A Pullman porter at Chicago's Union Station, circa 1943
Many working people across the United States are enjoying a three-day weekend thanks to Labor Day
. But sadly, it has become more of a retail holiday and a marker for the end of summer than a celebration of workers and organized labor. Even those who do honor workers and unions rarely explore the historical links between the Pullman Strike of 1894
and the black Pullman porters
who could not strike—because they weren't allowed in a whites-only union.
In an op-ed for The Grio, Theodore R. Johnson wrote about how Labor Day was born:
Labor Day was nationally established after the Pullman Strike of 1894 when President Grover Cleveland sought to win political points by honoring dissatisfied railroad workers. This strike did not include porters or conductors on trains, but for the black porters, racism fueled part of the workers’ dissatisfaction, and was never addressed. Pullman porters were black men who worked in the trains’ cars attending to their mostly white passengers, performing such tasks as shining shoes, carrying bags, and janitorial services. During this period, this profession was the largest employer of blacks in the nation and constituted a significant portion of the Pullman company’s workforce, yet blacks were not allowed to join the railroad worker’s union.
Being excluded from the right to even fight for fair work and wages, the Pullman porters formed their own union called the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters, the first black union, and A. Philip Randolph was its first president. That name should sound familiar: the first planned March on Washington was Randolph’s brainchild. Set to take place in the 1940s, this demonstration was called off weeks before its kick-off date because President Roosevelt met with Randolph and other civil rights leaders in 1941, and signed an order barring racial discrimination in the federal defense industry. Roosevelt did so to stop the march from happening.
Keep reading below for more of the history, and some discussion.
In spite of a history of exclusion, black Americans are the group that view unions most favorably, according to Pew research:
Across demographic groups, there are wide differences in overall favorability ratings of labor unions. Among blacks, who are more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to be union members, 60% hold a favorable view of unions; by comparison, 49% of Hispanics and 45% of whites view unions favorably.
Black Americans also have the highest rate of union membership
Among major race and ethnicity groups, black workers had a higher union membership rate in 2014 (13.2 percent) than workers who were white (10.8 percent), Asian (10.4 percent), or Hispanic (9.2 percent).
Black workers have fought to organize, even in the face of racism. When not allowed in white unions, they organized their own.
Let's examine that history.
W.E.B. Du Bois
In March 1918, black scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois
wrote The Black Man and the Unions
I am among the few colored men who have tried conscientiously to bring about understanding and co-operation between American Negroes and the Labor Unions. I have sought to look upon the Sons of Freedom as simply a part of the great mass of the earth’s Disinherited, and to realize that the world movements which have lifted the lowly in the past are opening the gates of opportunity to them today are now of equal value for all men, white and black, then and now.
I carry on the title page, for instance, of this magazine the Union label, and yet I know, and everyone of my Negro readers knows, that the very fact that this label is there is an advertisement that no Negro’s hand is engaged in the printing of this magazine, since the International Typographical Union systematically and deliberately excludes every Negro that it dares from membership, not matter what his qualifications.
Even here, however, and beyond the hurt of mine own, I have always striven to recognize the real cogency of the Union argument. Collective bargaining has, undoubtedly, raised modern labor from something like chattel slavery to the threshold of industrial freedom, and in this advance of labor white and black have shared.
I have tried, therefore, to see a vision of vast union between the laboring forces, particularly in the South, and hoped for no distant day when the black laborer and the white laborer, instead of being used against each other as helpless pawns, should unite to bring real democracy in the South.
On the other hand, the whole scheme of settling the Negro problem, inaugurated by the philanthropists and carried out during the last twenty years, has been based upon the idea of paying off black workers against white. That it is essentially a mischievous and dangerous program no sane thinker can deny, but is peculiarly disheartening to realize that it is the Labor Unions themselves that have given this movement its greatest impulse and that today, at last, in East St. Louis have brought the most unwilling of us to acknowledge that in the present Union movement, as represented by the American Federation of Labor, there is absolutely no hope of justice for an American of Negro descent.
Personally, I have come to this decision reluctantly and in the past have written and spoken little of the closed door of opportunity, shut impudently in the faces of black men by organized white workingmen. I realize that by heredity and century-long lack of opportunity one cannot expect in the laborer that larger sense of justice and duty which we ought to demand of the privileged classes. I have, therefore, inveighed against color discrimination by employers and by the rich and well-to-do, knowing at the same time in silence that it is practically impossible for any colored man or woman to become a boiler maker or book binder, an electrical worker or glass maker, a worker in jewelry or leather, a machinist or metal polisher, a paper maker or piano builder, a plumber or a potter, a printer or a pressman, a telegrapher or a railway trackman, an electrotyper or stove mounter, a textile worker or tile layer, a trunk maker, upholster, carpenter, locomotive engineer, switchman, stone cutter, baker, blacksmith, booth and shoemaker, tailor, or any of a dozen other important well-paid employments, without encountering the open determination and unscrupulous opposition of the whole united labor movement of America. That further than this, if he should want to become a painter, mason, carpenter, plasterer, brickmaster or fireman he would be subject to humiliating discriminations by his fellow Union workers and be deprived of their own Union laws. If, braving this outrageous attitude of the Unions, he succeeds in some small establishment or at some exceptional time at gaining employment, he must be labeled as a “scab” throughout the length and breadth of the land and written down as one who, for his selfish advantage, seeks to overthrow the labor uplift of a century.
At the National Archives and Records Administration, James Gilbert Cassedy provides an overview of research materials and records on African Americans and the American labor movement
The formation of American trade unions increased during the early Reconstruction period. Black and white workers shared a heightened interest in trade union organization, but because trade unions organized by white workers generally excluded blacks, black workers began to organize on their own. In December 1869, 214 delegates attended the Colored National Labor Union convention in Washington, D.C. This union was a counterpart to the white National Labor Union. The assembly sent a petition to Congress requesting direct intervention in the alleviation of the "condition of the colored workers of the southern States" by subdividing the public lands of the South into forty-acre farms and providing low-interest loans to black farmers. In January 1871, the Colored National Labor Convention again petitioned Congress, sending a "Memorial of the Committee of the National Labor Convention for Appointment of a Commission to Inquire into Conditions of Affairs in the Southern States."
More examples can be found in this rundown of racism in the labor movement
The 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. DuBois 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." 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.
An important book which gives a narrative perspective on this history is
Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism, and the Freedom Struggle
Michael Keith Honey.
The labor of black workers has been crucial to economic development in the United States. Yet because of racism and segregation, their contribution remains largely unknown. Spanning the 1930s to the present, Black Workers Remember tells the hidden history of African American workers in their own words. It provides striking firsthand accounts of the experiences of black southerners living under segregation in Memphis, Tennessee. Eloquent and personal, these oral histories comprise a unique primary source and provide a new way of understanding the black labor experience during the industrial era. Together, the stories demonstrate how black workers resisted racial apartheid in American industry and underscore the active role of black working people in history.
The individual stories are arranged thematically in chapters on labor organizing, Jim Crow in the workplace, police brutality, white union racism, and civil rights struggles. Taken together, the stories ask us to rethink the conventional understanding of the civil rights movement as one led by young people and preachers in the 1950s and 1960s. Instead, we see the freedom struggle as the product of generations of people, including workers who organized unions, resisted Jim Crow at work, and built up their families, churches, and communities. The collection also reveals the devastating impact that a globalizing capitalist economy has had on black communities and the importance of organizing the labor movement as an antidote to poverty. Michael Honey gathered these oral histories for more than fifteen years. He weaves them together here into a rich collection reflecting many tragic dimensions of America's racial history while drawing new attention to the role of workers and poor people in African American and American history.
Memphis Sanitation Strikers
carried "I AM A MAN" posters
Jacqueline Jones wrote a detailed review of the book
for The American Prospect
It is one of the great ironies of American labor history that enslaved workers toiled at a wider variety of skilled tasks than did their descendants who were free. Slave owners had an economic incentive to exploit the multifaceted talents of blacks in the craft shop as well as in the kitchen and field. But after emancipation, whites attempted to limit blacks to menial jobs. Throughout the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, blacks as a group were barred from machine work within the industrial sector, and from white-collar clerical and service work. "Modernization" wore a white face.
The interviews contained in this volume shine a harsh light on the nuts-and-bolts scaffolding of American workplace apartheid. Eyewitness testimony reveals not only the political economy that undergirded racial segregation on the job, but also the wide range of tactics on the part of African-American labor organizers who resisted it. Focusing on the city of Memphis, Tennessee, editor Michael Honey has assembled a story told through more than two dozen voices, a story about African-American men and women workers who literally risked their lives on the shop floor, day in and day out, trying to provide for their families.
She points out some of the harsh truths revealed by the interviews:
Readers who pick up Black Workers Remember hoping to find evidence of interracial solidarity on the job will be sorely disappointed. There are no white heroes in this book. White men came to work each day prepared to do physical battle with black men, and took their fight outside the workplace if they felt they had to. White women tended to be less physical but just as mean in their behavior toward black women. Toward black men, they could level accusations (of rape, lewdness) that were downright deadly.
During the 65-day strike of municipal sanitation workers in 1968, black workers wedded union activism with civil rights protests in an effort to defy the "plantation mentality" of Mayor Henry Loeb, one of the worst of Memphis's racist, anti-union employers. (In the city as a whole, nearly six out of 10 black people lived below the poverty line.) It was only with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4 that public opinion finally pressured Loeb to recognize American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1733.
Black radical activists embraced class struggle. They combined it with an ideology that grew out of the black power movement and pushed towards revolutionary nationalism. The U.S. auto industry became the eye of the storm. This was chronicled in Detroit: I Do Mind Dying—A Study in Urban Revolution
Since its publication in 1975, this book has been widely recognized as one of the most important on the black liberation movement and labor struggle in the United States. Detroit: I Do Mind Dying tells the remarkable story of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, based in Detroit, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, two of the most important political organizations of the 1960s and 1970s. The new South End Press edition makes available the full text of this out-of-print classic -- along with a new foreword by Manning Marable, interviews with participants in the League, and reflections on political developments over the past three decades by Georgakas and Surkin.The new edition includes commentary by Detroit activists Sheila Murphy Cockrel, Edna Ewell Watson, Michael Hamlin, and Herb Boyd. All of them reflect not only on the tremendous achievements of DRUM and the League, but on their political legacy -- for Detroit, for U.S. politics, and for them personally.
In the foreword
, Manning Marable
By 1968, more than 2.5 million African-Americans belonged to the AFL-CIO. Yet the vast majority of black workers were marginalized and alienated from labor's predominantly white conservative leadership. In 1967, black militant workers at Ford Motor Company's automobile plant in Mahwah, New Jersey, initiated the United Black Brothers. In 1968, African-American steelworkers in Maryland established the Shipyard Workers for Job Equality to oppose the discriminatory policies and practices of both their union and management. Similar black workers' groups, both inside and outside trade unions, began to develop throughout the country. The more moderate liberal to progressive tendency of this upsurgence of black workers was expressed organizationally in 1972 with the establishment of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.
A much more radical current of black working-class activism developed in Detroit. Only weeks following King's assassination, black workers at the Detroit Dodge Main plant of Chrysler Corporation staged a wildcat strike, protesting oppressive working conditions they called "niggermation." The most militant workers established DRUM, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement. DRUM soon inspired the initiation of other independent black workers' groups in metro Detroit, such as FRUM, at Ford's massive River Rouge plant, and ELRUM, at Chrysler's Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle plant. Other RUMs were developed in other cities, from the steel-mills of Birmingham to the automobile plants of Fremont, California, and Baltimore, Maryland. The Detroit-based RUMs coalesced in the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, which espoused a Marxian analysis of black working people's conditions, calling for a socialist revolution against the oppression of corporate capitalism.
Similar unity movements were formed in other industries. Most notable was health care, with the formation of HRUM
(Health Revolutionary Unity Movement) in New York City. This would have a ripple effect on SEIU and 1199. Many of the organizers currently working for SEIU were forged in the struggles from that time period and were members of HRUM, the Black Panther Party, and the Young Lords Party.
Black communities and other communities of color across the nation are clearly at the bottom of the economic totem pole in the U.S., and embrace unions as a vehicle for economic justice in the workplace. Still, there remains the residual echo of distrust when politicians speak out about economic inequality.
Some of these issues were explored in a post I wrote four years ago:
I've come to believe that this "fuzzy middle" myth that has no real meaning in relationship to power hierarchies or dynamics is probably one of our greatest obstacles against working for meaningful change and redistribution of wealth. In the context of social stratification here in the United States, the categories of upper, middle and lower class are devoid of links to actual labor but seem to only reflect consumerist ideals. Class and status have become muddled. You are what you consume or drive.
To make matters more difficult, "race" has deeply embedded class connotations that are almost caste-like. So when the term "worker" is used along with code like "blue collar" to describe a sector of the population we almost automatically visualize "white worker," excluding those blacks, latinos, native americans and asians who are a large part of the U.S. labor force. Whereas when we say "poor" or "welfare" images of blacks and browns come to mind. "Immigrant" is the dog whistle for Mexican or "illegal" and few think of agricultural workers as foundational to our survival. A far cry from the days when we on the left supported the organizing struggles of the United Farm Workers.
Politicians from both parties invoke "Main Street" daily in an appeal to voters from this fuzzy middle. Only since the revolt in Wisconsin have we begun anew to frequently employ rhetoric invoking and defending the rights of "workers" to organize and protect their labor.
Working class does not mean "white." The labor movement and associated struggles for economic equality should be inclusive of people of all colors, and also encompass women.
We need more alliance and coalition-building across class, racial, and gender lines. Back in March, we saw a demonstration of this in Wisconsin:
Activists took to the streets by the thousands in Madison, Wisconsin on Wednesday with a long list of grievances — ranging from the police killing of unarmed 19-year-old Tony Robinson to the impending multi-million dollar cut to the state’s universities, which they say will “devastate Wisconsin for generations to come.”
Those organizing the action told ThinkProgress that Wisconsin’s legal assault on workers and physical assault on its residents of color are two sides of the same coin. “The purpose of this march and this movement is connect the dots between the different forms of injustice and how it all leads back to state violence,” said Brandi Grayson with the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition. “Stripping resources from our local communities is state violence. Cutting hundreds of millions from the UW is state violence. The non-taxation of corporations and the over-taxation of the poor and middle class is state violence.”
Wisconsin already had the some of the worst racial disparities in the country when Gov. Scott Walker took office, but those demonstrating say he has made the situation much worse. Soon after taking office, he defunded a program that tracked the race of people stopped by police, even though black residents of Madison’s Dane County were found to be more than 97 times more likely to go to jail for a drug crime than a white resident. Now, the Governor’s new budget proposes an $8 million jail expansion in Dane County, at the same time many social services are being eliminated.
The Journey for Justice
march, now taking place and due to arrive in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 15, is focusing on "the right of every American to a fair criminal justice system, uncorrupted and unfettered access to the ballot box, sustainable jobs with a living wage, and equitable public education." It is supported by a broad cross-section of partners
, including unions.
So on this Labor Day weekend, let us work toward building stronger alliances between and among groups and movements who should be natural allies in the cause of racial and economic justice, and move forward together.
Our lives—and our futures—depend on it.