United Steelworkers of America v. Weber 1979

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United Steelworkers of America v. Weber 1979

Petitioner: United Steelworkers of America

Respondent: Brian Weber

Petitioner's Claim: That an affirmative action program started by Kaiser Aluminum, in voluntary partnership with the United Steelworkers, did not violate Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Chief Lawyers for Petitioner: Michael E. Gottesman

Chief Lawyers for Respondent: Michael R. Fontham

Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Warren E. Burger, Thurgood Marshall, William H. Rehnquist, Potter Stewart, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: Warren E. Burger, William H. Rehnquist

Date of Decision: June 27, 1979

Decision: Ruled in favor of United Steelworkers and reversed the rulings of two lower courts by upholding the legality of the affirmative action plan.

Significance: The decision was the first Supreme Court ruling to address the issue of affirmative action in employment. Affirmative action programs were not in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act as long as private parties entered into such programs voluntarily and on a temporary basis. The ruling encouraged private employers to experiment with affirmative action plans to open job opportunities for minorities.

Between 1947 and 1962 the unemployment of black Americans compared to whites skyrocketed. In 1947 the non-white employment rate was 64 percent higher than the white rate. By 1962 it was 124 percent higher than the white rate. Determined to address long standing inequalities between blacks and whites in America and to help end discrimination (giving privileges to one group but not to another similar group) against blacks, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act banned discrimination because of a person's color, race, national origin, or religion. Responding to questions like the one asked by Senator Hubert Humphrey, "What good does it do a Negro to be able to eat in a fine restaurant if he cannot afford to pay the bill?" Congress made sure the Civil Rights Act included sections dealing with employment. The language of subsection 703(a) of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act reads:

It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer (1) to fail to refuse to hire or to discharge [fire] any individual . . . because of such individual's race . . . or (2) to limit, segregate [separate into groups] or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive [take away] or tend to deprive any individual of equal opportunities . . . because of such individual's race. . .

This wording was further supported in Section 703(d) which forbids employers, labor organizations, or any combination of the two to discriminate against any individual on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin in apprenticeship (learning a craft or trade from an already skilled worker) or on-the-job training programs.

Despite the act's clear language, forward-thinking leaders in America believed more would be necessary to overcome two and a half centuries of discrimination and to promote equal opportunity. Together, black and political leaders began in the 1960s to fashion plans known as affirmative action plans. Affirmative action means making a special effort or taking a specific action to promote opportunities in education or employment for members of groups discriminated against in the past. The goals of these programs are increased job opportunities, employment promotions, and admissions to universities for minorities.

Kaiser's Affirmative Action Plan

In 1974 the United Steelworkers of America, a labor union, and Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Company, a huge steel maker with fifteen plants nationwide, voluntarily agreed to set up an affirmative action plan. According to the plan, Kaiser would reserve 50 percent of the places in its craft-training (apprenticeship) programs for black workers. The plants would continue this policy until the percentage of black American craft workers in its plants was equal to the percentage of black Americans in the local population. The education provided in the craft-training programs turned unskilled workers into higher paid skilled workers.

At Kaiser's plant in Gramercy, Louisiana less than 2 percent of all skilled workers were black Americans despite the fact that 39 percent of the total labor force in the town was black. The low percentage of skilled black workers was a reflection of past discrimination. Black workers in the area had long been denied opportunities to become skilled craftworkers. The Gramercy plant's affirmative action plan, following the guidelines worked out between the steelworker's union and Kaiser, was to have approximately 39 percent of its skilled positions filled by black Americans. The plan was temporary and would be ended when they reached the goal.

Brian Weber, Man of Steel

Brian Weber was a white unskilled union worker at Kaiser in Gramercy. He applied for a position in the craft-training program but was rejected although he had more seniority than several of the blacks selected. Seniority is a status or rank that an individual has attained based on the amount of time the individual has spent on the job. A common labor practice is to give better jobs or job training placements to those with more seniority. Before the affirmative action plan, Kaiser used seniority to decide who was admitted to training programs. However, under the affirmative action plan, to keep the training program at 50 percent blacks and 50 percent whites, the company had to choose some blacks with less seniority than some whites.

Weber charged that since his rejection was due to his race, he had been discriminated against in violation of the Civil Rights Act Title VII, sections 703(a) and (d). He filed a class action suit (lawsuit brought by a number of persons with a common interest) in U.S. District Court. Weber's argument was simple. Under Title VII an employer may not discriminate on the basis of race or color. Weber claimed Kaiser's affirmative action plan did just that. The plan actually was "reverse discrimination," discrimination against a group which has not historically been discriminated against such as white males. The district court and the Court of Appeals of the Fifth Circuit agreed with Weber. The courts ruled that race-based employment practices, even those designed to fix past discrimination, were themselves discriminatory in violation of Title VII. The United Steelworkers of America Union appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Court Gives History Lesson

The Supreme Court reversed the two lower courts' rulings in a 5-2 vote. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., writing for the majority, delivered a history lesson on discrimination in the United States. He also illustrated how the Court must carefully consider America's past in order to shape its future more fairly for all. Justice Brennan identified the question as:

Whether Title VII forbids private employers and unions from voluntarily agreeing upon . . . affirmative action plans that accord [give] racial preferences in the manner and for the purpose provided in the Kaiser-USWA plan.

Recognizing that Weber's argument was understandable and had merit (value), Brennan examined the concerns Congress had when it passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Extensively quoting Senator Humphry's speeches made in the Senate in 1963, Brennan noted "'the plight of the Negro in our economy'" and how "blacks were largely relegated [assigned to a low ranking job] to 'unskilled and semi-skilled jobs.' . . . As a consequence the 'position of the Negro worker [was] steadily worsening.'" Brennan continued, "it was to this problem that Title VII's prohibition against racial discrimination in employment was primarily addressed."

Given the legislative history of the Civil Rights Act, Brennan wrote that the Court could not agree with Weber. Congress had not meant to prohibit the private business sector from voluntarily taking steps designed to meet the goals of Title VII. Brennan commented that to interpret 703(a) and (d) as forbidding "all race-conscious affirmative action would bring about an end completely at variance with [opposite to] the purpose of the statute [law] and must be rejected." The Court held, "Title VII's prohibition in 703 (a) and (d) against racial discrimination does not condemn all private, voluntary, race-conscious affirmative action plans."


B efore labor unions were formed, wage earners had no voice in their pay, work hours, or working conditions. Newly established labor unions allowed workers to gain some control over their employment conditions. A labor union is an organization of employees whose purpose is to gain, through legal bargaining with an employer, better working conditions, pay, and benefits (health insurance, retirement plan, etc.).

Workers in the United States have formed three main kinds of unions: (1) craft unions limited to skilled tradesmen such as carpenters; (2) industrial unions open to skilled and unskilled workers in mass-producing industries such as the automobile and steel industries; and, (3) public employee unions such as city workers, fire fighters, and police.

Unions in trades such as steelmaking, bricklaying, and printing provide apprentice programs in cooperation with employers to train persons to become skilled trade workers. The training combines on-the-job experience with individual and classroom instruction.

Banding together in a group gives workers more power than they would have as individuals. Numerous lawsuits brought by unions on behalf of their workers have reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Where Was Weber's Equal Protection?

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, often used in charges against affirmative action plans, did not apply in this case. The reason was that the Equal Protection Clause guarantees that "equal protection of the laws" shall not be denied by any state. The keyword here is "state." Kaiser is a private company. A year before Weber, the Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause did apply in the affirmative action case of University of California v. Bakke (1978) because it involved a state-funded university. The United Steelworkers of America was a private union and Kaiser a private business, hence the Equal Protection Clause could not be applied.

Suggestions for further reading

American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization. [Online] Website: http://www.aflcio.org (Accessed July 31, 2000).

Lynch, Frederick R. Invisible Victims: White Males and the Crisis of Affirmative Action. New York: Praeger, 1991.

Mosley, Albert G., and Nicholas Capaldi. Affirmative Action: Social Justice or Unfair Preference. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1996.

Skrentny, John David. The Ironies of Affirmative Action: Politics, Culture, and Justice in America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

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United Steelworkers of America v. Weber 1979