White House aides have now clarified President Reagan's position on affirmative action programs. The clarification unfortunately invites disturbing questions about the administration's commitment to voluntary jobs programs in general as well as its willingness to come to the support of minorities and women long locked out of many manufacturing and professional positions in the US.
In a press conference Dec. 17, it should be recalled, Mr. Reagan said that he favors ''the training and bringing up'' of minorities so ''there are more opportunities for them, in voluntary agreement between the union and management.'' The President was answering a question from a reporter about the Weber case in which the US Supreme Court in 1979 upheld a voluntary agreement between Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation and the United Steelworkers Union that set numerical goals for hiring blacks in a job training program. Now, according to a spokesman, Mr. Reagan is said to believe that the Weber decision was wrong, and that while the President ''does favor voluntary affirmative action programs,'' he finds the ''racial quota unacceptable.''
The underlying concern about Mr. Reagan's position is the matter of how to go about ensuring access to jobs in the first place. Unfortunately, Mr. Reagan's assumption that the market economy will absorb all those persons willing to work irrespective of race or gender has not proven to be true. The whole rationale for quotas was to help alleviate years of imbalance in the workplace so that the labor force more closely reflected the composition of society as a whole.
Granted, there are legitimate claims to be met on all sides. Management and labor surely would not want quota programs in place that could so lower job and professional standards that society as a whole would be endangered. But such situations - in highly technical fields - are rare.
The administration is basing its entire recovery plan on the need for new investment and slashing federal programs geared to the poor, minorities, and the disadvantaged. But it is forgetting that there must investment in ''human formation,'' such as job training, education, and working conditions, as well as in new plants and equipment. American businesses, moreover, have a proper stake in ensuring that those persons who live near a plant have as much access to jobs within that facility as persons from outside the community, or just parts of the community.
The administration recently proposed a sweeping revision of the Labor Department's entire affirmative action program, exempting 75 percent of all firms that had been covered, although still retaining controls on the majority of all workers now covered. That earlier revision, coupled with Mr. Reagan's criticism of even voluntary jobs agreements that contain quotas, adds up to a major departure in discrimination policies in effect for a generation now. Congress, and the American people, should refuse to retreat from the nation's worthy objective of ensuring equal access to jobs by every person.