History of Labor Unions
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Summary & Analysis
- Unions have been important to history of race in America
- Some unions were deeply racist
- Other unions gave blacks opportunities for economic advancement and civil rights
Racism in the Labor Movement
- Knights of Labor were racially inclusive, but many AFL unions kept out blacks
- Racial divisions among workers were often used to break strikes and undermine solidarity
Employers did capitalize on racial divisions by recruiting black workers as strikebreakers. In a 1917 incident, employers in East St. Louis, Illinois, recruited southern blacks to take jobs for low pay to drive wages down. White workers organized a whites-only union in response. Racial tensions mounted and in July an attempt to drive blacks from their neighborhoods led to a riot in which 40 blacks and 9 whites were killed.
The AFL craft unions became solidly racist. In 1902 W.E.B. Du Bois, the influential black spokesman and historian, found that 43 national unions had no black members, and 27 others barred black apprentices, keeping membership to a minimum. Du Bois spoke against both "the practice among employers of importing ignorant Negro-American laborers in emergencies" and "the practice of labor unions of proscribing and boycotting and oppressing thousands of their fellow toilers."38
These policies of the unions were self-defeating. By refusing to admit blacks, they were assuring that there remained a group of workers that employers could turn to in order to bring down wages or to apply pressure during strikes. It wasn't until later in the twentieth century that union leaders began to look beyond their own prejudices to see that solidarity across racial lines made sense.
Unions Lift Blacks
- CIO was important civil rights organization from 1930s-50s
- CIO unions offered desegregation before other sectors of American society
More unions broke down racial barriers after World War II. Because of the labor movement, the industrial workplace became democratized for blacks before the rest of society. Schools remained segregated and many blacks were denied the right to vote, but under union contract they were treated like other workers. They no longer had to show deference to their employers or worry about arbitrary dismissal. As a result, black workers became solidly pro-union and were among the groups most likely to be unionized during the 1950s.
- African-American Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was crucial labor and civil rights organization
- Led by A. Philip Randolph
Significantly, many of these workers, who lived in cities all over the country, felt secure in their jobs because of union support and went on to fight for civil rights. They formed the backbone of the first March on Washington Movement in 1941, which Randolph helped organize. The threat of a mass demonstration at the capital convinced President Roosevelt to give in to their demand was for fair employment in the burgeoning defense industry and the march was called off. Roosevelt's executive order banned racial discrimination in businesses with government contracts. It was the first step in the long process of ending discrimination in the workplace.
An Uneasy Alliance
- Unions played a mixed role in the civil rights movement
- Some unions fought to keep minorities out
- But unions also helped to organize Montgomery Bus Boycott
- Martin Luther King was assassinated while helping striking union workers in Memphis, Tennessee
At the same time, the labor movement continued to serve as one means through which blacks to fight for equality and important links developed between the civil rights movement and unions. It was E.D. Nixon, a rank and file member of the BSCP, who brought Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Montgomery, Alabama to support the 1955 bus boycott. The action became one of the seminal events of the civil rights movement.
Thirteen years later, King was again linking civil rights to labor organizing. Sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee—most but not all of them African-American—were so poorly paid that 40 percent of them qualified for welfare even though they worked full time. Health insurance was minimal, as were pensions and vacations. They worked in filthy, unsafe conditions, and were sent home for the least infraction.
The city refused to negotiate with the union and in February 1968 the workers went on strike. Their struggle came to symbolize the plight of the working poor and of the African-American community in general. The strike drew the interest of King, who had begun to emphasize through his Poor People's Campaign the importance of economic issues in the civil rights struggle. King's presence in support of the strike put a national spotlight on the workers' struggle. When he returned in April, intending to lead a massive nonviolent march to support the workers, an assassin shot him dead in a Memphis motel.
In the wake of that tragedy, the Memphis sanitation workers won recognition from the city. In Memphis, other public employees joined unions, and jobs previously reserved for whites became available regardless of color.
For all its foot-dragging and outright resistance during recent decades, the labor movement has played an important role in the establishments of civil rights for blacks. Today, the wages of unionized African-American are 35% higher than the pay of those who are not represented by a union.