adds that Davis’ reassignment had nothing to do with racial discrimination. “Hiram is the first to say that he’s happy with his new job. There’s always going to be some comment when someone is removed from the top of the job pyramid,” says Thorin.
Still, change is coming slowly: In seven years, the library has moved 17 blacks into its top 114 senior-level positions. And today blacks fill 13 percent of the library’s professional jobs—as opposed to 12 percent five years ago—even though they make up 40 percent of the total work force.
While management continues shuffling black executives in and out of top library positions to prove its equal employment opportunity credentials, the plaintiffs shuffle between home and their dead-end jobs at the library.
When asked whether management resented the plaintiffs, Peter Braestrup, the library’s director of communications, responded, “If such sentiments did not exist after all this fighting I would be surprised.”
Joyce Thorpe of CRS isn’t surprised. “I knew my career path ended when I joined the case,” says Thorpe, who hasn’t received a promotion since. Despite serving almost 20 years at CRS, Thorpe, who holds a law degree from George Washington University, works as a senior paralegal specialist. She says managers have asked her to quit.
Worse, she says a manager cornered her in her office and proceeded to harangue her about the case. Thorpe says he wouldn’t leave when she asked him to, and he wouldn’t let her leave, either. After Thorpe testified before Congress in 1993 about racial discrimination at the library, she was given a temporary assignment on Clay’s subcommittee, in part because Clay feared that she would become a victim of reprisals.
Dennis Roth, president of the Congressional Research Employees Association, says the consequences of the library’s record on discrimination and retaliation are clear. “[These] employees almost never file discrimination complaints,” he says. “That’s not surprising. Look at what happened to [the plaintiffs].”—Brad Branan