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But in a memo written to employees at the time, Torchia explained it this way:
"We called it BSL-2* because EH&S preferred that terminology several years ago; they preferred to keep the level at BSL-2 because that's what the guide required. We have now asked EH&S to let us call the [human prion] areas BSL-3 and EH&S has agreed to let us make the change. ... Keep in mind that all procedures and precautions will remain the same."
In a Public Employee Relations Board hearing last September, Torchia and other scientists painted a rather bleak picture of one of the work rooms at Hunters Point, a room where transgenic mice are bred. In 1996, a disciplinary letter was sent to an employee named Benedict Calagui about the room's condition.
Calagui, a union steward at the Hunters Point facility, complained that the disciplinary letter was unfair criticism in retaliation for his union activity.
In the June 1996 letter, Torchia noted that the breeding lines of mice were not organized properly, litters of mice were found bred with the wrong backgrounds, old mice that should have been euthanized remained alive on shelves, and the names of various strains had not been properly labeled.
The letter also stated that "Centeon [a pharmaceutical company] is giving us financial support for the human transgenic work and we must make substantial progress in many areas if they are to continue funding us. Room 117 was so bad that Patrick Tremblay [another scientist in the Prusiner lab] and I both wanted to cry. It looked to us like no one had worked in the room for weeks, and certainly no one cared about the room."
Oddly enough, about a month later -- and after Calagui filed a formal grievance with the university -- Torchia wrote a second memo canceling her critical letter. "This letter is to retract my [first] memorandum to you," the second memo said. "There were serious problems in your work performance when I spoke with you. Since then, your performance has greatly improved and it is very obvious that you are working very hard to do the best possible job in the breeding colony."
Because Calagui's retaliation claim is still awaiting a PERB decision, university officials refused to discuss the issue.
It took three tries before Hunters Point lab employees voted in 1995 to unionize, joining the University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE). After the election, UPTE and the University of California spent about two years fighting before hammering out a contract. During that time, the Prusiner laboratory continued to expand its research, which included expanding production at the Hunters Point facility.
Employees told SF Weekly that they finally voted for the union because they had grown increasingly unhappy with the atmosphere in which they worked.
"The need for a union developed over time," recalls Olivia Goristiza, who is now a union shop steward. The union battle left a bitter divide between employees and managers, and it has now degenerated to the point where minutia becomes mountainous.
Workers and management have argued over mailboxes, bulletin board placement, tardiness, basic work rules, and virtually any conversation between employees and their supervisors. In short, everything is an issue at Hunters Point.
UPTE has filed 19 grievances over various issues during the past two years with the university's Human Relations Office. The university and Prusiner have, thus far, stood staunchly with Torchia and the lab managers.
Taken together, the complaints paint a dim picture of a workplace where employees are simultaneously antagonizing toward and intimidated by their bosses. The more active workers have taken to wearing buttons and slogans at the lab saying "We Demand Respect," especially when visitors are expected. Earlier this year, union leaders distributed fliers around the UCSF campus detailing their complaints, headlined "Mad Cow Scientist Gone the Way of His Herd."
Meanwhile, several employees have alleged that managers have pulled them aside for private chats, asking about their colleagues, and threatening their jobs. Several workers have alleged that Torchia and Prusiner have threatened to close the lab, and contract out the work done there. Torchia and Prusiner have testified that they were merely explaining a hypothetical chain of events for a lab like Hunters Point that is supported by grant money and dependent upon the publication of successful research.
In one instance, also now the subject of a PERB complaint, union officials allege that three employees were harassed because of their union activity. The employees claim that Torchia reprimanded them unfairly by accusing them of intimidating other employees, making racial slurs and sexually harassing comments, and not performing their jobs properly. In fact, the employees claim that Torchia referred to them as "Filipino Mafia" and told them she wanted to get rid of them.
The reprimands -- along with the poor performance review that Calagui is disputing -- came in memos from Torchia, and were rescinded a month after they were issued. The employees were told to write a statement to Torchia to rescind their accusations against her, and to promise to bring future complaints directly to Torchia instead of calling in the union.
But despite the apparent cease-fire, somehow the whole mess has wound up in front of an administrative law judge. University officials refuse to comment because the complaints are pending before the PERB.