Philadelphia Plan

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Philadelphia Plan

United States 1969


With the implementation of the Philadelphia Plan in 1969, President Richard M. Nixon's administration changed the federal government's stance on affirmative action. For the first time, a specific industry was required to articulate a plan for hiring minority workers. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson had identified affirmative action as necessary to redress the effects of racism. During their administrations, policies were created to facilitate both equal employment opportunities for African Americans and equal accommodations in the workplace. Yet the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had limited the type of remedies possible by forbidding any form of discrimination. This was interpreted to include preferential hiring, which was seen as compensatory discrimination.

Despite this limitation, the Nixon administration used the power of the federal purse to create specific hiring goals in the highly segregated construction industry. Designed by the Department of Labor during the Johnson administration, the Philadelphia Plan was revived by George Shultz, Nixon's labor secretary, and Arthur Fletcher, his assistant secretary. The plan required Philadelphia government contractors in six construction trades to set goals and timetables for the hiring of minority workers or risk losing the valuable contracts. No quotas were set. This left businesses a fair amount of autonomy in determining how to meet the goals. As a result, the Philadelphia Plan withstood a court challenge and growing public hostility to affirmative action.


  • 1954: The French military outpost at Dien Bien Phu falls to the communist Vietminh.
  • 1959: Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev engage in their famous "kitchen debate" in Moscow.
  • 1964: On 7 February, in the midst of both a literal and figurative winter in America following Kennedy's assassination, the Beatles arrive at New York's newly renamed JFK Airport.
  • 1966: In August, Mao Zedong launches the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," which rapidly plunges China into chaos as armed youths plunder the countryside, rooting out suspected foreign collaborators and anti-Chinese elements.
  • 1969: Richard M. Nixon sworn in as president of the United States. In June he pulls 25,000 troops from Vietnam. From this point, America is no longer trying to win the war but to keep from losing it.
  • 1969: Assisted by pilot Michael Collins, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin on 20 July become the first men to walk on the Moon.
  • 1969: Some 400,000 people attend the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in August. Also in the world of popular culture, the year is notable for several outstanding movies: Midnight Cowboy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Easy Rider.
  • 1969: At the orders of Charles Manson, members of his "Family" kill seven adults and one unborn child (Sharon Tate's) in a pair of grisly L.A. murders. Other crimes are also in the news: authorities learn that in March 1968, an army platoon led by Lieutenant William Calley massacred 567 villagers in the South Vietnamese hamlet of Mylai.
  • 1969: U.S. Department of Defense puts its Arpanet, forerunner of the Internet, online.
  • 1972: In June, police apprehend five men attempting to burglarize Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.
  • 1974: On 30 July the House Judiciary Committee adopts three articles of impeachment for President Nixon, but rather than undergo a lengthy trial, Nixon on 8 August becomes the first president in U.S. history to resign.
  • 1979: After years of unrest, the Shah of Iran leaves the country, and Islamic fundamentalist revolutionaries under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini take control.

Event and Its Context

Affirmative Action: Developing the Concept

The Philadelphia Plan makes sense in three contexts: the history of civil rights, the history of labor regulation, and the history of the exercise of state power in the United States. The plan may be seen as one of the last steps in a trend toward growing government activism that ranged from the end of the Civil War until 1980. The coalition that opposed the Philadelphia Plan formed the basis of the opposition to government activism that characterized the subsequent period.

Affirmative action has a long history in discussion of both civil rights and labor rights in the United States. The concept of affirmative action to compensate for the harm done to African Americans by slavery has existed since Reconstruction. The term was applied to labor by the Wagner Act of 1935, which stated that it was not enough to stop unfair labor practices; it was also necessary "to take such affirmative action" to redress them. In 1945 New York became the first state to pass an antidiscrimination law that used "affirmative action" in the context of remedies for discrimination.

Use of the term for federal policy to address employment discrimination against African Americans may be traced to President Kennedy. His Executive Order 10925 in 1961 ordered public employers to "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and employees are treated during their employment without regard to race, creed, color or national origin." Executive Order 10925 was drafted by a committee that included the Memphis lawyer Abe Fortas, Labor Secretary Arthur Goldberg, and a young African American lawyer from Detroit named Hobart Taylor, Jr. Taylor used the term "affirmative action," he explained later, "because it was alliterative." In adopting this usage, the committee linked a history of public discussion of compensation for African Americans with a history of government action to produce fair employment. The order created the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. Its chief weapon was the power to cancel federal contracts of businesses who refused to comply with the president's order. No contracts were ever actually cancelled, but discriminatory practices were stopped in workplaces around the country.

Many factors encouraged the battle for civil rights in the 1960s. A long-standing tradition of organizing efforts among African Americans had received modest success with the integration of the armed forces by President Harry Truman in 1946. A generation of mature, well-educated African American activists was poised to push for further gains. Postwar economic growth demanded a growing industrial working class. The great migration of African Americans who had moved to the more industrialized parts of the country expanded the potential labor pool. In addition, the cold war with the Soviet Union made America's institutionalized racism an international embarrassment. From the cold war perspective, it was worth addressing issues of race to ensure U.S. rhetoric about freedom would be taken seriously.

In 1963 President Kennedy proposed the civil rights bill that was still being debated in Congress when he was assassinated. Among the objections raised in the debate was the concern that quotas would take away jobs from white people. This was a specific form of the generalized fear that extending rights to African Americans would necessitate taking them away from whites. The new president, Lyndon Johnson, had years of experience in the Senate working with the core group of southern legislators who objected to the bill. Johnson took up the battle for the civil rights bill and oversaw both the creation of many compromises and the bill's passage in 1964. The act provided for equal public accommodations and required employers to provide equal employment opportunities. Projects receiving federal funds could lose those funds if they failed to provide equal employment opportunity. Although the act created an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), in its final form it excluded any stated quotas or enforcement powers. The EEOC was to respond to citizen complaints, not defend the public interest in eliminating patterns of discrimination.

The Johnson Years

While many African Americans found well-paid factory jobs in the 1960s, many more were part of the chronically underemployed class waiting in the wings for more expansive times. Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Johnson moved to create a "war on poverty." A host of new programs was initiated to address both rural and urban poverty. Under the Johnson administration, the Department of Labor developed federally funded jobs for urban blacks. Manpower programs, such as the Neighborhood Youth Corps, which employed 1.5 million high school students, and the Work Incentive Program, were developed in an attempt toshift workers from the welfare rolls to low-income employment.

President Johnson issued Executive Order 11246 on 24 September 1965. This order created the Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCC, later the OFCCP). The new agency was given specific responsibilities for enforcing antidiscrimination laws among federal contractors. Although originally the order only pertained to discrimination against minorities, it was amended in 1967 to include discrimination against women. The creation of the OFCC took affirmative action out of the White House and placed it in the Department of Labor with a staff designated for enforcement. Between 1965 and 1968 the OFCC designed a plan to address the racist hiring practices that were endemic in the construction industry.

What factors made the construction industry a bastion of racism? In part it was the nature of the work, where employers bid on contracts and hired workers just for the duration of the contract. Construction crafts had been at the center of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) from its inception. These craft unions were characterized by master-apprentice relationships bolstered by family and ethnic ties. Although the merger of the AFL with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) brought more African Americans into the organization, few of them came in the skilled trades. Contractors who employed members of the craft trade unions generally did not themselves control whom they hired, but got workers through union hiring systems that depended largely on seniority. In this situation, where there was no direct link between the agency allocating federal construction funds and the actual workers performing the labor, coordinating enforcement of antidiscrimination policies proved difficult.

Thus, the Johnson administration had to face the irony that billions of dollars of urban renewal money were paying white construction workers in jobs inaccessible to African Americans. When ghetto residents in Watts, Newark, Detroit, and smaller cities across the country rioted in the mid-1960s, they expressed how little they felt like stakeholders in society. In this context, the federal government was pressured to respond to specific calls for more construction jobs for African Americans. The riots created a sense of urgency that called for a more proactive federal government.

The first head of the OFCC was Edward Sylvester, an African American. One of Sylvester's goals was to figure out how to assure compliance with the Labor Department's affirmative action standards in federally funded construction. He worked out a method of retaining funds awarded to successful low bidders until they submitted evidence that they were in compliance. Such efforts were tried in St. Louis, San Francisco, and Cleveland with limited success. In Philadelphia, Sylvester found an already existing regional coordinating agency called the Federal Executive Board (FEB). The board had surveyed local hiring patterns in the construction trades and had found clear patterns that African Americans were excluded. They proposed having the FEB not award contracts until it had determined that the "apparent low bidder" had hired sufficient minorities to be in compliance.

Both organized labor and contractors objected to the new requirements. The AFL-CIO objected that the plan threatened all of labor's gains in collective bargaining since the 1930s. Contractors, represented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, objected that the requirement set no definitive minimum numbers of minorities to be hired and thus left bidders in the dark about what the job would eventually entail. Furthermore, if the plan did address the contractors' concerns and provided specific goals, it would be illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, and ethnicity. When Nixon was elected in 1968 the plan seemed to have died.

The Nixon Administration

President Nixon selected George Shultz, an economist and the former dean of the business school at the University of Chicago, as his labor secretary. The free-market ideology of the Chicago school of economics may have predisposed Shultz to move against the hiring practices of the construction unions. A personal belief in racial integration may have encouraged him to make fighting job discrimination a priority for the administration. Whatever Shultz's motives, according to most accounts he was the adviser who persuaded Nixon to support the Philadelphia Plan.

Shultz appointed Arthur Fletcher as the assistant labor secretary to re-tool the Philadelphia Plan. Fletcher stated that it was necessary to have specific goals for percentages of minority employees to redress America's history of segregation. To avoid the issue of quotas, Fletcher sought to make the goals a target range rather than an absolute number. A secondary issue was which groups qualified for protection. In 1969 most Americans meant African Americans when they said "minorities," but other groups also had claims to inclusion. Fletcher's revision listed "Negro, Oriental, American Indian and Spanish-surnamed Americans." Even though women had already been added to the list of protected groups in 1967, they were not included in the Philadelphia Plan.

Fletcher announced the administration's intention to put the new plan into effect as soon as possible. The implementation order was issued on 23 September 1969. It included the following trades: steamfitters, ironworkers, sheetmetal workers, electricians, elevator construction workers, and plumbers and pipefitters. OFCC area coordinators in all cities were to issue a target range of minority employees for each trqde, expressed as a percentage of workers hired. The 23 September memorandum set target ranges for Philadelphia for the next five years. Contractors did not need to meet the goals exactly; they merely had to demonstrate that they had made a good faith effort to do so.

The next problem was how to define what constituted a good faith effort on the part of contractors. It was not sufficient to blame union hiring procedures for any problems contractors might encounter in finding minority workers. They needed to prove they had contacted community organizations, maintained a list of minority workers, and used job training programs as potential sources for workers. A contractor whose efforts did not meet the OFCC requirements would be disqualified from the bidding on the relevant job. If a pattern of failure to meet OFCC requirements existed, a contractor could be dropped from the list of potential contractors.

The plan faced stiff opposition from within the government. The General Accounting Office (GAO) opposed the plan on the grounds that it violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by requiring employment practices aimed at meeting a minority quota. The Nixon administration fought this battle with a report from Attorney General John Mitchell that presidential authority overrode the power of the GAO. Nixon had just released an executive order directing all federal agencies to maintain a "continuing affirmative program" of equal opportunity for federal employees.

A Senate judiciary subcommittee heard testimony against the Philadelphia Plan, while the GAO drafted a rider to a bill denying congressional appropriations "to finance, either directly or indirectly or through any Federal aid or grant, any contract or agreement which the Comptroller General of the U.S. holds to be in contravention of any Federal statute." Civil rights liberals joined with the Nixon administration to oppose the rider, while labor and southern Democrats supported it. The rider was defeated, giving the Nixon administration the latitude to implement the plan.


Nixon later stated, "Getting the plan written into law turned out to be easier than implementing the law." The plan faced continued resistance from the construction trades, from contractors who found compliance challenging, and from growing public opposition to affirmative action. It survived a court challenge from the Contractor's Association and remained policy. Yet the Nixon administration became increasingly ambivalent about its enforcement. The ambivalence reflected the political exigencies of Nixon's position.

In John Ehrlichman's words, the Philadelphia Plan enabled Nixon to get the "AFL-CIO and the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] locked in combat over one of the passionate issues of the day," leaving the Nixon administration "in the sweet and reasonable middle." Since President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, trade unionists and African Americans had been part of the Democratic Party coalition. In the 30 years since the Great Depression, Nixon was only the second Republican to be elected to the presidency. He faced a Democratic majority in Congress. Breaking apart the alliance at the heart of the Democrats' constituency made sense from his perspective.

In his memoir, Nixon explained it somewhat differently. He took credit for identifying the problem that major labor unions were excluding minorities and asking Shultz to "see what could be done." What Nixon did not explain was that increasingly he needed labor unions as part of his constituency. Perhaps his biggest accomplishment in the Philadelphia Plan struggle was creating an alliance between southern conservatives and organized labor.

Other factors were already creating such an alliance. The civil rights coalition had included organized labor, but the rise of black separatism had already threatened large numbers of white liberals and had driven them to more conservative politics. The Vietnam War also had a divisive effect on the traditional liberal constituency. The Philadelphia Plan did not so much create a new alliance as give it one more unifying principle. From its beginnings in 1961, affirmative action had looked like preferential treatment to a significant segment of the white population. In opposing the Philadelphia Plan, that segment merely increased its working-class constituency.

Key Players

Ehrlichman, John (1925-1999): Influential domestic affairs adviser to President Richard Nixon who resigned in 1973 when he was implicated in the Watergate break-in. In 1975 he was convicted of obstruction of justice, perjury, and conspiracy and served for 18 months in federal prison.

Fletcher, Arthur A. (1924-): As a school teacher in Kansas in1954, Fletcher helped to raise money for the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation lawsuit. He held many appointments in Republican administrations through the 1970s and 1980s. As the assistant secretary of labor in 1969, he wrote the orders that initiated the goals and timetables phase of affirmative action. Referring to himself as the "father of affirmative action," he sought nomination to be the Republican presidential candidate in 1996 on a pro-affirmative action platform.

Nixon, Richard Milhous (1913-1994): Thirty-seventh president of the United States from 1969 to 1974. Nixon also served as a congressman and senator from California as well as the vice president under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nixon's presidency ended with his resignation following the investigation of a break-in at Democratic Party headquarters that occurred during the 1972 presidential campaign in the Watergate building in Washington, D.C.

Shultz, George Pratt (1920-): Formerly a professor of industrial relations, Shultz held three major posts in the Nixon administration: secretary of labor, first director of the newly created Office of Management and Budget, and treasury secretary from 1972 to 1974. As the secretary of labor, he oversaw the implementation of the Philadelphia Plan for affirmative action. From 1982 to 1989 he served as the secretary of state under presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

See also: AFL, CIO Merge; Civil Rights Act of 1964; Wagner Act.



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Hoff, Joan. Nixon Reconsidered. New York: Basic Books,1994.

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Ginsburg, Ruth Bader. "A Considered Opinion: Affirmative Action as an International Human Rights Dialogue." Brookings Review, 18, no. 1 (winter 2000): 2-3.

—Jane Holzka

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