The Labor Left and Proto-Affirmative Action

Republican President Richard Nixon’s Philadelphia Plan created an affirmative action program designed to overcome past discrimination in the construction industry. It followed executive orders by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson earlier in the sixties that required federal contractors to engage in unspecified affirmative action to ensure equality of employment opportunity.

A different yet related dilemma emerged after World War II. During the war African Americans and Latinos had been hired for well paying jobs, often for the first time, due to a widespread labor shortage and President Roosevelt’s 1941 Executive Order 8802 outlawing discrimination. Roosevelt’s wartime order expired, and Congress refused to pass a permanent Fair Employment Act.

Oral history and archival material suggest that the Communist Party (CP) sought ways to reduce black unemployment after WWII. This was not inconsequential, as the CP had influence in a number of major unions.

One source of information is the autobiography of Steve Nelson, the CP national board member with responsibilities for nationality groups, as ethnic and racial groups were then referenced. He published, along with James R. Barrett and Rob Ruck, Steve Nelson: American Radical (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981). He has this recollection (p. 281):

“Blacks had entered heavy industry in unprecedented numbers during the war. Because they were often the last hired and lacked seniority, they would be especially vulnerable to layoffs and firings. We kicked around various ideas as to how to prevent black workers from being forced out of the plants. Some suggested proportional layoffs based on race, and others that all black workers should automatically be given ten years extra seniority to compensate for past discrimination. These measures, of course, conflicted with many of the seniority arrangements that the unions had only recently won. Seniority was the key determinant of a worker’s job security and his rank in the plant. It replaced the arbitrary decisions of management with a system that seemed fair to most workers. As a result, it was something of a sacred cow, and to suggest changes that would penalize some workers to help others could create a volatile issue. Many trade union officials and activists were particularly uncomfortable with these suggestions.”

While the left nationally understood the race issue to primarily impact African Americans, in California the concern extended to Latinos. In the late 1940s, Latinos were part of the left-led Los Angeles CIO Council, and they helped shape its agenda, which anticipated later liberal reforms. The council included workers from heavy industries such as auto, steel, rubber, and aircraft and light industries such as canning, electrical, and furniture; newspaper reporters; and longshoremen.

The Los Angeles CIO Council sponsored a Leadership School on “How to Fight Discrimination in the Shop and in the Community” on February 29, 1948. The planning committee included Frank Lopez from Shoe Workers Local 122; Josephine Abeytia, Chief Steward for FTA Cannery Workers Local 25; and Oscar Castro from United Furniture Workers Local 576.

A report from the school promoted proto-affirmative action while stressing that such a program could not be imposed on workers. This caution reflected the sentiments in Nelson’s recollections about the late 1940s, and anticipated the bitter racial divisions experienced after courts mandated race-based remedies in later years to overcome past discrimination.

The report urged that “locals be on guard against mass layoff of minority workers, whose accumulation of seniority generally is less than of white workers, was urged by the panel on mixed industries [those with a diverse workforce].

“John Manning, UAW Local 406, reporting for the panel, advised locals to be conscious of the layoff problems ahead, then recounted how minority workers have little seniority” because they had been employed in most plants only because the needs of the war had opened the doors to employment.

“He recommended that locals consider special seniority adjustments for minority workers such as that granted veterans, said that the issue has to be taken to workers and cannot be worked out simply on a contract basis, advised all locals to reexamine their contractual protection of minority workers in reclassifications and promotions.”

These ideas drew some interest. The United Furniture Workers Local 576 in Los Angeles discussed giving minority group members additional seniority, but the idea was never adopted.

The push for affirmative action receded when the left was expelled from the CIO and from municipal councils such as the L.A. CIO Council in 1949–50.

The liberals who assumed power in the renamed Greater Los Angeles CIO Council promoted fair employment legislation designed to outlaw discrimination in hiring and promotions. The state of California adopted such a law in 1959, after a decade of organizing and applying political pressure by a labor-minority-religious coalition. Congress followed with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The new state and federal laws reduced instances of discrimination in California, but as Latino and African American participation lagged behind that of whites in many job classifications, pressure grew to act affirmatively to achieve equality of opportunities as well as equality of results. Government and business began to take race into account in hiring and promotions that benefited members of previously excluded groups. This generated a conservative reaction.

In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 209, which forbade using race as a positive factor in gaining state employment or admission to state universities. The California Supreme Court upheld the laws constitutionality in 2010.

Viewed though the prism of history, the long debate over how to ensure a fairer and more just society in terms of employment began on the labor left and moved into the legislative corridors; voters ultimately upheld the idea of nondiscrimination but placed limits on affirmative action. The law remains generally settled, but it is open to further action by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Today, the labor left in California is again promoting affirmative action. In a move reminiscent of the L.A. CIO Council initiatives in 1948, unionized hotel workers in Los Angeles have pressured management to hire African Americans. Interestingly, this move was made by a largely Latino local. It will ensure a closer relationship between the two minority groups that comprise a majority of the population. It also provides a foundation for future labor-based coalition politics on the job and at the ballot box in the increasingly Latino-oriented, yet diverse, municipality.

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