WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court told private industry Wednesday it may voluntarily set up many kinds of affirmative action employment programs without fear of being sued by whites on "reverse discrimination" charges.
On a 5-2 vote, the court upheld a racial quota which Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corp. and a union used to select select applicants for an on-the-job training program.
The decision reversed a lower-court ruling striking down the quota, which was challenged by a white factory worker named Brian Weber as a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act's bar against racial discrimination in employment.
The law "does not condemn all private, voluntary, race-conscious affirmative action plans," Justice William Brennan wrote for the majority.
He said the statute was designed instead to open employment opportunities to blacks.
"It would be ironic indeed if a law triggered by a nation's concern over centuries of racial injustice and intended to improve the lot of those who had been excluded from the American dream for so long constituted the first legislative prohibition of all voluntary, private race-conscious efforts to abolish traditional patterns of racial segregation and hierarchy," Brennan wrote.
But Justice William Rehnquist, in a stinging dissent joined by Chief Justice Warren Burger, said the court's decision betrayed the spirit of "equality" for both races -- whites and blacks -- in the act.
"There is no device more destructive to the notion of equality than the .. quota," which creates castes -- "a two-edged sword that must demean one in order to prefer the other," Rehnquist said.
Weber, who initiated the employment sequel to last year's Bakke "reverse discrimination" college admissions case, said he was surprised by his loss. "I was pretty confident I would win," he told a news conference in New Orleans.
The high court is only expected to meet twice more before wrapping up its 1978-79 term with a major decision on northern school desegregation. In other actions Wednesday, it:
• Ruled unconstitutional a section of the Social Security Act that only allows a wage earner's insurance benefits to be awarded to widows or divorced wives -- and not to a woman who bore his child out of wedlock.
• Held 5-3 that in a longshoreman's accident where the ship and the stevedoring company were negligent, the longshoremen may collect for the entire amount damages for his injuries from the ship.
In the "reverse discrimination" case, Weber charged that Kaiser and the United Steelworkers of America illegally discriminated against whites when they voluntarily set up an on-the-job craft training program at a Gramercy, La., plant that reserved half its openings for minority applicants.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a decision reversed today, agreed the program was illegal because it set up a racial quota without any admission of past discrimination by the employer or union, and did not limit relief to identifiable victims of past discrimination.
Brennan noted the Kaiser plan did not involve government action or an alleged violation of the Constitution, but only the federal statute barring employment discrimination.
He said it was an "affirmative action plan, voluntarily adopted by private parties to eliminate traditional patterns of racial segreation."
"We cannot agree ... that Congress intended to prohibit the private sector from taking effective steps to accomplish the goal that Congress designed it to achieve," Brennan said.
"Nor does the plan create an absolute bar to the advancement of white employees; half of those trained in the program will be white."
Moreover, Brennan noted, the plan is a temporary one that is "not intended to maintain racial balance, but simply to eliminate a manifest racial imbalance.''
Justice John Paul Stevens did not take part in the case, nor did Justice Lewis Powell, who was ill when the arguments were held. Burger said in his dissent the employment discrimination law "was conceived and enacted to make discrimination against any individual illegal, and I fail to see how 'voluntary compliance' with the no-discrimination principle that is the heart and soul of (the law) as currently written will be achieved by permitting employers to discriminate against some individuals to give preferential treatment to others." others."