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This Day in Labor History: July 2, 1964

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On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. Today’s post evaluates the impact of Title VII of the law. Title VII prohibited discrimination by covered employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, with an exception for members of the Communist Party who employers could continue to discriminate against. For the first time, they had the right to a job regardless of their race and gender. This transformed employment law and the lives of millions of American workers.

Title VII came out of a long history of employment discrimination. A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington Movement had targeted this directly and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom had not only aimed to get the bill that became the Civil Rights Act passed but also sought economic remedies like Title VII. Civil rights and economic rights can not be separated, as much as Republicans would like to think civil rights is about one line out of one speech Martin Luther King gave and absolutely nothing more.

Title VII targeted private employers, excluding the federal government. Many feared Title VII would be toothless. The law created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but it originally had little power. Said the chair of the EEOC from 1967-1969, Clifford Alexander, “We sort of gummed them to death if we could, but we had no enforcement powers.” But when LBJ issued Executive Order 11246 in 1965 that required federal agencies to establish nondiscrimination clauses and private contractors practice nondiscrimination, Title VII slowly took on life. Requiring govenrment contractors to comply meant that the government’s significant power of the purse as it became an ever larger sector of the economy was a powerful tool that sent reverberations through the labor market.

In the long-run, Title VII had the farthest reaching impact of any clauses in the law. Civil rights groups began finding the EEOC a useful tool and assisted people who had been discriminated against in filing suit to use it. In its first year, people filed 9000 complaints to the EEOC. By 1975, there were 77,000 complaints. They could also use class action lawsuits for a much larger tool against systemic employment discrimination. More than 1200 such lawsuits were filed between 1965 and 1971. In 1972, Congress granted the EEOC the power to sue in federal court, vastly expanding its reach. Major companies sought to create consent decrees with the EEOC rather than face trial. Many of those companies agreed to major settlements with female workers and workers of color. The success of many of them gave employers the push they needed to solve their employment discrimination problems themselves.

The inclusion of Title VII contained a vitally important principle rarely recognized in the Untied States—that civil rights preempted property rights, which is why racists like Rand Paul still rail against the law today. As Barry Goldwater said when voting against the law, “Our right of property is perhaps our most sacred right.” Human rights surpassed property rights, arguably for only the second time in American history, and the first took a civil war to accomplish.

The inclusion of women in Title VII was at first seen as something of a joke, although it turns out the issue was more complicated than it first appeared. When Virginia Rep. Howard Smith, a staunch segregationist, added the category of sex to the law, he did intend to undermine it. But Smith had worked closely with Alice Paul in the past. Paul and the National Women’s Party had long opposed any liberal legislation, especially labor law, and often worked with conservatives who were interested in a broad Equal Rights Amendment. Smith was one of them. So Smith introduced the word “sex” both because he wanted to see the bill die but also because if it did pass, he wanted women to have a right under it, especially if they were competing against black men for jobs.

One of the most frustrating thing about studying justice issues is that white women are among the biggest beneficiaries from affirmative action programs, yet so many do not see themselves as benefiting or in solidarity with people of color. Title VII was arguably the biggest political victory for women’s rights since the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. The EEOC’s initial reluctance to fight for women’s rights on the job helped lead to the creation of the National Organization of Women in 1966. While we might not remember NOW as a leader in the fight for employment equality, NOW frequently worked closely with civil rights groups to fight both racial and sexual discrimination.

Title VII also allowed the Supreme Court to ban sexual harassment at the workplace under the law, including same-sex sexual harassment, as decided in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services. Of course the use of Title VII to drastically change employment arrangements came under attack from the conservative movement and the Reagan administration underfunded the EEOC as it did the EPA, OSHA, and any other agency that sought to create a more equal America. Today, we are still far away from equal pay for equal work or an end to employment discrimination, despite real gains that we have made.

Some complain that the rise of a workplace fairness doctrine like Title VII has helped undermine the broader call for economic justice that the civil rights movement fought for. And there’s some real truth there. A. Philip Randolph was worried at the time that the law would ultimately do little for African-Americans because automation would throw many black workers out of a job and thus a jobs program was needed as well. But, between the 1960s and 1990s, the number of black policemen double, the number of black electricians tripled, and the number of black professionals quadrupled. The numbers of female professionals increased from 5 percent of the workforce to more than 30 percent in the same years. On the other hand, economic inequality is a major problem in society, it falls heavily by race and gender, and nothing in the Civil Rights Act even begins to solve this problem. Of course, the answer is new federal legislation to start solving it, but that’s probably far away.

I borrowed heavily from the forum on Title VII in the Fall 2014 issue of Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas for this post.

This is the 183rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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