A Civil Rights Bill for Workers

By Gordon, Diana R. | The Nation, July 9, 1990 | Go to article overview

A Civil Rights Bill for Workers


Gordon, Diana R., The Nation


With forty-seven sponsors in the Senate, including seven Republicans, and an apparently solid majority of House supporters, the Civil Rights Act of 1990 now seems likely to clear the House Judiciary Committee easily and survive floor fights during the summer. The threat of a presidential veto of this employment-discrimination bill has not dimmed the optimism of most civil rights leaders. I think the bill will be passed by Congress and approved by the President,' says Julius Chambers, director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Propelled by the symbolic power of a crusade to stamp out bigotry, the legislation has encountered relatively smooth sailing thus far. But parts of it are hard for American business and its champions in Congress and in the Bush league to swallow; it is still too early to tell what kind of pressure they might apply as the Congressional session comes to a close. As Earl Weaver might have noted, the fat lady hasn't sung yet; she's only warming up in the wings.

The bill is generally touted by its proponents as remedial, repairing the damage done to equality in employment by a handful of Supreme Court cases decided last year. The United States, the world's leader in civil rights, cannot regress at home,' says American Bar Association president-elect John Curtin Jr. The Civil Rights Act of 1990 preserves victories won long ago' and will 'shore up the foundation of civil rights in our country.' Most of those 1989 decisions made it more difficult for minorities and women to get legal redress for bias in hiring and promotion or for harassment in the workplace. One case allowed white male workers claiming reverse discrimination to file suit long after court-approved settlements of bias claims had been entered into, even though the workers had not availed themselves of the opportunity for such a challenge at the time of the settlement. While the business community and conservatives hailed the Court's trend as a welcome change from social activism on the bench or downplayed it as finetuning' that continues to protect equal opportunity (the characterization of Utah Senator Orrin Hatch), civil rights groups saw it as a disastrous setback, what N.A.A.C.P. executive director Benjamin Hooks called the legal lynching of black America's hope."

The law that would restore that hope touches many bases. It would amend Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by providing a jury trial for plaintiffs claiming racial or sexual discrimination or harassment, as well as money damages for successful complainants (and punitive damages in cases of malicious abuse). It would effectively reinstate Griggs v. Duke Power, a unanimous 1971 Supreme Court decision that imposed on employers the burden of showing why a personnel practice that has the effect-whether intended or not - of excluding minorities or women is required by business necessity.' The new law would invalidate seniority systems adopted with intent to discriminate and employment practices adopted with mixed motives which include bias. To the federal statute that bars discrimination in making and enforcing private contracts, it would add a prohibition against discriminatory conduct that occurs during the period when the agreement is in force. Finally, the bill sets forth provisions for the finality of court settlements in discrimination suits, disallowing challenges by people who could have made a timely protest but didn't.

A parade of witnesses at House and Senate hearings in February presented a disheartening picture of an American workplace rife with racial and gender-based tension and bias. Representatives of such groups as the American Way Legal Defense Fund and the National Women's Law Center summoned up case after case of demeaning assigments and demotions based on race, racist and sexist epithets hurled at defenseless employees, contracts terminated because of religious bigotry, and skills tests and educational requirements upgraded just as women and minorities began to apply for jobs. …

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