ENR Editors Tracked Construction's Struggle Over Race and Inequality
ENR’s coverage of race and equality in the construction industry passed through two major phases from the 1960s until the 1990s.
In the phase that lasted through much of the 1960s and 1970s, discrimination in the union locals and hiring halls occupied ENR’s editors and editorial writers. One editorial, from 1969, praised new federal equal employment opportunity regulations for federally aided highway projects. For the first time, the federal government was forcing contractors who accepted project awards to make contractual commitments to exercise their management prerogative in the hiring field—to use their “best efforts” to negotiate hiring hall clauses compatible with equal opportunity. That included hiring workers outside the hiring hall whenever a union failed to supply enough minority workers.
While noting that the regulations required a “best effort” by the contractors, to meet the hiring goals and open up unions to admitting more Black members and other underrepresented groups, the editorial somberly predicted that while the regulations were “long overdue,” the definition of best effort would be litigated in court.
But by the next spring, ENR’s editorial writers expressed exasperation with the slow pace of integrating the federally funded construction workforce. “After several years of turmoil, equal employment opportunity is essentially still a dream,” the editors wrote, and it had become clear that “no real progress will be made until the law’s enforced.” The editors blamed all levels of government for lacking “the guts to enforce the law.”
By the late 1980s, the discussion had shifted. Numerous states and cities were setting aside portions of public works programs or projects for award to minority- or women-owned companies. Set-asides were different from “best effort” subcontracting goal programs. At that time Americans were debating all types of affirmative action programs, including those used for admitting college students, and accusations of so-called “reverse discrimination” flourished.
Public works became a primary battleground. A contractor named J.A. Croson sued to overturn what it saw as an overly broad set-aside plan in the City of Richmond, Va. With support from the Associated General Contractors, the case was finally decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989. Croson and the AGC declared victory because the court overturned the Richmond program and required proof of past discrimination. It directed that programs be narrowly tailored, but rather than killing them, states and cities carried out the needed studies and set goals for contractors. What constituted a “good-faith effort” would be debated, but the goal programs, ENR noted in 1992, were “here to stay.”
By Richard Korman, Deputy Editor, with research by Scott Lewis