In a potentially far-reaching challenge to government-enforced affirmative action programs, Sears Roebuck and Co. yesterday sued 10 federal agencies, charging that the government's own policies had created an "unbalanced work-force" dominated by white males.
Private employers cannot be blamed for having too few women or minority workers when government actions dating back at least to the Depression have given white men a head start in the race for jobs, Sears' suit contends.
Sears is facing an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint charging that it discriminates in pay and advancement against women and minority-group members.
The company's lawsuit contends the generally higher unemployment rates and lower salaries of women and minorities are the result of government actions ranging from the GI Bill that enabled many white men to go to college to a welfare system that discourages women from working.
In addition, Sears asserts that federal agencies "failed to enforce the civil rights and equal oportunity laws within their jurisdiction, thereby depriving Sears of a sexually and racially integrated workforce."
Sears says it has spent $100 million since 1965 trying to comply with federal antidiscrimination laws, but has been unable to do so because the rules are conflicting and contradictory.
The lawsuit seeks a series of injunctions and court orders preventing the EEOC and other government agencies from taking any action against Sears for alleged discrimination.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by attorney Charles Morgan Jr., former director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Filed as a class action on behalf of all retailers with 15 or more employes, the lawsuit names as defendants government representatives ranging from the attorney general and EEOC chairman to the Census Bureau.
The EEOC director of public affairs, Daisy Voigt, issued a statement saying, "This latest litigation is part of a series of court cases initiated by Sears in an effort to defend its current practices for hiring and promoting minorities and women.
"The reason for the government's concern about Sears will become clear in the appropriate papers," said Voigt.
Asked if the Sears case might turn into another Bakke case -- the Supreme Court decision that set back equal educational opportunity efforts by limiting the use of race as a criterion in college admissions -- Voigt replied, "It looks like its going to turn into a joke."
EEOC officials said they are prohibited by law from discussing discrimination complaints, but Sears' lawsuit said the EEOC on April 19, 1977, found "reasonable cause to believe that Sears was in violation" of job discrimination rules.
Sears acknowledged that the EEOC has accused it of "discriminating against blacks, women and Spanish-surnamed Americans on the basis of race, sex, and national origin with respect to recruitment, hiring, employment, selection procedures, job assignment, promotion, transfer, training, compensation, layoff, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment."
The company has had 1,500 discrimination complaints filed against it since 1965, attorney Morgan said at a Chicago press conference at which he and Sears Chairman Edward Telling revealed the lawsuit.
Sears President Dean Swift was scheduled to fly to Washington today about what a company spokesman admitted "might be interpreted" as a preemptive strike against the EEOC.
With sales of $17,2 billion in fiscal 1977, Sears is America's largest retailer and accounts for 1 percent of the gross national product.
The company has more than 400,000 employes -- one of every 200 workers in the nation -- and is the second largest employer of women (after the American Telephone & Telegraph Co.). One out of every 30 Americans will work for Sears at some time, the company said.
Sears said 56.7 percent of its employes were women as of January 1978, 13.9 percent were black and 6 percent were members of other racial minorities. In 1966 about 51 percent of Sears workers were female, 5.9 percent black and 3 percent other minorities.
Sears said the number of women in managerial jobs had jumped from 20 to 36 percent since 1966 and minority managers increased from 1.4 percent to 10.5 percent.
The main theme of Sears' lawsuit is a sociologically based analysis of why American society is dominated by white men.
The federal government created that society, Sears' attorneys contend, and now is trying to make private businesses correct it. The lawsuit notes that the Department of Justice and other federal agencies have them selves been charged with racial and sexual discrimination and have a poorer record than Sears of hiring and promoting women.
"The workforce of today was created by the government action of yesterday," Morgan said in the complaint. "The federal government by setting military and civilian policy and by enacting laws pursuant to those policies, has undertaken to create and to shape the national labor force from which private employers must hire."
Tracing the issue back to 1886 when Sears was founded, the company said, "Society itself has been unable to resolve the dilemma between protecting the traditional husband-wife family unit and encouraging the independence of women."
In 1932, when the Depression forced the government to reduce employment, employes whose spouse also held a government job were the first to go, Sears said.
And the Social Security system pays proportionately lower benefits to families in which both husband and wife work, and the Internal Revenue Service taxes two-income families at higher rates. Both policies, Sears contends, discourage women from working, reducing the number of women in the workforce.
By giving pensions to widows and welfare to women with children but not men with children, the system further discourages women from working, the company argued.
During World War II there were limits on the number of women and blacks admitted to the armed forces, thereby depriving those groups of the benefits of the GI Bill and federal provisions giving veterans preference for government jobs, Sears said.
In addition, recent amendments to the age discrimination law that prohibit mandatory retirement before age 70 "ensured that the same individuals -- white males -- who earlier had received 'special consideration' because of their status as World War II veterans, would continue to receive special consideration because of their status as 'aged'" the company said.
Noting that most Sears stores are in suburbs and most Sears employes are hired from areas around the stores, Sears said the local workforce is mostly white because the Department of Housing and Urban Development failed to end discrimination in housing.
Failure of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to eliminate racial discrimination in education has resulted in poorly trained minority workers who cannot compete for jobs, Sears contends. "HEW-funded vocational education programs concentrated females in consumer, homemaking and occupational home economics classes," it said.