Ever since A. Philip Randolph's threatened march on Washington in 1941 resulted in an executive order by President Franklin D. Roosevelt prohibiting racial discrimination by those who contract with the federal government,1 government contractors have, at least in theory, been prohibited from excluding blacks from their work forces. Under President John F. Kennedy's Executive Order 10,925,2 issued March 6, 1961, contractors' and subcontractors' obligations were extended beyond the mere non-discrimination requirement to require them to undertake "affirmative action" to recruit and to promote minority-group workers -- a duty which arises independent of any finding of discrimination. That is, a finding of discrimination is not necessary in order to find a violation of the affirmative-action provisions of the executive order. The operative words, however, are "in theory," because, until 1971, the federal government took no action to disbar or cancel the contract of any employer.3
Nevertheless, after President Roosevelt's action, all presidents -- Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford -- have supported the view that the government ought not to do business with those who discriminate on the basis of race.4 The primary responsibility for enforcing contract-compliance obligations belongs to the contracting agencies themselves -- the Department of Defense for defense contractors and the automobile industry; the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare for universities; and so forth. But since the Johnson administration, the Department of Labor, through its Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCC), has had supervisory authority. An equal-employment opportunity clause, however, is required only in contracts involving more than ten thousand dollars. In contracts for federally assisted construction projects, the total amount of the contract rather than the amount of federal assistance itself is determinative.
One difficulty with attacking labor-union discrimination through contract- compliance requirements is that the Labor Department is the agency created and designed to protect the interests of the unions. Whether proper or not, that at least has been the attitude of the unions and most administrations. Protection for black workers who are the victims of union discrimination is not a dominant concern of the department.