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The black labor movement and the fight for social advancement.

The black labor movement and the fight for social advance

To the ideas of individualism and collective advance that Alice Kessler-Harris sees as central--and that clearly are essential--to the labor movement, we unquestionably must add one more, and that is the idea of exclusion. This concept of exclusion becomes so important because as much as anything else, exclusion has become the Achilles' heel of organized labor. But I want to emphasize that the evidence of the existence of racial exclusion in the labor movement merely shows how American organized labor was the ideal of exclusion. The idea of selective advance is one of the central ideas in the history of American society, and organized labor has had to carry that burden as well.

Writing in 1935, one of the most brilliant observers of American society, W.E.B. DuBois, noted that in the Civil War and the subsequent Reconstruction, which he saw as the origin of black freedom in America, lay the kernels for the most progressive labor movement this Nation would ever see.1 But, as he put it, leaders of organized labor had neither the courage nor the intelligence to recognize it. What DuBois was talking about was that during Reconstruction leaders of organized labor had an opportunity--for a brief moment, at least--to reject the barriers to equality of opportunity that race had constructed in America and thus develop an egalitarian labor movement that would encompass all of organized labor.

Black involvement in labor

The importance and centrality of race in America comes forth in so much that has been part of the American labor movement, and raises without question the most important issue with which organized labor must contend if labor will continue to have a major place in American society. History is replete with examples of why this is so. For instance, railway engineers were not solely responsible for the failure of Eugene V. Debs' Pullman strike. The decision of numerous black workers to refuse to join the American Railway Union, and thus, in effect, become strikebreakers, contributed to Debs' failure as well. Yet, the very reason that black workers did not make common cause with the American Railway Union, namely because white railway unionists would not permit blacks to join the unions or to take certain railroad jobs such as engineers, brakemen, and conductors, requires historians to question whether the term scab really fits their actions. Is one a scab or strikebreaker when one takes a job during a strike that the striking workers, all of whom are white, have themselves gone on strike to keep black workers out of? During the late 19th and 20th centuries, white workers initiated more than 100 strikes in order to keep black workers from gaining access to certain jobs. This is the question that I have tried to deal with as I have tried to understand the involvement of black people in the working class movement since the end of the Civil War. No more than anyone else do I have a definite answer.

The central question is can one be governed by the rules set by others when one is not permitted to participate in making the rules or in helping to set the parameters of the tremendous struggle of the American working class? Were black workers less patriotic than others during World War II when they said to the boilermakers and to the shipyard workers, "We won't participate in your unions and pay your dues unless we can have voting membership?' Were they less patriotic and harmful to the American war effort when they said, "We won't pay dues for the right to work?' We as historians, and Americans generally, must deal with these questions because they go to the crucial core of the meaning of democracy in our Nation. Some claim that black workers who demanded an end to discrimination in employment, promotion, pay, and other occupational areas were harmful to the American was effort. But black workers insisted that if unions were permitted to write contracts that gave the unions the power to decide who worked, who was promoted, and who was laid off, then those same unions could not be permitted to prevent black workers from being involved in decisions concerning the unions' activities. To the black workers, the white union leaders were anti-patriotic. Put simply, black workers decided that they would refuse to pay a tax for the right to work in America.

Progressing but regressing

Kessler-Harris is right in pointing out, then, that the increasing availability of commodities, appliances, goods, homes, and all the other things that we so much enjoyed in the 1950's and 1960's placed a big halt on the trade union movement, but again those who made it--who had achieved the ability to purchase and to enjoy such goods and services --abandoned the field before groups that had been left out got in. That is another reason why I called my book The Harder We Run.2 I left it to your imagination to place a comma behind that statement and add "The Behinder We Get,' because as this Nation has progressed, gaps among the working class, especially black versus white, have increased. It is indeed a burden we carry in America, this continuing burden of race.

Black unionists clearly understood and emphasized that a major reason for the labor movement was another part of what Alice Kessler-Harris writes about, namely that advances in the workplace for black workers must be accompanied by the advancement of people at all levels, and not just on the job. This was especially true among original thinkers in the black labor movement. DuBois more clearly than most emphasized this point, but so did A. Philip Randolph. Without question, Randolph saw the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters as an agency to be involved in fomenting social change across the fabric of America and, if he had his way, across the fabric of the world; this type of advancement was far more important in his view than simply making a contract with the Pullman Company for the Brotherhood's workers. If he had been interested just in the rights of workers who were members of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters at the Pullman Company, Randolph would not have had much to do, because those workers were among the best-placed black workers in America at the time. However, that was not good enough. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters' leaders saw the Brotherhood as a bully pulpit of a small group of workers, but a bully pulpit nonetheless, to carry forward the ideas on which America had been founded: there must be social and equal justice for all, or no justice for anyone could be guaranteed. As such, it remains the goal of organized labor.

1 W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction After the Civil War, 1935.

2 William H. Harris, The Harder We Run: Black Workers Since the Civil War (New York, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1982).
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Author:Harris, William H.
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Date:Aug 1, 1987
Previous Article:The extension of solidarity conflicts with the spirit of individualism.
Next Article:Forging a partnership between blacks and unions.

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