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United Steelworkers v. Weber

Further Readings

In United Steelworkers Union v. Weber, 443 U.S. 193, 99 S. Ct. 2721, 61 L. Ed. 2d 480 (1979), the U.S. Supreme Court held that an employer could grant preferential treatment to racial minorities under a private, voluntary AFFIRMATIVE ACTION program. Affirmative action is a concerted effort by an employer to rectify past discrimination against specific classes of individuals by giving temporary preferential treatment to individuals from these classes when hiring and promoting until true equal opportunity is achieved. The use of affirmative action to correct past RACIAL DISCRIMINATION in employment resulted from the passage of title VII of the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e et seq.). Affirmative action has proved controversial; many white people claim that it is in fact "reverse discrimination."

Brian Weber, a white production worker at a Kaiser Aluminum plant in Gramercy, Louisiana, claimed that the company's efforts to increase the number of African Americans in historically segregated categories of employment unfairly prejudiced white workers like himself. In 1974 Kaiser and the United Steelworkers signed a collective bargaining agreement that contained an affirmative action plan designed to eliminate the substantial racial imbalance in Kaiser's craft workforce. Craft trainees were to be selected on the basis of seniority, with the provision that 50 percent of the openings would be reserved for African American workers until the percentage of African American craftworkers in a plant equaled the percentage of African Americans in the local workforce. During the first year the plan was in operation, seven African American and six white workers were selected for craft training. Several of the successful African American applicants had less seniority than Weber.

Weber filed suit, claiming that the minority admissions quota violated the ban in title VII on racial discrimination in employment. The district court and the court of appeals agreed with him, but the Supreme Court, on a 5–2 vote, with two members not participating, reversed the lower courts and held that the Kaiser plan was valid.

Justice WILLIAM J. BRENNAN JR., in his majority opinion, agreed that Weber's literal interpretation of the act had some justification but noted that the whole purpose of title VII was to "better the plight of the Negro in our economy." African Americans had been excluded from craft positions such as carpenter, electrician, plumber, and painter throughout U.S. history. To adopt Weber's position would prevent employers from voluntarily seeking ways of correcting past discrimination. Brennan wrote that "[i]t would be ironic indeed if a law triggered by a Nation's concern over centuries of racial injustice [constituted] the first legislative prohibition of all voluntary, private, race-conscious efforts to abolish traditional patterns of racial SEGREGATION and hierarchy."

The Court held that an affirmative action program was legal if it did not "unnecessarily trammel" the interests of white employees, lead to their discharge, or permanently prevent their promotion. The Kaiser plan was not permanent but ended when the percentage of skilled African Americans in the plant matched the percentage of African Americans in the local workforce. Therefore, the Court concluded that the affirmative action program was designed to correct a manifest racial imbalance rather than maintain racial balance.

Justice WILLIAM H. REHNQUIST, in a dissenting opinion, contended that the language of title VII made it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of race. He argued that Congress made a commitment to equality in hiring, not to "preferential treatment of minorities." The Kaiser plan, even though temporary, imposed a "racial quota."

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