Commentary Magazine

Black Workers in White Unions, by William B. Gould

Unions & Quotas

Black Workers in White Unions: Job Discrimination in the United States.
by William B. Gould.
Cornell University Press. 506 pp. $20.00.

The debate over preferential treatment for minority groups, an issue demonstrably capable of arousing strong passions in Americans, has intensified with the furor generated by the Bakke case. But as William B. Gould reminds us, it was the federal government’s effort to increase the number of blacks in construction unions, and not university admissions policies, which touched off the first serious controversy over the imposition of quota systems as a means of rectifying discrimination. Outside the labor movement itself, few voices were raised in protest when, in 1969, the Nixon administration ordered six skilled crafts in Philadelphia to hire specified percentages of minority workers on projects financed with federal money. Later, of course, many of the academics who expressed smug approval when ratio-hiring formulas were applied to construction unions began to voice strong misgivings, and in some cases outright alarm, when the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare demanded that universities adhere to goals and timetables in order to increase the percentages of women and blacks on their faculties.

There was, and to a great extent still is, a conviction among liberal intellectuals that organized labor poses a major obstacle to racial change. Gould, a professor of law at Stanford University, shares this conviction: he asserts that the “hostility of the unions [has] made the problems of racial discrimination seem more intractable today than they once appeared to be.” Gould acknowledges, albeit grudgingly, that the leadership of the American labor movement made a positive contribution by supporting civil-rights laws and pushing for the adoption of social-welfare legislation designed to make housing, medical care, and other essential services more accessible to the poor. Having gotten this out of the way, Gould spends the rest of his time indicting the labor movement for resisting sweeping changes in seniority systems, apprenticeship-training programs, and those other institutions which help determine who is hired, promoted, and laid off. “The unsympathetic attitude of the labor movement,” Gould says, “. . . has prevented the adoption of substantial remedies which might compensate blacks and consequently jostle whites who might otherwise be the first to benefit from opportunities made available to the minority group.”

The remedy preferred by Gould is quotas. Gould faults voluntary hiring programs, changes in testing and interview procedures to insure that they function in a racially neutral way, tutoring, and other classic affirmative-action techniques that do not require ethnic ratios. They are, he asserts, insufficiently effective in breaking down the “institutional” barriers which stand in the way of full black participation in the economy. Quotas, on the other hand, “may simply be a more straightforward and simple means of balancing black and white economic interests.” Gould believes, moreover, that quota hiring should be employed throughout the work force, not simply in those industries with documented histories of racial bias. Thus, even those public agencies having no records of discrimination should adopt quota formulas because of “the need of the community to be served by all the races.”

Not surprisingly, Gould’s sharpest criticism is directed at the building trades. He insists that “despite the multitudes of plans and programs, not a great deal has been done to alter the institutional rigidity which limits blacks’ access to construction jobs.” The courts, Gould notes, have handed down numerous decrees mandating goals and timetables, the modification of apprenticeship practices, and a variety of other measures intended to accelerate the entry of blacks into the skilled trades. In Gould’s view, however, the judges have not gone far enough to produce equality of results in building-trades recruitment; he proposes the intervention of the judiciary at practically every stage of the hiring, training, and job-assignment levels.



The fact that blacks are not represented in the construction trades in proportion to their presence in the workforce is ascribed by Gould almost solely to the bigotry and intransigence of the unions. One would hardly know from reading this book that the past seven years have been marked by global economic instability, that those industries which have traditionally provided employment opportunities for blacks—steel, textiles, and electronics are prominent examples—have significantly retrenched their domestic production in the face of mounting foreign competition, or that the construction industry has experienced unemployment rates approaching 20 per cent nationally, and even higher unemployment percentages in urban areas containing heavy concentrations of black workers.

To devote any but the most cursory attention to the broader social and economic causes of black unemployment would, of course, have detracted from Gould’s thesis that union racism is the principal cause of the divisions between black and white Amercans. Furthermore, if Gould had given serious consideration to the underlying causes of joblessness, he would have discovered major flaws in another idea that is central to his argument: that the courts are the most potent instrument for the economic advancement of minorities.

In rebuttal to President Eisenhower’s assertion that laws cannot change the hearts of men, Gould argues that the civil-rights decisions handed down by the Warren Court “changed the tone of American life as it relates to race relations.” Unfortunately, much the same can be said of more recent judicial decrees sanctioning quotas and other preferential systems. Americans may be even more race-conscious today than they were during the protest era, but it is doubtful that this heightened awareness is moving us toward the goal of a more equal society. Increasingly, most Americans perceive the principal objective of blacks to be institutionalized systems of preferential treatment, and this perception is eroding their support for civil-rights goals in general and calling into question the confidence they feel they can place in the abilities of black workers.

Gould is not entirely unaware of these problems. He takes note that Richard Nixon “was able to win a resounding victory in 1972 by rallying those who were a rung above the black worker and by appealing to their belief that blacks were attempting to get something for nothing and to destroy the individual work ethic.” But Gould treats as irrelevant the fact that the quota issue contributed to the political defeat of George McGovern, the black-supported candidate, and (most civil-rights leaders believe) to the subsequent economic setback suffered by black workers. Incredibly, Gould bases himself on judicial decisions only, without bothering to offer a political argument or to meet political objections to his position. As far as Gould is concerned, any judicial finding that vaguely conforms to his own values is sufficient to rule out any other considerations—social, economic, or political.

Gould’s obsession with the benefits of judicial intervention is not merely an error of strategy; it suggests an irresponsible desire to punish a labor movement for which the author has little use and in which, he believes, white workers have won extensive privileges at the expense of blacks. Otherwise, why would Gould offer nothing but patronizing dismissal of the several “outreach” programs that pursue integration in the construction unions by means of non-quota techniques? (These programs, incidentally, were initiated by the original proponents of affirmative action long before that concept came to be equated with ratios and quotas.) The outreach programs—two of the more successful of which are sponsored by the National Urban League and the Recruitment and Training Program—have as their goal to increase the ready supply of qualified minority-group workers. They recruit inner-city youths, tutor them both in basic skills and in specific areas relevant to construction work, help them purchase tools, oversee apprenticeship tests to insure that they are administered fairly, and attempt to obtain equitable treatment for program graduates once they become apprentices. Moreover, the sponsoring agencies have on occasion gone to court, or supported court suits, against recalcitrant union locals and have sought changes in testing and apprenticeship requirements.

Gould has obviously not taken the time to investigate the effectiveness of these programs, which he criticizes for playing “by the rules of the game.” He reasons that since these outreach programs have won the support of the AFL-CIO and since they do not seek the wholesale transformation of union rules and standards, they must therefore be compromising the rights of black workers. The facts reveal something else entirely. Minority-group workers have comprised close to 20 per cent of building-trades apprentices for about the last five years, a dramatic increase from the pathetic figures even of the mid-1960’s, and most manpower experts credit the outreach programs with much of this progress. Moreover, the workers placed by the programs have been far more likely to graduate to journeyman’s status than have other workers, black or white.



Gould is but one of a growing number of scholars who have concluded that the court system is far superior to the legislative process in its ability to turn the civil-rights movement’s dream of a racially equal society into a reality. If such scholars might have once denied that quotas existed where in fact they clearly did exist, today they are forthright in proposing that certain groups be given a special, favored classification before the law. Perhaps the most deplorable aspect of the new philosophy of equality through legal activism is the unwillingness of its champions to consider seriously the consequences of their ideas in the face of overpowering evidence that the impact is negative both on society in general and on minority groups in particular.

Gould, for example, ridicules the notion that the institutionalization of racial preference will encourage whites to try to “pass” as black in order to gain the benefits bestowed on the minority group. Ironically, there have recently been incidents in New York and Los Angeles in which teachers—both black and white—have classified themselves racially as what they were not in order to avoid being shuffled around the city in fulfillment of assignment quotas. Los Angeles has already established “ethnic review committees” for the sole purpose of determining the validity of the teachers’ self-classification. Thus, whatever Gould and others like him may claim, the truth may well turn out to be that quotas are not only unfair, they are also not terribly effective.

About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

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