International Union, UAW v. Johnson Controls: History & Analysis

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  • 0:00 A Court Case
  • 0:55 Changes to Title VII
  • 2:14 Johnson Controls' Argument
  • 3:22 The International Union
  • 4:15 Supreme Court Ruling
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Bryan McDowl

Bryan has a decade of experience in human resources and has a MBA degree and is also PHR and SHRM certified!

Employers can establish policies with their employees' best interest in mind. However, even policies that seemingly have good intentions can be found to be discriminatory. This lesson will discuss the history and outcome of one such case.

A Court Case

In 1990 the Supreme Court heard the argument of International Union, UAW v. Johnson Controls. The employer, Johnson Controls, which is a global company that specializes in improving the efficiency of buildings, automobiles, and batteries, denied female employees of childbearing ages from certain positions. The company argued that exposure to high amounts of lead in these positions would lead to severe birth defects of fetuses in mothers. Johnson Controls established a fetal protection policy, to protect women's reproductive health and the health of developing fetuses, after eight employees became pregnant after being exposed to high amounts of lead in these roles. Members of the International Union filed a class action suit and claimed that the policy discriminated against female workers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Changes to Title VII

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prevents employers from discriminating against employees or applicants based on that person's sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. This act was later amended by The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which prohibited employers from discriminating on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that pregnancy must be treated the same as any other disability by providing the opportunity such as light-duty, modified tasks, disability leave, or leave without pay.

Under Title VII, an employer has the opportunity to legally discriminate in personnel decisions regarding employment on the basis of such protected traits, if the trait is considered a bona fide occupational qualification, or BFOQ. A BFOQ can be declared if there is a direct relationship between a specific protected trait and the ability to do the job, that there is no less restrictive alternative available, and that the BFOQ relates to the core mission of the organization. This was the basis of Johnson Controls' defense, unlike in 2015 when restaurant Ruby Tuesdays was ordered to pay $100,000 to two male employers for being denied server promotional opportunities that were being reserved for women.

Johnson Controls' Argument

Johnson Controls argued that allowing female workers that may have become pregnant left the company open to liability lawsuits if their newborn children experienced birth defects as a result of their working conditions. The levels of lead, which was a main ingredient in many of its products that workers would be exposed to in certain roles, were higher than deemed safe by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is the federal agency charged with regulating workforce safety. In order to allow female workers to work in these roles, the workers must have their infertility medically documented.

The company argued that the language in the Pregnancy Discrimination Act states that the employee must be able to perform the work as safely as someone who is not in that category, and that the BFOQ defense applies in this case. The BFOQ in this instance was the ability to complete the duties of the role without exposed risk of injury. While Johnson Controls argued that exposure to high levels of lead would cause severe brain defects in fetuses, they were unable to pinpoint exactly at what level they'd become a danger. As the employer, they felt that they were responsible for the materials they manufacture while ensuring the safety of their employees.

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