Elbert Griffin has not forgotten the day he and two white men showed up for work at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
"They gave me a broom and a mop, and they were given a tool box," he recalled yesterday. The tool boxes symbolized the bureau's high-paying craft jobs; Griffin's broom, the lower-paying, semiskilled jobs to which most blacks were consigned in 1962, the year Griffin joined the Treasury Department agency.
Yesterday, representatives of a civil rights group and one of Washington's largest law firms announced they had settled an eight-year fight with the bureau over what they termed "some of the more pervasive forms of segregation" in the federal work force.
Under the settlement, Griffin and 247 other current and former workers who wanted to be bookbinders, pressmen and plate printers will share in a settlement that will cost the government $6.1 million during the next 10 years and end practices that led many blacks to condemn the agency, which prints the nation's money, as "the plantation." It also should end practices that the lawyers said systematically kept blacks in the bureau's many semiskilled jobs while white workers were being recruited for higher-paying craft jobs.
Although blacks compose about 60 percent of the bureau's 2,400 workers, lawyers alleged they made up almost 99 percent of the noncraft jobs involved in the lawsuit, while whites filled 85 percent of the disputed craft jobs.
"We hope this brings to a close the segregation in the printing industry in the federal government," said Joseph Sellers, an official of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which handled the lawsuit with the firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering.
Sellers also said that, because the bureau is one of the country's largest printers, he hopes the settlement will have pronounced implications for an industry that has lagged in affirmative action.
Bureau officials said later they, too, are delighted with the end of the dispute. "We're extremely happy with the settlement," said Ira Polikoff, a bureau spokesman. "We think it's fair to both sides. . . ."
"They may claim it's a settlement, but we initiated it," said Polikoff. He credited Bureau Director Peter H. Daly with instigating the settlement talks after taking charge of the facility in 1988. "He realized that we had some personnel practices that needed to be improved on," Polikoff said.
The bureau intends to go beyond the terms of the court settlement, taking steps that should give minorities and members of the bureau's semiskilled work force greater access to the bureau's apprenticeship programs.
Sellers and other lawyers involved in the suit said they entered settlement talks last summer after a Supreme Court ruling placed an additional burden on individuals bringing discrimination lawsuits under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The ruling in the Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio and the recent failure of Congress to override President Bush's veto of a civil rights bill establishing more favorable rules for such suits raised the possibility of a prolonged appeal and lessened the likelihood of a significant increase in damages, the lawyers said.
Griffin, 56, said yesterday he spent 26 years in "noncraft" jobs at the bureau's plant at 14th and C streets SW, watching scores of white workers, recruited from printing plants elsewhere, parachute into the prized apprenticeship programs that lead to the higher-paying craft jobs.
"To us, it was a slap in the face," Griffin said. "But what else could we do? We needed the jobs."
The settlement, approved earlier this month by a federal judge, calls for the government to make immediate payments of $1.4 million in back pay to the 248 current and former bureau workers who are black.
It places a five-year moratorium on the use of what the lawyers described as discriminatory written entrance exams for two of the bureau's major apprenticeship programs and promises within the next three years to fill 72 bookbinder and pressman apprenticeships from the bureau's noncraft work force. That should ensure that most of those selected will be minorities, the lawyers said.
"We knocked down a big wall that was stopping blacks," said Steven M. Goode, 36, a bookbinder and one of five workers named as plaintiffs in the 1982 lawsuit.
Goode, who came to the bureau as a $2.70-an-hour worker in 1972, said the lawsuit helped him become one of the few blacks admitted to the apprentice program for bookbinders, workers who run machinery that produces millions of stamp booklets a year. "I knew fully well that I could do the job, if just given the opportunity," Goode said.
Some of the workers had been involved with the case for eight years and were anxious to settle when the bureau made its proposal, the lawyers said. Pensions for Griffin and 43 other retirees have been adjusted upward by 20 to 28 percent. Salaries of 39 current workers will increase 25 to 30 percent.
In addition, Griffin said he expects to receive $26,000 in back pay from the $1.4 million. Lump-sum payments for the others will range from $41 to $38,600, averaging $5,645, the lawyers said.
How much the lawyers are paid for their work will be decided separately, presumably by U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, who presided over the case.
Although Griffin said he worked alongside craft workers, often helping teach white apprentice workers their skills, he never earned anywhere near the pay of a craft worker. "I did everything they did -- except push the button," he said.
Officials of the Washington Lawyers' Committee said the settlement follows two similar cases, resolved through affirmative action plans, over the role of blacks and women in the craft printing jobs at the Government Printing Office, the federal government's other major printing agency.
The bureau's unions, which also represent workers elsewhere in the printing industry, played no role in the lawsuit, the lawyers said.