Boston — The battle against discrimination in the workplace is shifting to a new and, at first blush, an unusual arena -- the private social club. The informal atmosphere of an oak-paneled Downtown Club may be a good place for thinking aloud about a new product line, for improving one's rapport with the people in the accouting department, or to overhear what the boss really thinks of that new branch manager in Phoenix.
But because federal law recognizes the right of private social clubs to set membership policies, not everyone has access to this environment. As women and blacks scramble up the corporate ladder, they often find that clubs, which could be so helpful at that stage of their ascent, are closed to them.
Thus, the US Department of Labor is proposing a rule that forbids federal contractors to pay their employees' memberships or expenses at discriminatory clubs, unless the firms can prove that such payments have not resulted in employment discrimination at the firms. The regulations would apply to the 300, 000 federal contractors and subcontractors, with a collective work force of at least 31 million people.
The right of private social clubs to set their own membership policies, and hence to exclude blacks, Jews, or women, was recognized in the Civil rights Act of 1964 as an expression of the constitutional right of freedom of association.
But the Labor Department's explicit assumption is that supporting discriminatory clubs leads to discrimination in the workplace, and the burden of proof to the contrary is on the employer.
The Labor Department sees the regulation as a natural part of its responsibility to ensure that federal contractors have nondiscriminatory employment practices. That is how women's groups and black organizations see it , too.
But the US Chamber of Commerce disagrees. "Corporations are not in the business of changing membership policies of private clubs," says William H. Knapp, labor relations attorney for the chamber.
The regulations, which he says are "so vague as to be unenforceable" will put a large legal and financial burden on contractors, he adds.
Moreover, the regulations infringe on the right of freedom of association, and, "the chamber maintains that there has been no statistical demonstration of a connection between payment of fees and expenses at discriminatory clubs, and employment discrimination," Mr. Knapp says.
The chamber proposes an alternative: that contractors simply be required to make whatever money they have for memberships available equally to all similarly situated employees. If a woman executive cannot be admitted to the Rotary Club, for example, the chamber would suggest her employer support her in an equivalent organization. But what if there is none.
Mr. Knapp does not have an answer for that.He does suggest that as more women move into the business world, it will be natural for clubs to change their membership policies.
But Janice Blood of Working Women, the Boston affiliate of the National Association of Women Office Workers, attacks this suggestion. "It's like the old line that 'Once women start going to school in big numbers, they will naturally rise in the business world.'" Record numbers of women may be working, but they simply are not rising very far, she says.
The proposed regulations have been commented on by hundreds of interested parties, and the final versions are expected within a couple of months.