Civil Rights Cases

By Ruben, George | Monthly Labor Review, August 1989 | Go to article overview

Civil Rights Cases


Ruben, George, Monthly Labor Review


Civil rights cases The Supreme Court issued several rulings that were generally viewed as restraints on women's and minorities' efforts to redress allegedly unfair employment practices.

In Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Antonio, the Court held that employees must now prove that racial imbalances in their employer's work force result from practices that have no valid business justification. Under the previous interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a statistical indication of racial imbalance was sufficient for a finding of discrimination, even if there was no evidence that the employer intended to discriminate. Title VII prohibits discrimination in employment based on sex or race.

The case, which originated 15 years ago, involved salmon cannery workers, mostly Filipinos and Alaskan Natives. They claimed that Wards Cove Packing's hiring and promotion practices--which included racially segregating work, eating, and sleep areas and not promoting from within--relegated them to canning line jobs, generally leaving the higher paying nonline jobs to whites. Wards Cove argued that the plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate which particular employment practices caused the alleged discrimination. The company also contended that its ability to fill the nonline jobs was limited by the pool of available trained applicants.

Justice Byron R. White, writing for the five-member majority, remanded the case to an appeals court for further review. The opinion stated that the plaintiff's statistical comparison of the percentage of whites in line and nonline jobs was not appropriate if the absence of minorities from nonline jobs resulted from a dearth of minority applicants that could not be attributed to the company.

In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and Harry A. Blackmun, accused the majority of "turning a blind eye to the meaning and purpose of Title VII." In a separate dissent, Justice Blackmun said that the majority decision would protect blatantly discriminatory employment practices.

In Martin v. Wilks, the Supreme Court ruled that a group of white firefighters in Birmingham, AL, could challenge an affirmative action plan that had been adopted in 1981 with approval of a lower court to settle charges by blacks that the city had engaged in discriminatory hiring and promotion practices. In their 1983 suit, the white plaintiffs claimed that the affirmative action plan had denied them promotions because of their race, a violation, they maintained, of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment.

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice William Rehnquist acknowledged that "the great majority" of appeals courts had rejected challenges to affirmative action plans by "secondary parties" such as the white firefighters, particularly when the plaintiffs were aware of the plan when it was adopted but delayed in initiating a court test. …

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