The Challenge of Interracial Unionism: Alabama Coal Miners, 1878-1921.
Thirty years ago, labor historian Herbert Gutman wrote an essay on the career of Richard L. Davis, a black coal miner and leader in the United Mine Workers of America. Focusing on Davis's letters to the United Mine Workers Journal and the National Labor Tribune, Gutman outlined a new agenda for U.S. Labor and working class history. Among other suggestions, Gutman urged labor historians to uncover forgotten moments of interracial solidarity and unionism during the age of Booker T. Washington. Following Gutman's lead, several studies soon took up this theme in two overlapping waves of scholarship, with the early 1980s serving as a rough watershed. Whereas the first wave of scholarship posed a "class over race" perspective, recent studies adumbrate the complex intertwining of "race and class" consciousness. based upon extensive archival research, The Challenge of Interfacial Unionism explores the development of interracial unionism in the Birmingham district of Alabama and rejects scholarly inquiries into "relations between black and white workers as either harmonious or antagonistic" (p. 6). As such, Daniel Letwin reinforces the second wave of late-20th-century scholarship on U.S. labor and working class history.
Letwin situates his study within the larger context of the South's "colonial" relationship to northern capital. He emphasizes the dramatic but uneven growth of the district's coal industry as key to the development of bi-racial unionism. While the industry experienced dim prospects during the 1870s and 1890s, it dramatically expanded during the 1880s and early 1900s. Letwin shows how each boom period signaled the emergence of a new spurt of interracial organizing. In relatively rapid succession, coal miners rallied around the Greenback Labor Party (LP), the Knights of Labor (K of L), and finally the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).
The Challenge of Interracial Unionism not only shows how each organization advanced the cause of working class solidarity in the south, but how they also mirrored certain differences at the national level. While the GLP emphasized electoral politics, the Knights of Labor organized around issues of wages and terms of work. Still, the Knights avoided the rhetoric of class struggle, eschewed the use of strikes, and urged workers to form "co-operative" institutions, eliminate the "wages system," and "restore equality and harmony to the relations between labor and employers" (p. 68). Thus, as Letwin shows, in workplace struggles, the Knights's leadership tried to control "actions, especially strikes, that it deemed excessively militant" (p. 67). Rank and file miners also challenged the leadership of the UMWA and demonstrated the limits of international efforts to channel decision-making from the top down.
Although rank and file actions hampered international control in the Birmingham district, Letwin argues that a variety of factors reinforced working class unity across the color line. From the outset, Alabama coal miners became part of a multi-racial labor force. They did not enter a labor force dominated by a pre-existing ethnic or racial group. Their ranks included southern born rural whites; blacks; white migrants from the northern coal fields; and immigrants from south, central, and eastern Europe. Moreover, miners shared a common class identity based upon the exploitive practices of the coal mine companies. Some of the coal towns were literally company-owned operations. Industrialists owned the land, minerals, houses, stores, churches, and other facilities serving coal miners, their families, and their communities.
In company and non-company towns alike, mine owners developed a plethora of mechanisms for undercutting the miners' autonomy. While some owners gradually adopted the tenets of welfare capitalism and gave substantial attention to miners' housing, health, and leisure activities, most relied on the subcontract system; arbitrary firings and layoffs; and convict labor to drive down the wages of all workers. Conversely, coal miners responded to these conditions by developing high rates of absenteeism; moving back and forth between farm and industry; and participating in vigorous cycles of labor organizing. Convict laborers also resisted by escaping; refusing to work; and crafting their own leisure time and mutual aid activities, sometimes including pooling their resources to aid families whom they had left behind.
Working class solidarity was by no means unproblematic. In substantial detail, Letwin documents the persistence of deep racial divisions within the labor force. The Greenback Labor Party, the Knights of Labor, and the United Mine Workers of America, all sanctioned the development of racially segregated constituent bodies. In each case, the labor press often printed derogatory racial stereotypes of black workers. Moreover, according to Letwin, racial unity virtually disappeared in the larger community life of the Birmingham district.
Yet, Letwin's interpretation of working class racism is perhaps the most problematic component of this important study. In his view, the miners' capitulation to racial divisions shielded their movement from the destructive power of the Jim Crow system. As such, he hopes to debunk the notion that miners' unity "foundered on the shoals of racism." On the contrary, however, Letwin's own evidence suggest that the racial divide repeatedly hampered the project of working class unity. Black workers not only faced the rhetoric of racial separation. They also experienced its material consequences in unequal wage scales; assignment of work places; and in their status as the vast majority of the hated convict lease labor force. Moreover, although Letwin repeatedly emphasized how miners failed to make racial composition of the work force "a source of conflict" or a miners' grievance (p. 73), strike-breaking nonetheless became more racialized and predominantly black over time.
While scholars will take issue with Letwin's conclusions on the role of white supremacist ideas and social practices, they will also acknowledge his substantial contributions to a fuller understanding of the dynamics of interfacial unionism. Focusing on the transition from the GLP to the K of L, and finally to the UMWA, The Challenge of Interfacial Unionism identifies key ingredients in the development of each organization; pinpoints differences among them; and shows how their achievements and limitations set the terms for subsequent struggles. In short, Letwin demonstrates how black and white miners initiated certain class-based actions that cut across racial lines and counteracted the widespread image of a docile southern working class.
Joe W. Trotter
Carnegie Mellon University
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|Author:||Trotter, Joe W.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1999|
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