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.
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