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Race in History of Labor Unions

Key Points

  • 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
Because the idea of a labor union is based on solidarity among workers, you might expect the labor movement to be at the forefront in America's long struggle toward racial harmony, right? Well, it's not so simple as that. Unions have been on both sides of the racial question, sometimes enforcing discrimination, other times welcoming minorities into their ranks. Partly out of necessity, unions have generally proven to be somewhat more accommodating to blacks than the society as a whole. Though African-Americans often had to fight to join unions, they also found that the labor movement could help them to win advances in their condition and status.

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
The early Knights of Labor actively accepted and organized black workers at a time when racism in America was intense. The AFL also started out in the 1880s with a nondiscrimination policy, but founder Samuel Gompers later came to see blacks as a "convenient whip placed in the hands of the employers to cow the white man." Fear that black workers would take whites' jobs haunted the labor movement for generations.

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
Eventually blacks did find a place in the labor movement. Industrial unions in the CIO were among the most integrated organizations in American society during the 1930s. It would have been virtually impossible to organize the steel industry while ignoring 85,000 black steelworkers. CIO members addressed each other as "brother" and "sister" regardless of race. In 1941 black workers, who made up 20% of the labor force at the Ford River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, were faced with a dilemma. Ford had catered to blacks, hiring many at good wages, hoping to turn them into loyal allies against unionization. The United Auto Workers was calling a strike to win recognition from the company. The black workers made their decision: they joined the strike and helped turn it into a success. By 1945, more than 500,000 African-Americans were members of CIO unions.39

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 Unions

  • African-American Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was crucial labor and civil rights organization
  • Led by A. Philip Randolph
Blacks also formed their own unions. One of the pioneers of the black labor movement was A. Philip Randolph, who formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) in 1925. His members were attendants on sleeping cars on overnight trains. They routinely worked 400 hours a month. The AFL resisted giving the BSCP a charter, but finally did so in 1937. Randolph was able to negotiate with the company to win recognition for his union, as well as higher wages, seniority, and a cut in hours for 35,000 black porters and maids.

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
By the 1960s blacks and other minorities accounted for 25% of union membership, but the AFL-CIO was still ambivalent about race. Discrimination was officially forbidden, and labor officially supported civil rights. But many unions continued to keep blacks out. Trade unions, particularly in the construction industry, simply didn't allow African-Americans to become apprentices. Even the International Ladies Garment Workers Union opposed federal job training programs for blacks, fearing job competition.

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.

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