Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Labor and the Civil Rights Act

On this date in history, July 2, 1964, Lyndon Johnson cajoled and twisted the arms of enough congressmen to pass the Civil Rights Act. This landmark piece of legislation segregation in schools, public places, and employment. It also ensured that the Democratic Party would become the minority party in the South; despite Johnson's landslide victory over Goldwater in November 1964, Goldwater won the in the formerly "Solid South" states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, in addition to his home state of Arizona.

Since the ostensible subject this blog is suppose to cover is all things labor, I would like to focus on the effect of this legislation on the labor movement. As a means of combatting segregation in the workplace, the act provided for the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). During its early years of existence, the EEOC filed few cases.

Griggs v. Duke Power changed that posture dramatically. Duke Power before the passage of the Civil Rights Act had maintained a strictly segregated workforce, with African Americans relegated to the laborer occupations. To maintain this system after the passage of the Act, the company changed the requirement for any position other than laborer to be limited to high school graduates. This eliminated nearly all African American candidates, while "grandfathering" whites in better postions who had not earned a high school diploma. Because the requirement of a diploma was "race neutral," lower courts had ruled that the company was justified in making this change.

The US Supreme Court, however, ruled that the company had to prove that the requirements were "reasonably related" to job qualifications if these changes had a disparate impact on ethnic groups, and overturned the decision of the lower court. During this same time frame, the "Philadelphia Plan" was implemented. In Philadelphia, the construction trades were especially obstinate in removing obstacles to hiring more African Americans on construction jobs. In 1968, Johnson's Secretary of Labor, William Wirtz, attempted to implement the first Philadelphia Plan, which would set "affirmative action" goals to hire African Americans in greater numbers for projects paid for by the Federal Government. Wirtz backed down under pressure from the building trades, however.

Since labor unions had led the opposition to Nixon in 1968 (nearly succeeding in electing Hubert H. Humphrey), Nixon felt no such compunction to buckle under to union pressure. In fact, Nixon saw this as a "wedge" issue, to further divide the labor/liberal opposition--which it certainly did.