The Limits of Fair Employment:
The Consent Decrees and the
Economic Crisis of the 1970s
The Fairfield settlement became the model for industrywide consent decrees signed on April 15, 1974. 1 Because the decrees were another tripartite agreement among the government, the union, and the industry, they addressed how Title VII would be enforced as well as how seniority would operate in the steel industry. The actors with a stake in the matter exceeded the 350,000 workers, the union, and the steel companies covered by the order. The eeoc, ofcc, ldf, and eventually the National Organization of Women (NOW) had institutional roles to preserve as well as solutions to defend. Thus, the settlement challenged and altered the whole regulatory regime—litigation, standing, and multiple venues—as well as the Bethlehem-affected class solution.
But in 1977 the courts took a 180-degree turn. Addressing the issue for the first time, the Supreme Court ruled in a case involving a trucking company that Title VII did not require seniority changes. The steel settlement had been negotiated under the assumption that the law was clear, but it was not. 2
The consent decrees continued in the absence of a legal mandate because of the union role in fashioning the decision. Technically, the decrees were now part of the union contract, but initially they had been incorporated because they could be defended as fair as well as required by law. Representing both blacks and whites, the union had been forced to balance interests, unlike the government, industry, and civil rights lawyers, who had other imperatives or