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Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality. (Reviews).

Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality. By Eric Arnesen (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. 332 PP. $42.00/cloth $18.95/paper).

Eric Arnesen has staked our an important and subtle position for himself in recent debates on African Americans and the American trade union movement. White workers informally and through their unions have relentlessly blocked employment opportunities for blacks. Legal challenges and civil rights protest and legislation remain the only recourse toward overcoming discrimination and achieving occupational advancement. That is one polar side to the argument. The other spotlights a different history, namely, of remarkable moments of interracial labor solidarity and the economic gains made by black workers through trade unionism. The role of radical labor organizers in forcing outreach and the enrollment of black workers in union struggles is pinpointed and honored in this perspective. Arnesen, a consummate archival researcher, has no truck with generalizations. Union maintenance of racially segmented job markets prevails, but the cases of cooperation between white and black workers cannot be dismissed. Racism, it self, is not a fixed phenomenon and the record of legal and legislative acts is mixed. Most important, Arnesen draws attention to ongoing efforts of black workers to organize themselves either independently or in segregated locals of established unions. His balanced approach, which affords agency to working-class African Americans, is fully on display in his latest book, a study of black railroad workers in the twentieth century.

The railroads offered significant employment opportunities for blacks. After the Civil War, African Americans comprised a sizable proportion of the work force of firemen and brakemen on southern railroads, and they fully occupied service positions on dining and sleeping cars as well as in baggage handling. Progress came slower in the North and West. There, blacks gained entrance to jobs in construction, the freight yards and maintenance-of-the-way only in the first decades of the twentieth century (at earlier dates, they were hired as porters, car attendants and redcaps). In all instances, however, job horizons remained circumscribed. Until the 1960s, the ranks of locomotive engineers, conductors, and office and managerial staff were off limits to blacks.

The craft brotherhoods of railway men, founded in the last decades of the nineteenth century with only-white membership clauses in their constitutions, enforced the racially segmented order of railroad work. The brotherhoods did not allow for segregated locals (as was common in unions of longshoremen, miners, and other workers). They challenged management's right to establish seniority systems for black workers, further calling for literacy and licensing tests to limit their employment. They also did little to suppress wildcat strikes of white firemen and others who aggressively sought total bans on black hires.

In the face of white worker resistance and management collaboration, black railroad workers organized. Arnesen documents the formation of the Railway Men's International Benevolent Industrial Association in 1915, a fraternal group that enrolled more than 15,000 members across occupational lines. Refused a charter by the American Federation of Labor, the order would eventually disintegrate, but not before blazing a trail for future organizational efforts. During World War I, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People helped form the Colored Association of Railroad Employees to protest decisions by the United States Railroad Administration that favored white workers. Tight labor markets and government rulings helped improve working conditions for black railroad workers during the war years, yet the USRA bowed to threats of strikes by whites by agreeing to the elimination of dual seniority systems and other measures curbing employment for blacks.

Setbacks did not deter African American railroad workers. Arnesen details the familiar story of the emergence of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, under the leadership of A. Phillip Randolph, and the more than ten-year organizing drive that resulted in its chartering in the AFL in 1935 as the federation's first black union and the signing of a contract with the Pullman Company in 1937. Arnesen also tells less well-known stories of labor mobilization. The 1930s witnessed a mushrooming of activism among black railroad workers, in response to hard times but also to political rulings and dissatisfaction with A. Phillip Randolph. The 1934 amended Railway Labor Act, for example, provided that grievance complaints could only be brought to adjustment boards by established craft unions, effectively leaving African American railway men outside the industry's arbitration system. Randolph's advocacy for working within the established trade union movement-the AFL, in effect-bred dissension especially among a new ge neration of black organizers, some drawn to the militancy of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, others active Communists. Events thus spurred organization. Arnesen retrieves the histories of such 1930s initiatives as the Colored Trainmen of America, the Association of Colored Railway Trainmen and Locomotive Firemen, the International Association of Railway Employees, and the Brotherhood of Dining Car Cooks and Waiters. Joining Randolph on the scene, Arnesen introduces other talented leaders such as Robert L. Mays, Rienzi B. Lemus, Ishmael Flory, and Solon Bell (the interesting life histories of these men adds a personal dimension to Arnesen's institutional narrative). The flurry of activity led to mobilization of car attendants not employed directly by the Pullman Company (represented by the BSCP) and redcaps, plus the establishment of joint councils to handle jurisdictional disputes.

Independent black unionism still did not dent the discriminatory hold of the white brotherhoods. Falling employment in the industry left matters worse. A sea change of sorts occurred with critical Supreme Court decisions in 1944. The court ruled that the Railroad Labor Act imposed a "duty of fair representation on exclusive bargaining agents. The railroad brotherhoods had to protect the interests of members of their craft, white or black, member or not. The cases, however, did not challenge the right of the brotherhoods as private organizations to determine their membership. The decisions also left the independent units created by African American railroad workers without bargaining authority. Blacks would gain some protections under brotherhood contracts, but still without voice, a legal respite soundly critiqued by Arnesen. True change would occur in a step-by-step fashion in the 1950s and 1960s as railroad companies began hiring and promoting African American workers to positions never held before; the doo rs to membership in the brotherhoods finally opened with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Arnesen ends his study on a positive chord, noting the accomplishments of black trade unionists in recent decades and the historic role played by black working-class organization in challenging the entrenched discriminatory order of the railroad trade. In reconstructing the history of independent union efforts of African American railroad workers, Arnesen has made an important contribution to scholarship. Since the literature on twentieth century railroad labor writ large is so thin, Arnesen's book also serves as a welcome general text.

Arnesen's study has its limitations. The author provides a traditional institutional labor history, but the social lives of African American railway men--in their homes and communities, even at work and their union lodges--is minimally treated. The book is dense with detail and hard to follow at times. Arnesen's positive conclusions are open to question; the intransigence of white racism marks his narrative. Yet, his balanced approach is ultimately persuasive. His book is a welcome antidote to the highly generalized treatments of race that currently pervade American labor historiography.
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Author:Licht, Walter
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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