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This Day in Labor History: September 23, 1969

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On September 23, 1969, President Richard Nixon issued the Philadelphia Plan, forcing building trades unions to allow black members into their ranks. Nixon did this believing that it would show him as a strong civil rights president without having to do very much to give in to the more radical demands of the civil rights movement. More importantly to Nixon, he saw it as a way to undercut organized labor, creating a coalition of African-Americans and Republicans against racist unions. Opponents of the new principle of affirmative action immediately sued to kill the new policy, but the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in its favor in 1971 and the Supreme Court rejected the appeal. Affirmative action was introduced into federal hiring practices for the first time.

A central tenet of the civil rights movement, and an underrated one in the popular memory of the movement, was equality at work. In the 1960s, the construction unions in Philadelphia, as they were nationwide, were almost exclusively white. These were good paying working-class jobs and also bastions of economic discrimination. African-American citizens in Philadelphia began organizing in 1967 to integrate construction work. This organizing eventually led to federal attention. In June 1969, a Nixon advisor announced the plan, including specific numerical goals, to the unions of Philadelphia. On September 23, Nixon made it federal policy through his secretary of labor, George Shultz.

The Philadelphia Plan required that 6 Philadelphia area building trades create numerical “goals” for integrating their locals if they wanted to receive federal contracts. White construction workers around the country opposed this idea. They did so for a variety of reasons. Overt racism drove many, but it’s also important to remember that the building trades had developed traditions of passing jobs down to family members. Setting affirmative action targets meant that for every African-American granted a job, someone’s son or cousin or nephew was not getting a job. They also thought they had worked hard to rise in the world and believed that this was the government letting a special class of people equal them without working. Of course, racism also infused these last two reasons, not to mention the mental gymnastics it took to talk about how you worked so hard to get your job compared to these blacks when it was your dad who secured it for you.

For the building trades therefore, being forced to integrate was seen as a direct attack on the white male enclave they had created. This hard hat anger at the overall tenor of social and cultural change became manifested in the Hard Hat Riot of 1970, an event that unfortunately created a stereotype of unions hating hippies even though this was just a couple of building trades locals in New York. In Pittsburgh and Chicago, construction workers held sizable anti-integration rallies. In the former city, 4000 construction workers rallied when the city government halted all contracts to negotiate with African-Americans demanding integrated work. AFL-CIO head George Meany strongly criticized the plan, siding with his building trades over the civil rights movement that always had a complex relationship with organized labor.

Southerners in Congress immediately attempted to not fund the program. Led by North Carolina senator Sam Ervin and West Virginia senator Robert Byrd, they hoped to kill it in its infancy and stuck a rider onto a bill funding relief for Hurricane Camille to do so. But the order survived after Nixon threatened to hold Congress in session over Christmas to pass the bill. Now, Nixon had little interest in strong enforcement of the plan. He certainly didn’t care about actually integrating these locals. Nixon used the Philadelphia Plan to defend himself when his administration’s civil rights record was attacked, as it often was. Nixon also hoped it would undermine union control over construction labor by creating non-union but integrated competitors to the unions. Many civil rights leaders saw through Nixon’s ploy, claiming he was doing virtually nothing here but to try and split the Democratic Party coalition. This was of course, correct. John Ehrlichman bragged about this very thing. And in fact, Nixon was angry that labor and civil rights groups had teamed up to defeat his nomination of Clement Haynesworth to the Supreme Court and splitting these two groups was a top political priority.

And in fact, real progress in desegregating construction work was very slow, in no small part because Nixon did virtually nothing to push the integration of construction after the Philadelphia Plan’s approval. In 1971, Nixon advisor Chuck Colson successfully weakened the plan’s enforcement and by this point, Nixon himself had no interest in the subject in the face of his coming reelection campaign and domestic political concerns about inflation. By 1971, Nixon realized the real political power was in white resentment, not civil rights. and that ended his interest in pursuing the implementation of the Philadelphia Plan. This move allowed many building trades and other conservative unions to support Nixon in 1972, with the AFL-CIO withholding support for George McGovern. Much had changed in three years.

When the courts did enforce integration, white workers hazed black workers and just refused to work with them. With this level of resistance, the federal government turned more toward voluntary desegregation programs without enforcement. Ultimately, the political will was not there to create widespread integration of the building trades. Yet the Philadelphia Plan did advance affirmative action as federal policy and so I guess Nixon deserves a certain amount of credit for this, even if he did it for crass political reasons. It brought the principle of specific numerical goals into affirmative action, the dreaded “quotas” conservatives of the 90s loved to talk about as they were largely rolling them back through the courts.

I drew on a number of historical works for this post, including Joshua Freeman’s article “Hardhats: Construction Workers, Manliness, and the 1970 Pro-War Demonstrations,” from the Summer 1993 issue of the Journal of Social History, Kevin Yuill’s Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action, Dean Kotlowski’s Nixon’s Civil Rights: Politics, Principle, and Policy, and Trevor Griffey’s “‘The Blacks Should Not Be Administering the Philadelphia Plan’: Nixon, the Hard Hats, and ‘Voluntary’ Affirmative Action,” in Goldberg and Griffey, ed., Black Power at Work: Community Control, Affirmative Action, and the Construction Industry.

This is the 119th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Aimai

    Fascinating post. Thank you for this.

  • Ronan

    ” More importantly to Nixon, he saw it as a way to undercut organized labor, creating a coalition of African-Americans and Republicans against racist unions. ”

    Where does this sit with Republican racial politics of the era (ie the Southern Strategy etc) ? Has there ever been a genuine attempt by Republicans to attract conservative African Americans to the party, or was this solely an attempt to undermine Unions ?

    • Ronan

      The stuff about securing jobs on the site for family members is interesting as well. That’s something you’d notice a good bit in the factories around where I grew up (a lot of which were unionised, to some degree).. virtually entire factory workforces would be from one(small) village, or in other cases the good jobs in the factories were passed down generationally((although it seemed to occur less with my generation)
      I dont neccesarily think that’s a bad thing,but can see how it could breed resentment.

      edit: I dont think it’s neccesarily something specific to unionised workplaces either, I guess.

    • Ahuitzotl

      Has there ever been a genuine attempt by Republicans to attract conservative African Americans to the party

      Well, 1862

  • rea

    he saw it as a way to undercut organized labor, creating a coalition of African-Americans and Republicans against racist unions.

    Yet, somehow it all ended up with all the racist unionists voting for Nixon, and the head of a racist union replacing George Schultz as Secretary of Labor.

  • Kathleen

    My grandfather was a dirt poor Irish immigrant who obtained employment with the railroad and was able to build a comfortable life for his family even though the Depression. He was a staunch Catholic, Democrat and Union supporter, but I remember him saying in 1968 or 1969 that the biggest mistake labor unions ever made was not opening its doors to black workers. He was so unlike the spawn of too many bigoted Irish Catholic Americans. (A veteran of WWI and WWII, he said every American should have had to watch Judgment at Nuremberg, particularly the concentration camp footage.)

    Also, too, I’ve heard that in Cincinnati union members who attended certain high schools or who grew up in a certain part of town are given preferential treatment when it comes to available assignments, so some things don’t change, at least in some places.

  • Sadly, this is still an issue here in Philadelphia. As this study showed, about 75% of construction jobs in Philadelphia went to whites. Combine that with the unions charging a premium for work done in the city compared to the same work done in the suburbs and the unions make it really hard to work with them. My school ended up non-union labor for a construction job a decade ago because they wouldn’t give us the same bid as they gave a competitor school located on the Main Line for basically an identical project. They then used racist slogans during their picketing and were sexually agressive towards the female students. The low was when they got on a school bus and threatened the kindergartners. I was always a union guy until I moved to Philly. And then there was this news.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      the *unions* charge a premium for work done in the city? how does that work?

      i can see where maybe the location of the site itself could lead to higher costs, but that doesn’t strike me as a union decision, more the contractor…

      • Hogan

        To be fair, hardly any of their members live in the city, so you have to factor in travel expenses along with racial panic.

        • jim, some guy in iowa

          travel… yeah, *that* slipped my mind. i could think of legitimate reasons a city job might bid out higher than a suburban one but they had to do with the job itself- not the workers’ preferences

          • The relevant unions are rather explicit about the different rates for in-city vs. suburban work. For years, since they had a monopoly on city jobs, they charged higher rates. My school’s job was the first big job to not use all union labor in the city. Hence the over the top picketing strategies. RE: price. The union wage inside the city is higher than the union wage in the suburb. See here:

  • DrDick

    Great post, as always. This of course demonstrates that racism and segregation were only ever a problem in the South.

  • Ronan

    This is off topic, so Im sorry to post it here(delete it if you like Erik) but thought people might be interested in it

    http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/sep/21/linda-tirado-poverty-hand-to-mouth-extract

  • Cheerful

    This effort had a parallel in Seattle. In October 1969, the newly elected Executive for King County (the largest county in the state, where Seattle and Bellevue are, John Spellman, negotiated an agreement with local contractors to integrate public works. The building unions, almost completely white for the reasons that Erik noted, – racisms and nepotism, were furious leading to a march from their Union Hall in Belltown, down 2nd Ave to the King County Courthouse, thousands strong, one of the biggest marches at the time. They gathered outside the courthouse and demanded Spellman come out. He did but then got so heckled and booed by the crowd he went back in.

    Unlike Philadelphia, Spellman did take steps for enforcement, though was helped by the fact that some of the black leadership of the city was also taking the unions to federal court, where they got some sympathetic rulings. The building trades in Seattle did show some integration.

    There’s more to the story (I have heard from another source of an incident where black protestors at one site had white union members throwing bricks at their head from cranes), and you can find some more details in Spellman’s biography. (Chapter 14):

    http://www.sos.wa.gov/legacyproject/oralhistories/JohnSpellman/default.aspx

    I have no doubt that part of Spellman’s thinking, like any politician, was to show up the other party, and he was a supporter of Nixon. But it shows that in some corners of the country, where reform Republicans were a genuine force, they did try to do actual good. Before reformers got run out of the party/.

  • cpinva

    ” Yet the Philadelphia Plan did advance affirmative action as federal policy and so I guess Nixon deserves a certain amount of credit for this, even if he did it for crass political reasons.”

    nearly every public project has some level of “crass political reasons” behind it, it’s how things get done.

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  • Bitter Scribe

    I’d feel more sympathetic to the construction unions if they weren’t so fucking arbitrary in terms of who gets in.

    Case in point: The summer between high school and college, I worked as a busboy in a pancake house. One of the customers was so impressed by my hustle that he offered me a spot as an apprentice in the structural ironworkers union (he was some kind of muckymuck there). If it weren’t for my college plans and my fear of heights, I could be dancing on an iron beam 50 stories up right now, for no other reason than that some guy liked how I cleared tables. Affirmative action can’t possibly be more arbitrary than that.

  • Bruce Vail

    I suspect that the stats on African-American membership in the trades today would reveal racial discrimination still a big issue.

    I attended a BCTD convention in D.C. about 7-8 years with delegates from around the country. In the hall were 500 white guys and about 50 black/latino/women delegates.

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