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  • AT&T and the Private-Sector Origins of Private-Sector Affirmative Action
  • Benton Williams (bio)

In January 1973, American Telephone & Telegraph, then the world's largest private-sector employer, entered into a Consent Decree with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In this decree, following a fourteen-month dispute before the Federal Communications Commission, AT&T agreed to implement specific goals and timetables for hiring women in traditionally male jobs, men in traditionally female jobs, and minorities in jobs in which they had been traditionally underrepresented. AT&T's adoption of affirmative action immediately preceded the routine application of affirmative action hiring and promotion policies in large, private-sector U.S. firms regardless of federal contractor status. Nonetheless, the importance of AT&T's action remains misunderstood by critics and supporters of affirmative action alike.

While I will focus on the AT&T Consent Decree and the role of AT&T President Robert Lilley in coming to that agreement, the importance of the case goes far beyond AT&T. How this agreement was reached challenges the [End Page 542] accepted story that affirmative action in the private-sector workplace resulted solely and directly from the outlawing of employment discrimination in the Civil Rights Act. That AT&T did as the government requested should not obscure the fact that AT&T did not have to do what the government sought. This case suggests that public policy implementation generally may need to be reexamined, particularly with regard to the relationship between government and business, as something other than formal regulation. In this case, the firm's actions were neither purely voluntary nor simply compelled. AT&T was pushed, convinced, even cajoled, but never coerced, by EEOC into implementing an affirmative action program in 1973. The assumption that government regulators were the source of private-sector affirmative action must be revisited because in this seminal case, EEOC, while important as an advocate for change, lacked the power to regulate.

Scholarly critics, supporters, and agnostics of affirmative action share an assumption that government imposed affirmative action on private employers and that the private sector had no voice in decisions to change their employment practices.1 Among these scholars, John David Skrentny raises the most interesting questions for the present study.2 In Ironies of Affirmative Action, Skrentny argues that the Nixon administration had its own motives, arising from its desire for political gain as much as for racial justice, in implementing affirmative action for federal contractors beginning in 1969.3 While these are not undisputed claims, Skrentny's examination usefully opens the door to the possibility of multiple motivations for the implementation of affirmative action. In this respect, this article owes much to Skrentny, though it shift s the focus from government to the employer as an agent and disputes Skrentny's definition of affirmative action as implicitly government-imposed.4

Scholars who have written about the AT&T case, specifically, likewise tend to focus on the government role, particularly the fledgling EEOC battling a giant corporate opponent. Unlike most commentators on affirmative action, who typically see the government and its putative allies as powerful, these chroniclers of the AT&T case cast EEOC in the role of the righteous underdog and correctly emphasize the importance of Bell employees and other grassroots supporters of EEOC's efforts. Lois Kathryn Herr, Phyllis Wallace, and Marjorie Stockford, the most notable writers on the case, all use the metaphor of David and Goliath in their discussions of the AT&T case.5 They treat AT&T as an unresponsive monolith forced into change. They are correct to emphasize the importance of the case as a model for hard affirmative action (i.e., specific goals and timetables or quotas) by a large employer that was not a federal contractor and to emphasize the innovation of EEOC and [End Page 543] its allies. This article relies on their findings, particularly Wallace's, but shift s the focus from EEOC and its allies to their target, AT&T.

Scholars of the AT&T case are invaluable in adding to our understanding of government interaction with employers, yet they are limited by the shared assumption that the implementation of affirmative...


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