Labor and Labor Unions

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Labor and Labor Unions

African-American workers' relationship to the organized labor movement has undergone tremendous, if uneven, shifts since the Civil War. Concentrated in southern agriculture or in unskilled occupations before World War I, most black workers simply did not compete directly with whites in the economic sphere. Trade unions were dominated by white workers, whose skills and racial solidarity often enabled them to bar blacks from membership in their associations and employment in certain sectors of the economy. By World War I, however, the efforts of an evergrowing number of urban industrial black workers to advance economically undermined the success of white labor's exclusionary strategy. With the triumph of industrial unionism represented by the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations during the Great Depression of the 1930s, an important branch of the labor movement committed itself to interracial organizing. The modern American labor movement has both reflected and contributed to the nation's changing race relations. While never free of racial tensions or inequality, and while possessing a wide range of unions with different racial policies, practices, and degrees of commitment to racial equality, the labor movement has served as one more arena of black workers' larger struggle for racial equality in the economy.


In the aftermath of the Civil War, the overwhelming number of black workers made their living in southern agriculture as landless sharecroppers and tenant farmers, concentrated at the bottom of the South's economic hierarchy where they exercised little political or economic power. Black agricultural workers launched periodic collective challenges to white planters' authority in the political realm during Reconstruction and the Populist Era in the late 1880s and early 1890s, and in the economic arena in the form of strikes by rural Knights of Labor in the mid-1880s and by various sharecroppers' movements in the 1930s. But their movements and uprisings were quickly crushed. The 1887 strike by some 10,000 Knights of Labor (most of whom were black) working in the Louisiana sugar fields met with fierce state repression, as did the efforts of the black Alabama Share Croppers' Union in the 1930s. Trade unions and other movements found the rural South infertile soil in which to take root and flourish, for many reasons, including the South's racial ideology, black workers' economic weakness arising from their landlessness, the power of the planter class, the commitment of the state to repressing rural labor, and the organized labor movement's lack of interest in agricultural and black workers. The most successful black response to economic and political oppression was short-range mobility within the South and ultimately migration out of the South. Engaged overwhelmingly in rural southern agriculture at the end of the Civil War, African Americans had, by the late twentieth century, become a largely urban people, engaged in manufacturing, transportation, and service trades in the North, South, and West.

Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Trade Unions

Before and after the Civil War, trade unions of white workers in the North and South viewed skilled and unskilled urban black workers as a threat to their own economic security. Skill, independence, manliness, and a sense of racial superiority defined the contours of these skilled whites' beliefs. In white workers' thinking, black workers (slave or free) might demean a craft by working more cheaply and without regard to union work rules or customs. Accordingly, whites excluded blacks from membership in their organizations, denied blacks access to apprenticeship programs, and occasionally resorted to force to drive blacks out of employment. Immediately after the Civil War, a new, loosely organized, and short-lived national federation of white trade unions, the National Labor Union (18661872), eventually admitted black delegates representing black workers to its conventions but went no further. At the same time, most of its constituent members barred blacks from their unions, urging them to organize separately into their own unions. While white workers excluded blacks from white associations, their acceptance, sometimes reluctant, sometimes not, of all-black associations was as far as most white union members were willing to go. The alternative, which was more widely practiced, was white exclusion, nonrecognition, and outright hostility toward blacks. Until the 1930s, exclusion and biracial unionism represented the white labor movement's two dominant tendencies toward African Americans.

In response to their exclusion from white organizations, black workers built upon their communities' larger institutional networks to create all-black unions that championed their members' class and racial interests. Black labor leader Isaac Myers, a Baltimore ship caulker, was a founder of another short-lived association in 1869, the black National Labor Union, which brought together representatives of newly formed black unions, community leaders, and black political (Republican) officials. More enduring, if less recognized, were the dozens of smaller associations that emerged during and after Reconstruction in such southern urban centers as Richmond, Galveston, New Orleans, Mobile, and Savannah.

During the 1880s, the Knights of Labor emerged from obscurity to become the nation's most powerful labor federation. The Knights' ideology was cooperative, inclusive, and egalitarian. The organization embraced all wage earners across lines of skill, gender, religion, ethnicity, and race (with the exception of Asian immigrants). Although there are no precise figures, one contemporary estimated that blacks constituted about 10 percent (roughly 60,000) of the Knights' membership in 1886. Yet the formation of Knights' locals largely followed strict racial lines. The Order, particularly in the South, absorbed already existing black and white locals, and new locals formed along racially distinct lines. This biracial character did not prevent black and white delegates from meeting together or formulating joint strategies, but it did perpetuate existing differences and made expressions of solidarity more difficult. By 1886, the Knights' racial policies came under fierce attack from conservative southern editors, politicians, and employers as well as some white Knights. Playing upon white workers' racial fears, employers "race-baited" the Order, which, for many reasons, went into decline in the late 1880s.

The American Federation of Labor (founded in 1881) succeeded the Knights as the nation's dominant labor organization by the early 1890s. In contrast to the inclusiveness of the Knights, the social bases of the AFL rested on white craft workers who sought to protect their skills and jobs from all newcomers. Craft unions were exclusive, barring workers from membership on the basis of their lack of skills, their sex, race, and in some cases ethnicity. The AFL was formally opposed to racial discrimination in its ranks; in 1892, its New Orleans members participated in an (unsuccessful) interracial general strike on behalf of unskilled black and white workers. But by the turn of the century, AFL leaders tolerated widespread discrimination by its constituent members, explaining that the all-important principle of craft autonomywhich granted considerable power to individual unionsmade it impossible for them to intervene in member unions' internal affairs. AFL officials adhered to that principle only selectively, however, for on other issues they did sometimes intervene.

The majority of union internationals in the AFL, as well as the independent, powerful railroad brotherhoods, remained all white, and a minority of union internationals admitted blacks into segregated, second-class unions. Several large internationals defied these trends. The International Longshoremen's Association and the United Mine Workers of America, while embracing biracial unions (all-black and all-white locals), espoused somewhat more egalitarian views and policies. The existence of large numbers of black workers, many of whom were organized, compelled white trade unionists in these fields to reach accommodations with African-American workers. That is, these unions' success and very existence required a coming-togrips with racial divisions; they could little afford to exclude or ignore black workers.

During the Progressive Era, only the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) adopted a principled stand against racial discrimination. Far to the left of the AFL, the IWW advocated the formation of industrial unions (all workers in a factory, regardless of craft, would be members of the same union) and the overthrow of capitalism, championing a working-class solidarity that transcended all lines of division. While it gained adherents among black and white southern timber workers and Philadelphia longshoremen before World War I, the IWW confronted massive government and employer repression and declined rapidly during the war.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, maintaining all-white workplaces sometimes brought white workers into sharp conflict with employers and blacks. Employers used white workers' racial beliefs and practices to their own advantage by turning to black workers to break strikes or otherwise undermine union wages and work rules. Black workers, who were barred from certain sectors of employment and union membership, found strikebreaking to be one method of cracking the economic color line and securing new jobs. In this period, there were dozens of instances of small- and large-scale riots and other violence as whites in all-white unions battled black workers imported by employers to undercut union authority and power.

White workers often coexisted easily or uneasily with black workers in their trades, but upon other occasions they sought to drive blacks completely out of those jobs. For instance, the 1894 and 1895 strikes by white New Orleans dock workers and the 1909 strike by white Georgia railroad firemen each sought as its goal the elimination of black workers. During the World War I era, massive labor shortages in the North contributed to an unprecedented migration of African Americans out of the South. Securing a wide foothold in mass-production industries for the first time, black workers confronted often-hostile whites, especially during the postwar economic downturn. Competition for jobs was only one of the many causes of the race riots that exploded in 1919, and black workers suffered discrimination not only at the hands of unions but by employers as well.

Despite the AFL's racial practices and black leaders' condemnation of those practices, numerous black workers formed all-black unions and joined the federation. Generally representing unskilled workers (in such trades as long-shoring and mining), these unions were often smaller and weaker than their white counterparts. Nonetheless, they participated in the labor upheavals of the World War I era. The years 1918 and 1919, for instance, witnessed strikes by black female domestic workers and laundry workers in Mobile and Newport News, black male longshoremen in New Orleans, Galveston, Savannah, and Key West, and black (and white) coal miners in West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Alabama. These strikes failed less because of white workers' opposition (in some cases, whites and blacks struck together) than because of violent opposition by employers and government. Yet the rare union effort to bridge the racial gap in northern industry, such as the wartime drive by Chicago's multiracial and multiethnic packinghouse workers, failed not only because of the employers' hostility; in the Chicago packinghouses, racial and skill divisions proved too deep for organizers to overcome, dooming the unions' efforts.

Immediately after the war, black unionists demanded that the AFL abolish its color line and actively organize black workers. While the AFL passed lofty resolutions, the behavior of its white affiliates changed little, if at all. Although the AFL eventually did offer organizational backing to the largest all-black union in the United States, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, founded in 1925 and led by A. Philip Randolph, it did little to challenge the racism of its other railroad unions, which remained virtually lily-white until the 1960s.

African Americans, like their white native-born and immigrant counterparts, were of many minds on the subject of organized labor. Until the mid-twentieth century, most blacks worked in sectors of the economy (agriculture, domestic service, and common labor) that were not conducive to sustaining trade unions, regardless of the race of the labor force. If no one could deny the institutional racism of organized white labor, African Americans disagreed on such issues as the possibilities of positive institutional change, the relationship between black workers and white industrialists, the union movement's tactics, and the like. Conservative leader Booker T. Washington, along with many business-oriented black newspaper editors and clergymen, were extremely harsh in their evaluation of the AFL, counseling black workers to ally with the industrial leaders in the New South and in the North. Some black workers, excluded from white unions and hence certain job categories, reluctantly or enthusiastically became strikebreakers as the only way to gain access to better jobs. Other black leaders were ideologically flexible, praising organized labor when it opened its doors to blacks, condemning it when it kept those doors closed. Black proponents of black union organizing, like miner Richard L. Davis and longshoreman James Porter, worked within their respective union internationals, attempting to enlist black workers in the labor movement's ranks at the same time they sought to modify white labor's racism. Given white workers' often abusive treatment, a relative lack of skills, and economic subordination, a majority of black workers remained outside of the labor movement (as did a majority of white workers). Black workers who joined trade unions did so for many of the same reasons white workers did: to improve wages and working conditions, to eliminate or reduce abuses, to win a degree of job security and control over the conditions of their labor, and to secure a measure of dignity in their work lives. Black trade unions waged a continual struggle to carve out a place for themselves in an often reluctant labor movement dominated by whites. Until the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s, their successes were relatively few and far between.

Industrial Unionism and Unions in Modern America

The formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1935 heralded a gradual transformation in the relationship between organized labor and African-American workers. Breaking away from the AFL, CIO unions advocated industrial unionism and campaigned vigorously to organize basic industry (auto, steel, meat packing, electric, rubber). Committed to organizing all workers, regardless of skill, sex, or race, the CIO both ideologically and practically had to secure the support of black workers, whose presence in basic industry in the North had increased dramatically since the great migration of the World War I era brought hundreds of southern blacks into the northern economy. There was no single CIO perspective or practice on racial issues, for CIO unions' record on racial issues and behavior toward black workers varied by industry and region. During World War II, thousands of white workers (many of whom were themselves newcomers to industry and the labor movement) conducted unofficial, unsanctioned hate strikes against the presence or advancement of black workers in their factories, strikes that were opposed by the federal government and top union leaders. Before and after World War II, left-wing CIO unions maintained the strongest record on civil rights issues and the treatment of black members. Influenced by communist leaders and an active black rank and file, the United Packinghouse Workers, the Farm Equipment Workers, the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers, the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, and, by the 1950s and 1960s, the Hospital Workers Union stood at the forefront of those in the labor movement advancing a civil rights agenda. The more centrist United Automobile Workers Union, especially in Detroit, worked in close alliance with black political leaders in the 1940s.

Since 1950, the labor movement's record on issues of black equality has remained checkered. Participating in the anticommunism of the postWorld War II era, the CIO purged its left wing, firing communist organizers and expelling unions most active in the struggle for racial equality. The CIO's failed Operation Dixie in 1946 and 1947 left organized labor far weaker and economic segregation far stronger in the South. The merger of the AFL and the CIO in 1955 sealed the labor movement's primary organizational fault line, but on terms that left substantively untouched much of the racial conservatism of the AFL craft unions. Over the next several decades, black trade unionists founded a number of all-black organizations as well as caucuses within various international unions (affecting unions in steel, the garment trade, the postal service, and education), all of which aimed at advancing African Americans' civil rights by pressuring AFLCIO officials and employers alike. Since the 1960s, many white AFL unions have continued to discriminate against blacks and have opposed affirmative action strongly, and, in the 1980s, many white unionists participated in the "white backlash" and defected from the Democratic party, becoming "Reagan Democrats" who voted Republican in presidential elections. Yet the united AFL-CIO did create a civil rights department, and some union internationals and locals contributed money and organizers to the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s. The percentage of blacks in the AFL-CIO continued to rise, reaching roughly 10 percent of the federation's declining membership by 1970. African Americans in unionized jobs earned about 25 percent more than blacks in nonunionized jobs by 1979. By the 1990s, unions containing a large African-American membership include the United Auto Workers, the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, and the Hospital Workers Local 1199. During the 1980s, unions with large numbers of black members were active in supporting South Africa's anti-apartheid movement and in lobbying for progressive legislation in health care; a number of unions endorsed Jesse Jackson's 1988 bid for the presidency.

The late 1990s brought union scandals and controversy. In December 1998 Stanley Hill was pressured by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to take a leave of absence from his longtime position as the executive director of District Council 17. The Manhattan District Attorney was investigating allegations of embezzlement, kickbacks, and vote fraud in District Council 17. Hill announced his retirement eleven weeks later on February 17, 1999. Two of Hill's top aides resigned in December 1998 after admitting that they had taken part in the vote fraud. Although he repeatedly denied any knowledge of the vote rigging, he felt some responsibility for it since some of his key people were involved.

Since the 1960s, deindustrialization and capital flight, the expansion of dead-end and poorly paid jobs in the new "service" economy, an increasingly hostile political environment, and the revival of strong anti-union sentiment in the business community have contributed to the steady and dramatic decline of organized labor. Fighting an uphill battle for its own survival, the labor movement has devoted relatively little attention to making inroads in the economy's fast-growing, low-wage, unskilled sector, which is increasingly dominated by black and other non-white workers. Because of its weakness, its narrow vision,

and its adherence to traditional strategies centered primarily on member needs, the labor movement has contributed little to addressing the larger issues of economic decline and postindustrial poverty, which have had tremendously negative effects on the African-American urban working class.

The decline in U.S. manufacturing and the continued outsourcing and offshoring of U.S. jobs to foreign countries has hurt all workers, although at 10.5 percent (as of January 2004), black unemployment is more than twice that of whites. According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, 20.1 percent of wage and salary workers were union workers in 1983; by 2004 that figure was 12.5 percent, though 15.1 percent of overall membership was African American. In 2005 the Detroit-based International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Washington, D.C.based Service Employees International Union (SEIU) broke away from the AFL-CIO, which comprises some sixty unions. This marked the biggest split among the labor organization's 13 million members since its founding in 1955, although the union of Carpenters and Joiners International and its 300,000 members broke away in 2000. The two dissident unions, representing 3.2 million workers, cited declining U.S. union membership and the future direction of organized labor for their decision. Calling themselves the Change to Win Coalitionwhich also include the Laborers International of North America; the textile, garment, and hotel employees union UNITE HERE; the United Food and Commercial Workers; and the United Farm Workersthe dissident unions prefer a greater focus on organizing workers and merging smaller unions into larger ones, believing that the AFL-CIO devotes too much of its resources to centralization and political lobbying. The coalition represents mostly lower-wage workers in service industries, which now comprise 76 percent of the job market.

See also Black Power Movement; Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Communist Party of the United States; Economic Condition, U.S.; League of Revolutionary Black Workers; National Negro Labor Council; Negro American Labor Council; Politics in the United States; Randolph, Asa Philip; Riots and Popular Protests; Urban Poverty in the Caribbean


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