Black Workers in White Unions: Job Discrimination in the United States

By William B. Gould | Go to book overview

Conclusion

It is now more than a decade since President Johnson signed into law the requirement that unions and companies cease discriminatory employment practices. But although Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and related legislation prohibited racial discrimination in employment, it was at least three years before the courts were able to resolve issues on their merits. Well-paid union and company lawyers tied minority-group workers up in knots with procedural objections and other dilatory tactics, even though most of the issues were eventually resolved in the plaintiffs' favor.

When the dust settled in the late 1960's, it became clear that the most important victory for black plaintiffs was to be found in court rulings that the victims of discrimination could maintain class actions on behalf of large groups of workers. Racial discrimination is group discrimination, said the judiciary, and Title VII litigation involves issues that are often common to large numbers of workers -- that is, the common complaint arises by virtue of skin color. And Griggs, the departmental seniority cases, and the judge-made equation of statistics with a prima facie violation made discrimination relatively easy to prove. But the labor movement, although its seniority and referral practices should have been immediately affected, hardly noticed. The union vigorously opposed the view that their own practices -- often built upon the expectations of white workers -- were to be altered by Title VII. George Meany and other leaders self-righteously and illogically pointed to their lobbying efforts for employment-discrimination law as a qualification for some kind of merit badge.

The unions, walking in lockstep with their employer counterparts, dug in their heels to litigate against any revision of systematic practices which carried forward the effects of past discrimination -- some of the most prominent examples being departmental or job seniority systems negotiated by industrial unions which held blacks in low-level positions. Others were found in work-experience referral procedures and discriminatory apprenticeship barriers adopted by the crafts. Most of the resulting cases involved employment relationships where minorities have been either excluded altogether or consigned to relatively undesirable low-paying work because the effect of the contractual seniority provision or apprenticeship program was to retard or block the integration of the work force. And, in practically every case, hard-earned union dues were wasted in a defendant's defeat. Independent

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