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National Negro Labor Council

National Negro Labor Council


The National Negro Labor Council (NNLC) was established in 1951 to promote the cause of African-American workers. Although beleaguered and ultimately extinguished by the repressive political environment of the 1950s, the organization contested economic discrimination in a variety of settings and thus helped to keep alive the battle for civil rights in the realm of labor.

During the New Deal and World War II, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), along with such allies as the National Negro Congress, the March on Washington Movement, and at times, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, had done much to transform organized labor from a bastion of Jim Crow into a leading agent of civil rights struggle. Mass campaigns for racial equality at work and in unions, together with the wartime mobilization, advanced the position of African Americans in the workplace and spawned a new generation of black union leadership. After the war, however, the outlook for black workers turned increasingly dismal. Peacetime reconversion, spreading mechanization, and a hardening of workplace discrimination conspired to squeeze large numbers of African Americans out of industry, even as thousands of displaced black farmers were moving from the rural South into the industrial North. Meanwhile, the conservative climate of the emerging cold war era dampened the CIO's commitment to civil rights organizing; indeed, the expulsion from its ranks of communist-oriented unions in the late 1940s banished significant strongholds of black membership, along with many of the CIO's most energetic exponents of racial justice.

In June 1950 over nine hundred labor activists, predominantly black, gathered in Chicago at a National Labor Conference for Negro Rights. During the following year twenty-three Negro Labor Councils (NLCs) were established in key industrial centers around the country. In October 1951 representatives from these councils met in Cincinnati to form the National Negro Labor Council. In a founding Statement of Principles, the NNLC pledged to "work unitedly with the trade unions to bring about greater cooperation between all sections of the Negro people and the trade union movement." While it focused on equal economic opportunity, the NNLC advocated all measures essential to "full citizenship," including an end to police brutality and mob violence, the right to vote and hold public office, and the abolition of segregation in housing and in other public facilities.

The NNLC drew much of its leadership and active followers either from the unions recently expelled from the CIOincluding the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers; the International Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers; the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers; the National Union of Marine Cooks and Stewards; the International Fur and Leather Workers; and the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Unionor from the left-wing bastions of mainstream unions, such as the United Packinghouse Workers, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and the United Auto Workers. (Detroit's vast UAW Local 600, a center of militant black leadership, made up a particularly vital base of

the support). In cities such as San Francisco, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and Louisville, NLCs cultivated allies within the African-American community, as well as among sympathetic whites. William R. Hood, recording secretary of UAW Local 600, served as president of the national organization. Coleman A. Young, then organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers in Detroit, served as executive secretary. World-renowned singer, actor, and civil rights leader Paul Robeson was an active supporter.

Over the first half of the 1950s, the NNLC initiated or rallied behind a series of public campaigns around the country. Local NLCs confronted racial barriers to hiring or advancement at a number of enterprises, including the Ford Motor Company, the Statler and Sherry Netherland hotels (New York), Sears-Roebuck (Cleveland, San Francisco), General Electric (Louisville), the U.S. Bureau of Engraving (Washington, D.C.), the Detroit Tigers, Drexel National Bank (Chicago), and American Airlines. Through petitions and write-in drives, picket lines and local publications, visiting committees and job-training programs, the NNLC helped to open up employment for African-American men and women as streetcar motormen and conductors, hotel workers, truck drivers, clerks and salespeople, and bank officials, and in previously unobtainable levels of skilled industrial work. The NNLC called on unions to demand the inclusion of a model "Fair Employment Practices" clause in labor contracts and to bring African Americans into leadership positions. The NNLC also mobilized support for strikes in which black workers figured prominently, including those at International Harvester in Chicago (1952) and among sugarcane workers in Louisiana (1953).

The NNLC encountered a formidable array of obstacles. Employers remained widely resistant to the call for nonracial hiring; the airline industry, for example, continued to deny blacks access to skilled jobs, as did virtually all employers around the South targeted by the NNLC. Most of the labor establishment, for its part, turned a cold shoulder to the NNLC. CIO leaders such as Walter Reuther and James B. Carey regularly condemned it as an agent of communism, while many AFL unions remained openly opposed to organizing black workers on an equal basis, if at all. Much of the African-American community remained aloof from the NNLC, or openly condemned it, because of its "communist" associations. The NAACP and the National Urban League were particularly vocal in their denunciations. Finally, government repression took its toll. The NNLC was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and Subversive Activities Control Board to answer charges that it was a "Communist-Front organization." In 1956, faced with insurmountable legal expenses, the NNLC leadership voted to disband the organization.

Historical assessments of the NNLC have diverged sharply, reflecting, often extending, the heated debates of contemporaries. Anticommunist scholars have tended flatly to characterize it as a "front" organization, a creation of the Communist Party lacking authentic roots in the black community (Record, 1964). Historians sympathetic to the Communist Party, on the other hand, have stressed the self-directed enterprise of black labor activists as the driving force behind the NNLC and de-emphasized the role of the party (Foner, 1974). In the 1980s and early 1990s historians began to paint a more nuanced and varied picture of the relationship between African-American workers and the Communist Party (Korstad and Lichtenstein, 1988; Kelley, 1990). But many of the campaigns in which the NNLC played a role still await in-depth scholarly attention. Such research is likely to bring to light an organization closely linked but not reducible to the Communist Partyan expression at once of the party's rhetorical and tactical approach and of the genuine initiative of black workers, both in and out of the party.

However portrayed, the NNLC left a mixed legacy. Its influence and impact, although in some instances dramatic, were ultimately limited, and racial discrimination at the workplace and in unions remained pervasive at the time of its demise. A new civil rights movement was then in the making, but its center of gravity would materialize in the black church and independent protest organizations.

See also Labor and Labor Unions

Bibliography

Foner, Philip S. "The National Negro Labor Council, 19511955." In Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 16191973. New York: Praeger, 1974, pp. 293311.

Kelley, Robin D. G. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Korstad, Robert, and Nelson Lichtenstein. "Opportunities Found and Lost: Labor, Radicals, and the Early Civil Rights Movement." Journal of American History 75 (1988): 786811.

Record, Wilson. "Since 1950." In Race and Radicalism: The NAACP and the Communist Party in Conflict. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1964, pp. 169221.

Thomas, Richard. "Blacks and the CIO." In Working for Democracy: American Workers from the Revolution to the Present, edited by Paul Buhle and Alan Dawley, pp. 93100. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985.

Thompson, Mindy. The National Negro Labor Council: A History. New York: AIMS Press, 1978.

daniel letwin (1996)

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