U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Seniority Systems

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that labor agreements could use seniority as a criterion for layoffs even when that use would oppose the goals of affirmative action programs.

Summary of Event

Reflecting broad public concerns and controversies about a gamut of civil liberties, a combination of liberals and conservatives in Congress, goaded by President Lyndon B. Johnson, fought for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Title VII Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964[Title 07 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964]
Civil Rights Act of 1964 of the act delineated a series of formal and informal remedial procedures designed to end employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The objective of Title VII was to pave the way for equal employment opportunity for all Americans. Firefighters Local Union No. 1784 v. Stotts et al. (1984)
Supreme Court, U.S.;affirmative action
Affirmative action;employment
Seniority systems
[kw]U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Seniority Systems (June 12, 1984)
[kw]Supreme Court Upholds Seniority Systems, U.S. (June 12, 1984)
[kw]Court Upholds Seniority Systems, U.S. Supreme (June 12, 1984)
[kw]Seniority Systems, U.S. Supreme Court Upholds (June 12, 1984)
Firefighters Local Union No. 1784 v. Stotts et al. (1984)
Supreme Court, U.S.;affirmative action
Affirmative action;employment
Seniority systems
[g]North America;June 12, 1984: U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Seniority Systems[05450]
[g]United States;June 12, 1984: U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Seniority Systems[05450]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 12, 1984: U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Seniority Systems[05450]
[c]Business and labor;June 12, 1984: U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Seniority Systems[05450]
Stotts, Carl
White, Byron
Blackmun, Harry A.
Johnson, Lyndon B.
Stewart, Potter

Ultimately, the constitutionality of the act’s major sections would be tested by the U.S. Supreme Court as litigation relating to the act reached the Court on appeal or came to the justices for review. While Earl Warren Warren, Earl was chief justice of the United States (1953-1969), the Court’s interpretations of a wide range of civil liberties were expansive. The Court’s decisions in these cases, as was frequently noted, often amounted to additional “legislation.” In regard to labor law, decisions of the Warren Court were characterized by their focus on intergovernmental relationships. The Court found few occasions to define the rights of individuals in the workplace and no occasions to strike down employment discrimination based on sex.

Beginning in 1969, those two tasks were undertaken by the Court under Earl Warren’s successor, Warren E. Burger, Burger, Warren E. despite pundits’ predictions that Burger would lead a conservative reaction in the field of civil rights. On the contrary, the Burger Court broke new ground in labor law by delineating the rights of individuals in the workplace, often in the light of provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

It was in this context that the case of Firefighters Local Union No. 1784 v. Stotts et al. came to argument before the Court on December 6, 1983. The case questioned the legality of using job seniority as a criterion for layoffs. As legal scholars noted, along with issues associated with affirmative action and so-called reverse discrimination, seniority problems were among the most sensitive and bitterly contested in the realm of antidiscrimination legislation embodied in provisions of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Moreover, the AFL-CIO, AFL-CIO[Aflcio] which had played a major role in mustering political support for passage of the 1964 act, had battled consistently to preserve the integrity of seniority systems. Black workers, notoriously among those “last hired and first fired,” however, perceived established seniority systems as additional roadblocks to their advancement and job security.

Carl Stotts, a black captain in the Memphis, Tennessee, fire department, joined others in a class-action lawsuit invoking Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Participants in the suit alleged that Memphis city officials displayed a pattern of racial discrimination Racial and ethnic discrimination in their hiring and promotion practices in the fire department. Entering a consent decree with the courts, the city accordingly evinced its willingness to reform the department’s hiring and promotion policies, but broader considerations intervened. Fiscal difficulties soon thereafter required a budget reduction that, in turn, meant employee layoffs. At this juncture, a district court prohibited the city from following its seniority system in effecting the layoffs on grounds that proposed reductions would have a racially discriminatory effect. Modifications in the city’s system thereafter resulted in the layoffs of white employees who had more seniority than black employees who were retained, in compliance with the district court’s wishes.

The district court was following what it believed to be the direction confirmed by many lower court rulings, namely, that established seniority systems must be struck down if they perpetuated the effects of past discrimination, regardless of whether these systems had been designed to discriminate intentionally. This line of ruling obviously contradicted the intent of Congress. In enacting the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Congress, under pressure from the AFL-CIO and other organizations, had made every effort to ensure that Title VII would in no way upset established seniority plans. Nevertheless, grudgingly and at considerable expense, unions and management thereafter were forced to comply with court rulings or face costly litigation.

In 1977, this situation was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, drafted by Justice Potter Stewart, in Teamsters v. United States. Teamsters v. United States (1977) The decision, returning to what the majority of the Court believed to be the intent of Congress, declared that bona fide seniority plans, even if discriminatory in their past or present effects, were immunized by provisions of Title VII, specifically its section 703(h).

Such was the situation when Justice Byron White delivered the heart of the Firefighters decision, namely, that the district court had erred in mandating that white employees be laid off by the city of Memphis when otherwise the established seniority system would have called for the layoff of black employees with less seniority. Justice White, noting the earlier Teamsters ruling, declared that section 703(h) permitted “the routine application of a seniority system absent proof of an intention to discriminate.” Memphis had, in the Court’s estimation, a bona fide seniority system before the district court ruled and the consent decree causing modification in the city’s plan went into effect. White stated that section 703(h) seemed clear enough in declaring it legal employment practice for an employer “to apply different standards of compensation, or different terms, conditions, or privileges of employment” in establishing or maintaining a “bona fide seniority or merit system,” provided these differences were not the result of intentional discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, or national origin.

Seniority systems have been cherished by labor because they provide objective standards for what otherwise might be arbitrariness or favoritism on the part of management or unions in respect to job security. The Firefighters decision reinforced seniority systems even if such systems resulted in adverse consequences for members of minority groups.


The so-called White rule, announced by Justice Byron White on June 12, 1984, in practice meant that a bona fide seniority plan could not cause white workers to be laid off ahead of black workers with less seniority. This left Memphis’s new affirmative action employees, all black, at the same risk of layoffs as all other workers. Affirmative action plans thus could prevent some whites from being hired, but they could not cause them to be fired. From the perspectives of black leaders and black workers, the rule perpetuated workplace policies that had placed them in the position of being the last hired and the first fired. It mattered little that such was not the intent of Justice White.

In 1986, although the specifics of the litigation differed from those in Firefighters, White cast a deciding vote reinforcing his views in Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education. Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education (1986) A Jackson, Mississippi, school board and the Jackson Teachers Union had signed an agreement designed to prevent minority teachers hired under affirmative action plans from being laid off. The agreement stipulated that the minority teachers were to be protected even if tenured white teachers had to be laid off. White’s ruling treated the results of the Jackson affirmative action plan as reverse discrimination. Reverse discrimination White teachers were being fired because of their race, and in his view no affirmative action scheme justified that result.

The decisions handed down by White and the Court’s majority in conflicts arising between seniority plans and affirmative action policies from 1977 through 1986 represented an effort to reflect more accurately the intent of Congress in its enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the drafting of Title VII. Without directly overruling the Court’s earlier decision in Griggs v. Duke Power Company (1971), Griggs v. Duke Power Company (1971) a landmark “adverse impact” case that prohibited even unintentional discrimination, the Court narrowed its interpretations of what constituted discrimination.

During the quarter century after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a number of important changes occurred in the business world, in organized labor, and in congressional attitudes. For example, caught between officially divergent interpretations of what constituted discrimination that is, determinations of the will of Congress on one hand and Supreme Court decisions on the other many of the nation’s leading business interests and institutions receiving federal or state funds had begun implementing voluntary affirmative action plans. In some instances, these voluntary plans were structured around implicit “quotas” to be used in guiding minority hiring. Moreover, businesses’ incentive to comply with nondiscriminatory practices was inspired less by fear of traditional collective bargaining with trade unions than it was by threats posed by potential suits filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), by feminist groups, by civil rights organizations, by consumers’ groups, and by the alleged victims of discrimination.

In addition, trade unionism of the traditional kind, which had fought for and won great gains for manufacturing and assembly-line workers from the 1930’s until the early 1950’s, was being supplanted by a new unionism. Because of rapid technological change and the diminishing importance of manufacturing in the American economy, the new unionism was heavily influenced by new breeds of workers. Among them were semiprofessional and white-collar workers, who by 1980 accounted for more than half of the labor force, as well as rapidly expanding contingents of service workers. In addition, at the close of the 1980’s more than half of all employees were women, most of whom were keenly aware of previous and present sex discrimination. Gender discrimination Most semiprofessional and white-collar workers were inclined to downplay the significance of seniority systems in regard to hiring, pay, promotions, retirement, and layoffs. Instead, in regard to these matters they favored the application of merit principles.

Structural and attitudinal changes such as these that developed through the 1970’s and 1980’s, as well as the direction taken by the Supreme Court between the Griggs decision and the ruling in Firefighters, led Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1991. This new act followed the Court’s ruling in Wards Cove Packing Company v. Atonio
Wards Cove Packing Company v. Atonio (1989) in 1989. The decision basically overruled Griggs, rejecting “business necessity” as the sole criterion justifying the maintenance of practices that had disparate impacts that is, that were discriminatory. The Court lamented the fact that any employer with a racially imbalanced workforce was likely to be hauled into court and forced to engage in costly and time-consuming defense of employment methods. Further, the Court recognized that the sole option available to employers was the adoption of racial quotas. In the spirit of the Firefighters decision, the Court held that constraining employers to move to this option was never intended by Congress in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

By 1991, congressional majorities viewed matters differently. Although the 1991 Civil Rights Act made no mention of quotas, it did nothing to curtail employer incentives to engage in race-conscious hiring; in fact, it encouraged the adoption of implicit quotas. The act of 1991 expanded the antidiscrimination interpretations of Griggs and broadened the scope of compensatory damages that could be collected by proven victims of discrimination. Employers could defend themselves against charges of discrimination by proving that their practices rested on “business necessity.” Complainants bore the burden of proving that each particular challenged practice caused a disparate impact. The act likewise weakened the Firefighters decision by expanding rights to challenge discriminatory seniority systems. As Congress and the Supreme Court pursued different and often confusing paths in seeking to end discrimination with justice to all, some civil libertarians opined that civil rights acts had become the major threat to civil rights, while others denounced the legislation for having achieved too little. Firefighters Local Union No. 1784 v. Stotts et al. (1984)
Supreme Court, U.S.;affirmative action
Affirmative action;employment
Seniority systems

Further Reading

  • Epstein, Richard A. Forbidden Grounds: The Case Against Employment Discrimination Laws. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992. Scholarly evaluation of the substance and consequences of modern civil rights legislation and court decisions by a civil rights expert. Among the best critical surveys available. Includes informative page notes, table of cases, and extensive index.
  • Gould, William B., IV. Agenda for Reform: The Future of Employment Relationships and the Law. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993. Excellent, clearly written, and scholarly work discusses many aspects of employment law. Chapter 3 deals with the history of job security and seniority, and chapter 8 presents a fine discussion of the 1991 Civil Rights Act, race, and discrimination.
  • Hacker, Andrew. Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal. Rev. ed. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003. Reflective, substantive analysis of the subject of race in the United States, including conflicts in the workplace over seniority and many other issues involved in discrimination. Maintains critical balance, but overall offers a depressing picture.
  • Hall, Kermit L., ed. The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Multiauthored collection of essays on more than four hundred significant Court decisions, with supporting glossary and other aids.
  • Heckscher, Charles C. The New Unionism: Employee Involvement in the Changing Corporation. New York: Basic Books, 1988. Extremely interesting discussion of changes over time in American employees’ values, rights, organization, and relations with corporate employers.
  • McWhirter, Darien A. Your Rights at Work. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1989. A crisp, reasonably accurate guide to civil rights as related to the workplace. Heavily based on court decisions. Well presented and informative.
  • Player, Mack. Federal Law of Employment Discrimination in a Nutshell. 5th ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West, 2004. Reference guide to employment discrimination law lays out the highlights in a brief, orderly fashion. Includes table of cases and index.

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