Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

The fight for affirmative action in labor

Part I – History of struggle against job discrimination

First Published: Unity, Vol. 2, No. 11, June 1-14, 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Last year, the Bakke decision dealt a blow to special minority admissions programs in universities. This year, the attack against affirmative action has loved into the labor movement. The Supreme Court is currently considering the Weber case. Brian Weber, a white steel worker from Gramercy, Louisiana, has challenged the affirmative action program set up by Kaiser Aluminum Company and the United Steel Workers of America (USWA) union. This program allocates 50% of the slots in a skilled job training program for minorities until the ratio of minorities holding jobs is the same as in the community. Weber claims that this is”reverse discrimination” against whites.

The Kaiser/USWA program is one of various affirmative action programs in labor that give special preference to minority workers in hiring, promotions and skilled job training. These programs have enabled some minority workers to get into industries and jobs that historically were”for whites only.”

Affirmative action in labor was one of the concrete reforms won out of the Civil Rights movement and the Black liberation movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. In particular, it was a concession forced from the ruling class in 1968, when Black rebellions shook the country in the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. That year, President Johnson issued Executive Order No. 11246, which barred discrimination in employment practices and called for positive steps, or affirmative action, to ensure equal treatment of minority workers. It stipulated that companies with government contracts must set up affirmative action programs to increase the number of minorities in all job levels.

The achievement of affirmative action for minority workers also lays the basis for similar affirmative action reforms for women workers. In 1972, provisions were added to the Civil Rights Act barring discrimination based on sex, and women began to make some inroads into jobs that they were previously excluded from.

Today, affirmative action is under heavy fire and is one of the bourgeoisie’s foremost targets of attack on oppressed nationality workers. The defense of affirmative action is an important front in the working class struggle today. It is part of the continuing struggle for equal job hiring, access to skilled trades, and for the full equality of oppressed nationalities and women in the labor movement.

The fight against job discrimination in the 1950’s and 1960’s

Affirmative action labor programs were won after a long history of mass struggle against job discrimination over the past two decades. Black and other minority workers have always been systematically relegated to the bottom of the working class. Many companies, especially in the basic industries, would not hire Blacks at all.

This was true in both the North and South. Blacks had entered the auto industry in large numbers in the second world war, when labor needs for the war and mass protests forced Roosevelt to issue an executive order barring discrimination in the defense industry. But when the war ended, most Blacks were laid off.

Those industries that hired Blacks confined them to the lowest paying and dirtiest jobs. The auto industry for example was strictly segregated: the foundries and body shops were all Black, while the skilled departments like tool and die were lily white.

Blacks were also kept out of skilled trades by the chauvinist policies of many craft unions. As late as 1959, the Trainmen’s Union constitution openly excluded Blacks from its membership.

Struggle for equal hiring

Black workers launched many struggles against these inequalities as part of the Civil Rights movement that was gathering storm in the 1950’s. In 1951, the National Negro Labor Council initiated a boycott of Sears Roebuck and Company to demand that Sears hire Blacks. Picketing in front of Sears stores in San Francisco, Cleveland, Newark, St. Louis and Los Angeles forced the company to hire some Blacks. In Chicago, it took a full year of picketing at Sears’ national headquarters before Blacks were hired there.

In 1964, over a thousand people picketed in front of the Sheraton Palace Hotel in San Francisco and forced the hotel to hire Blacks and Chicanos.

The skilled trades

In the 1960’s, the construction industry was targeted by Black and other minority workers across the U.S. The industry and the narrow craft unions kept the building trades completely white, as these were highly skilled and relatively high paying jobs. Black workers and civil rights groups picketed and shut down construction sites all over the country. They especially demanded the right to be hired at construction sites in their own communities. In 1963, Blacks shut down the $23 million Harlem Hospital site in New York. That same year sites were shut down in Philadelphia, Newark and other cities. Students at the all-Black Howard University in Washington, D.C., shut down the construction of a new campus gym, demanding that Black workers be allowed into unions and be hired on to the job. These militant protests and shutdowns won a few openings for Blacks.

But the battle was fierce and the results were slim. Union leaders made promises to recruit minorities into apprenticeship programs, but they tried everything to obstruct it. In 1964, George Meany tried to rig a special”test” to see if Blacks and Puerto Ricans applying to the New York plumbers union were”qualified.” In Cleveland, the all-white membership of the local Sheet Metal Workers Union walked off a job site after months of civil rights picketing finally forced the hiring of one Black worker.

In industrial unions, oppressed nationality workers demanded an end to practices which kept them in the low paying, dirty and dangerous departments and out of the skilled jobs. In the steel industry, the practice of departmental seniority kept Black workers”locked in” departments like the foundries and coke ovens, unable to transfer to any other department without losing all their accumulated seniority. In the late 1950’s, Black steel workers staged protests and filed many lawsuits demanding plant-wide transfers and seniority rights.

In the auto industry in 1968, only 3 % of the skilled workers at Ford and 1.3% at GM were Black. The demand for more Blacks in the skilled jobs was one of the demands of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), in Detroit. DRUM sparked a wave of struggle by Black auto workers that targeted the auto giants and UAW bureaucracy with a militant fervor that was part of the Black liberation movement. In May 1968, DRUM led a walkout at the Dodge main plant in Hamtramck, near Detroit, and held a rally of 3,000 workers that shut the plant down. In addition to more Blacks in skilled jobs, they raised demands against racist white foremen and for more Black officials and staff in the UAW.

Labor bureaucrats perpetuate oppression

Oppressed nationality workers have had to struggle not only against the companies, but also the chauvinist policies of the big labor bureaucrats. In the 1950’s Black trade unionists and workers criticized the AFL-CIO leadership for its weak-kneed stand against the exclusionary policies of the craft unions, its ’’ hands off” policy on organizing the South, and its refusal to support the Civil Rights movement.

When Blacks raised demands for preferential hiring during the 1960’s, many so-called”liberal” trade union bureaucrats who claimed to oppose discrimination showed their true colors. Walter Reuther, the head of the UAW, who prided himself as a champion of equal rights, and other union leaders claimed that special preference was”reverse discrimination” against whites.

There were some instances of solidarity on the part of progressive rank and file workers and trade unionists. UAW locals were among the few in the country to donate funds to the Civil Rights movement, such as their contributions to the 1965 Selma voter registration drive. That same year the longshoremen’s union supported a boycott of all Alabama goods.

But in the main, the labor movement had not realized that its interests lay with struggle against national oppression and not with the chauvinist labor aristocracy.

Affirmative action

In 1968 there were Black rebellions in over 100 cities.”Black power” and revolution were mass demands as the cities burned, campuses raged with Third World strikes and Black workers walked off the job protesting racism and discrimination.

It was against this backdrop that Johnson issued Executive Order No. 11246 for affirmative action. The ruling class hoped that this concession would put a lid on the revolutionary upsurge.

Affirmative action did enable some minorities to advance in jobs, though only in a partial and limited way.

At the same time, the government tried to create obstacles to the implementation of any affirmative action. The law was carefully worded to say that Blacks suffered from”disadvantage” rather than from any discrimination. This let the capitalists off the hook and left the door open for”reverse discrimination” charges in the future.

Nor did No.11246 require that any quotas be established – the only way to ensure that minorities actually get hired or promoted. Lastly, the government did little to regulate compliance with affirmative action. For example, there was only one field investigator for the entire southern region!

The companies, union officials and government continued to collaborate to keep affirmative action restricted and ineffective. In the steel industry, for example, the USWA, steel companies and the Labor Department signed a Consent Decree in 1974 to deal with growing demands for plant-wide seniority and affirmative action.

The Consent Decree granted limited transfer rights, an average of $150 per worker in back pay, and asked for the USWA and the companies to set up affirmative action programs. In return, the companies and union didn’t have to admit to any past discrimination, and the workers had to agree to never charge them with discrimination in the future! If Weber wins his case, affirmative action programs set up in the absence of proven discrimination could be eliminated, including those set up under the Consent Decree.

Concessions like executive orders and compromises like consent decrees will never change the fundamental relations between the masses and the capitalists, but they can be utilized to make some advances and to further build the mass movement.

The struggle for equal hiring, entrance into the skilled trades, and affirmative action continue to be major demands in many industries today. The reactionary offensive against affirmative action in labor can be beaten back only with a united, mass movement that squarely targets the perpetrators of national oppression: the companies, government and labor aristocracy alike. This movement must be linked to the long-range struggle to end national oppression and class exploitation. Workers of all nationalities have a part in this battle, towards winning full equality for minority nationality workers and forging the unity of the whole working class.