STEELWORKERS V. WEBER, 443 U. S. 193 (1979)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Steelworkers v. Weber, 443 U.S. 193 (1979)

United Steelworkers of America, AFL-CIO-CLC v. Weber

No. 78-432

Argued March 28, 1979

Decided June 27, 1979*

443 U.S. 193


In 1974, petitioners United Steelworkers of America (USWA) and Kaiser Aluminum Chemical Corp. (Kaiser) entered into a master collective bargaining agreement covering terms and conditions of employment at 15 Kaiser plants. The agreement included an affirmative action plan designed to eliminate conspicuous racial imbalances in Kaiser's then almost exclusively white craft work forces by reserving for black employees 50% of the openings in in-plant craft training programs until the percentage of black craft workers in a plant is commensurate with the percentage of blacks in the local labor force. This litigation arose from the operation of the affirmative action plan at one of Kaiser's plants where, prior to 1974, only 1.83% of the skilled craft workers were black, even though the local workforce was approximately 39% black. Pursuant to the national agreement, Kaiser, rather than continuing its practice of hiring trained outsiders, established a training program to train its production workers to fill craft openings, selecting trainees on the basis of seniority, with the proviso that at least 50% of the trainees were to be black until the percentage of black skilled craft workers in the plant approximated the percentage of blacks in the local labor force. During the plan's first year of operation, seven black and six white craft trainees were selected from the plant's production workforce, with the most senior black trainee having less seniority than several white production workers whose bids for admission were rejected. Thereafter, respondent Weber, one of those white production workers, instituted this class action in Federal District Court, alleging that, because the affirmative action program had resulted in junior black employees' receiving training in preference to senior white employees, respondent and other similarly situated white employees had been discriminated against in violation of the provisions of §§ 703(a) and(d) of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that make it unlawful to "discriminate . . . because

Page 443 U. S. 194

of . . . race" in hiring and in the selection of apprentices for training programs. The District Court held that the affirmative action plan violated Title VII, entered judgment in favor of the plaintiff class, and granted injunctive relief. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that all employment preferences based upon race, including those preferences incidental to bona fide affirmative action plans, violated Title VII's prohibition against racial discrimination in employment.


1. Title VII's prohibition in §§ 703(a) and (d) against racial discrimination does not condemn all private, voluntary, race-conscious affirmative action plans. Pp. 443 U. S. 200-208.

(a) Respondent Weber's reliance upon a literal construction of the statutory provisions and upon McDonald v. Santa Fe Trail Transp. Co., 427 U. S. 273, which held, in a case not involving affirmative action, that Title VII protects whites as well as blacks from certain forms of racial discrimination, is misplaced, since the Kaiser-USWA plan is an affirmative action plan voluntarily adopted by private parties to eliminate traditional patterns of racial segregation. "[A] thing may be within the letter of the statute and yet not within the statute, because not within its spirit, nor within the intention of its makers," Holy Trinity Church v. United States, 143 U. S. 457, 143 U. S. 459, and, thus, the prohibition against racial discrimination in §§ 703(a) and (d) must be read against the background of the legislative history of Title VII and the historical context from which the Act arose. P. 443 U. S. 201.

(b) Examination of those sources makes clear that an interpretation of §§ 703(a) and (d) that forbids all race-conscious affirmative action would bring about an end completely at variance with the purpose of the statute, and must be rejected. Congress' primary concern in enacting the prohibition against racial discrimination in Title VII was with the plight of the Negro in our economy, and the prohibition against racial discrimination in employment was primarily addressed to the problem of opening opportunities for Negroes in occupations which have been traditionally closed to them. In view of the legislative history, the very statutory words intended as a spur or catalyst to cause

"employers and unions to self-examine and to self-evaluate their employment practices and to endeavor to eliminate, so far as possible, the last vestiges of an unfortunate and ignominious page in this country's history,"

Albemarle Paper Co. v. Moody, 422 U. S. 405, 422 U. S. 418, cannot be interpreted as an absolute prohibition against all private, voluntary, race-conscious affirmative action efforts to hasten the elimination of such vestiges. Pp. 443 U. S. 201-204.

Page 443 U. S. 195

(c) This conclusion is further reinforced by examination of the language and legislative history of § 703(j) of Title VII, which provides that nothing contained in Title VII

"shall be interpreted to require any employer . . . to grant preferential treatment . . . to any group because of the race . . . of such . . . group on account of"

a de facto racial imbalance in the employer's workforce. Had Congress meant to prohibit all race-conscious affirmative action, it could have provided that Title VII would not require or permit racially preferential integration efforts. The legislative record shows that § 703(j) was designed to prevent § 703 from being interpreted in such a way as to lead to undue federal regulation of private businesses, and thus use of the word "require," rather than the phrase "require or permit," in § 703(j) fortifies the conclusion that Congress did not intend to limit traditional business freedom to such a degree as to prohibit all voluntary, race-conscious affirmative action. Pp. 443 U. S. 204-207.

2. It is not necessary in these cases to define the line of demarcation between permissible and impermissible affirmative action plans; it suffices to hold that the challenged Kaiser-USWA plan falls on the permissible side of the line. The purposes of the plan mirror those of the statute, being designed to break down old patterns of racial segregation and hierarchy, and being structured to open employment opportunities for Negroes in occupations which have been traditionally closed to them. At the same time, the plan does not unnecessarily trammel the interests of white employees, neither requiring the discharge of white workers and their replacement with new black hirees, nor creating an absolute bar to the advancement of white employees, since half of those trained in the program will be white. Moreover, the plan is a temporary measure, not intended to maintain racial balance, but simply to eliminate a manifest racial imbalance. Pp. 443 U. S. 209-209.

563 F.2d 216, reversed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a concurring opinion, post 443 U. S. 209. BURGER, C.J.,filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 443 U. S. 216. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J.,joined, post, p. 443 U. S. 219. POWELL and STEVENS, JJ., took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases.

Page 443 U. S. 197

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