For eight years, he had toiled in the higher ranks of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency founded in the optimistic mid-1960s with the goal of rooting out discrimination in employment.
Fresh out of lawa school, he was attracted by the idealism and the commitment of the EEOC. He was the eager to punch through those barries that separated minority groups and women from the better-paying jobs and denied them promotions.
He had his momentary satisfactions, among them a big suit that forced a major corporation to pay millions of dollars in back pay to women and black employees.
But last week, he sat in his office and gave this description of the EEOC:
"It is an unbelievable morass. The morale is bad. There's no leadership. The field staff is incompetent and were riddled with empty positions. I'm going to leave. I'm fed up. I can't stand ti anymore.
Disregarding the emotionalism of one whose youthful commitment is scarred by experience, his picture of scarred by experience, hus picture of the EEOC today is not much different from those painted to observes less involved. Inside and outside critics depiet an agency is shambles-leaderless, confused, swamped in trivia, afloat but rudderless.
Its backlog of discrimination complaints has swelled to nearly 130,000, and last year it resolved 13,000 fewer than it had the year before. A complaint, the General Accounting Office discovered, has one chance in 33 of having his charge settled successfully in the year he files it.
In 11 years, it has had six different chairmen and 10 different executive directors. No chairman has stayed his full five-year term. It hasn't had a chairman since last May. Its acting director, Ethel bent Walsh, counts it a mark of progress that the commissioners now occasionally meet and discuss problems. "When I first came here we didn't even talk to each other unless we met in the hall," she says.
The people who investigate complaints and the people who file suits based on them often don't speak to each other. The general counsel. Abner W. Sibal, complains that his office "never has been really intregated into this agency" and adds: "I have no control over the people who investigate complaints. If I can get an investigator to do something, it's only because he wants to. Some of the district directors just tell us to go to hell."
To some, the flaws of EEOC are simple management problems that could be ironed out by a tough, experienced leader willing to devote a full five years to making the greats mesh.
"What the place needs is someone of stature who will stay around." said Susan Grayson, a House supcommittee staffer who recently analyzed the EEOC. "The job [of chairman] is perceived as aplace that doesn't have much clout in government. It's not where you want to be if you want to wield power." The result, she says, is the regular appointment of political friends, short-timers looking for a place to work until somthing better comes along.
She and other friends critics agree, however, that the root problem may lie deeper in the EECO's history and may be inherent in its basic concept, a fatal flaw that was presented 11 years ago when President Lyndon Johnson set it up to carry out Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The idea, then, was that blacks and other minorities needed institutional support to press their claims of discrimination. The EEOC was chartered to investigate those claims and try to negotiate an acceptable settlement. Ultimately, the EEOC got power to sue employers who din't settle.
It was thought, initially, that no more than 2,000 complaints a year would be filed. BUt first blcaks and then women began flooding the system with compalints and in 1976 more than 100,000 charges were filed around the country. The EEOC is unable to cope with the flood. The backlog was grown to about 130,000 cases and the average case takes nearly two years to settle.
That, in the minds of many, is the fatal flaw: the EEOC is hopelessly bogged down in individual complaints. Most involve no more tahn two or three people and even cumulatively, their resolution has no significant impact on job discrimination.
The answer, some say,is to abandon the case-by-case approach and concentrate on what is called "systemic" discrimination-partices of employers which, across the board, bar some jobs to women and minorities. For example, if is found that Mexican-Americans have troubled getting public utility jobs in the Southwest, the EEOC would sue several big pratices are used to deny them employment.
The problem is that 75 per cent of EEOC funds are tied up in investigating complaints and there's little left to research and litigate the major suits. Any more to abandon those individial complaints would arouse the wrath of both minority and feminist lobbies.
"The whole purpopse of Title 1 was to remove the burden from individual employees and make the government investigate complaints." says Judith Lichtman of the Women's legal Defense Fund. "They're not doing a very good job of it now, but what you need is a system that makes it work."
The acting EEOC boss, Walsh, also opposes abandonment of the invidual compalint system. "Some of these people have waited since Eve left the garden to get a fair shake and you can't leave them with nothing," she said.
Ironically, those who suppoert the complaint system frequently agree that it has very little to do with ending employment discrimination. Many cases are never resolved and merely are closed our when the parties lose interest. Others have been stuck in the EEOC backlog for as long as seven years. Only 11 per cent of those cases resolved, the GAO found, involved successfully negotiated settlements. The EEOC's general counsel has manpower sufficient to sue on only 10 to 15 per cent of the cases that are not conciliated; the rest are usually filed away and forgotten.
The EEOC has been visibly successful, on the other hand, in its bigger cases covering large companies or whole industries and in outlawing, through legal suits, certain pratices believed to bar minorities and women. In two widely publicized consent decrease, the American Telephone & Telegraph Co. and the entire steel industry were ordered to promote members of both groups into higher-paying jobs and told compensate for past discrimination with back pay. There were less celebrated cases involving two airlines, United and Braniff, and at present several other large corporations are being investigated for similar patterns.
Those big victories, which sweep across entire industries and embrace whole management concept, have steadily aroused industry's opposition to the EEOC. Business group complain of endless paperwork involved in reporting their annual hires and promotions to the agencies.
But the major confrontation with industry evolved out of the EEOC's legal challenges to employee tests, once widely used to determine whether a job applicant was suited for the position sought. The EEOC has most of those tests on grounds that they discriminates against blacks and other minorities.
Since a landmark case in 1971, virtually every test used by business has been found inadequate. Almost all aptitude tests and verbal exams of any type have been found to disqualify a disproportionately large number of minorities through cutural bias.
"Every corporation in the country is doing away with tests except for those simple skill tests which determine dexterity-whether someone can type ro do factory jobs," says David Rutstein, a Washington attorney experienced in equal employment labor law.
The EEOC's friends find in the recent trends a sign of political weakening that spells serious trouble. From one side, it is badgered by civil rights and feminist groups who complain its investigations and prosecutions are ineffective. From the other, business accuses it of interfering increasingly in management decisions.
One EEOC official believes collapse may be near, a merger of the agency with some super-agency having over-all authority for enforcing civil rights legislation of the 1960s.
"We aren't liked either by the business community or the civil rights groups," that official said. "We really don't have any constituency at all. We haven't got any friends.