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From LABOR-L@YORKU.CA Tue Feb 27 17:38:39 2001
Date: Tue, 27 Feb 2001 08:41:14 -0500
Sender: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
From: Charles Brown <CharlesB@CNCL.CI.DETROIT.MI.US>
Subject: The Indispensable Ally
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The Indispensable Ally: Black Workers and the Formation of the CIO

By Bill Fletcher Jr. <bfletcher4@compuserve.com>
and Peter Agard, The Dispatcher, February 2000

The 1930s witnessed a tremendous upsurge in labor organizing and activity. A movement swept the United States to establish industrial unions, that is, unions that would organize all workers, regardless of trade, into the same union in that industry. The industrial union movement, known at the time as the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), transformed the U.S. labor movement. In the process of this transformation Black workers left their mark, a mark unfortunately all too often overlooked.

The future of labor depends on the organizing of nonunion minority workers in the offices, factories and fields. For this reason, the critical role of Black workers in the organizing and building of the CIO during the 1930s must be understood.

The Great Depression devastated the working class, while simultaneously provoking a wide-ranging and angry response. In March 1930, over 1,000,000 people demonstrated against unemployment and for jobs across the United States. Organized by the National Unemployment Councils, these workers were given a sense of hope and a realization that through collective activity changes could be brought about.

By the mid-1930s worker discontent spread from the unemployed to sectors of organized labor. In 1934 a strike wave spread across the U.S.A. with the Teamsters leading a general strike in Minneapolis, and the West Coast branches of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) leading one in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The West Coast Longshore strike had a profound impact on Black workers. Although Black workers had a long history of working on the docks as longshoremen in other parts of the U.S.A., prior to 1900 Black workers were relatively absent from the West Coast docks. Black workers entered the West Coast docks in a less-than-noble manner as strikebreakers in the 1901 dock strike in San Francisco and again in the 1919 strike.

>From the moment of entry onto the docks Black workers were subject to intense discrimination. The hiring process followed on the docks, known as the "shape-up," was an almost certain guarantee of "Jim Crow" hiring practices. The shape-up involved the gathering of workers on the docks to then be chosen by company representatives and often involved kickbacks and other forms of cronyism. The shape-up system was undemocratic, and as such became one of the main targets of the 1934 strike.

Led by Australian-born dockworker Harry Bridges, the West Coast ILA turned what was initially a dock strike into a full-blown general strike in the Bay Area. Contrary to the practices of most unions at the time, including the practices of their own parent union (that is, the rest of the "International Longshoremen's Association"), the West Coast ILA opened up its ranks to Black workers, a point which was not lost on the Black community nor other sections of organized labor. Black workers went on to play an active role in the strike. The attitude of the union leadership was very important in seeking to gain the involvement of Black workers and to combat, within the ranks of its own membership, various racist views on the role of Black workers. Initially there were several companies on the docks where Black workers did not join the strike. The deep suspicion by Black workers on the AFL and its brand of unionism -- which had excluded Blacks systematically for decades -- led many Black workers to distrust the strikers. Only with serious and intense work did the strike leadership convince those workers that the Bay Area ILA represented a different brand of unionism, and that they were welcome.

Black workers enthusiastically supported the strikers' proposals for the introduction of a "hiring hall" system through which all workers would be sent to jobs according to their place on a master list. They felt that this would lead to a break in West Coast dock discrimination.

The 1934 San Francisco General Strike affected the West Coast maritime industry as well as the Bay Area labor movement. Thirty-five thousand Bay Area workers joined unions as a result of the General Strike, despite the employers' claims that unions, particularly the West Coast ILA, were communist-front groups.

The strike affected Black workers in the Bay Area in at least two ways. First, the establishment of a hiring hall meant that Black workers finally had a chance to get jobs on a regular basis on the docks without selling their souls. This led to a steady increase in the overall number of Black longshore workers, particularly in the Bay Area (though the increase was not felt in great numbers initially and was inconsistent in other parts of the West Coast). Second, there was tremendous growth of Black membership in the newly established National Union of Marine Cooks and Stewards, growth accompanied by the breakdown of Jim Crow practices on shipping lines.

The 1934 general strikes and many less publicized moves by labor's rank and file to organize challenged the AFL's brand of unionism. The AFL had long rejected any serious moves to organize Black workers and include them within its ranks. But it had also rejected demands and pleas that it organize millions of unorganized and skilled or semi-skilled workers in mass production industries. Sections of the AFL, led by United Mine Workers of America President John L. Lewis, expressed the concern that labor would die unless it took on the organizing of the mass production industries.

Lewis' belief in the future of industrial unionism also led him to recognize that a successful industrial union movement would need the active participation of Black workers. Lewis and others in the pro-industrial union movement camp did not want to repeat the mistakes of the union drives which followed World War I where the AFL tried to organize large industries on the basis of craft unionism, often to the actual or virtual exclusion of Black workers. The endorsement of industrial unionism by Lewis, the support that he was able to gather among an important minority of AFL union officials, plus the rank-and-file interest that had been developing, was enough to get the actual movement going -- a movement called the "Committee for Industrial Organization" upon its founding on Nov. 9, 1935. (The name was changed to the "Congress of Industrial Organizations" after a full break was made with the American Federation of Labor.)

Within four months of the formation of the CIO, Black progressives from around the U.S. joined together in the formation of the National Negro Congress (NNC). The kernel of the idea for the NNC actually developed out of discussions among Black progressives of various political stripes as to how the African American population should respond to the devastation of the Depression. It was understood that no single Black organization could defeat or reverse the crisis of the Depression and that a united and activist-oriented response was necessary.

Arising as it did in the mid-1930s, the NNC could not avoid having been influenced by the industrial unionism movement. What is not widely understood, however, is that the NNC sought to influence the new labor federation. In this effort, the NNC met with some important successes. The NNC recognized the possibilities that existed for Black workers should African Americans get behind the CIO movement. Thus, when the NNC formed in February 1936, it placed a clear priority on supporting industrial unionism and winning over the African American people to the importance of this development.

The support which the NNC gave to industrial unionism was a radical step at the time. Though Black workers made consistent attempts to enter the unions, there were many leaders of the African American people who turned a cold shoulder to unionism, regardless of whether it was craft or industrial. In that sense the NNC, as a collection of organizations, but also as a unit, represented a different pole of opinion within the national African American community.

At the first congress A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was chosen as the President of the NNC. This was a significant move given that Randolph was himself a leader of a labor organization, and in that regard not typical of the formal leaders most often pointed to in the African American freedom movement. Though Randolph did not leave the AFL to join the CIO, a point which was highly controversial at the time, Randolph was very supportive of industrial unionism and the work of the CIO.

In his address to the first congress of the NNC (delivered in his absence due to an illness), Randolph stressed the importance of industrial unionism, pointing out that: "...the craft union invariably has a color bar against the Negro worker, but the industrial union in structure renders race discrimination less possible since it embraces all workers included in the industry regardless of race." Until he resigned from his position as President of the NNC in 1940, Randolph used this platform as a means to herald the cause of industrial unionism and point to why Black people should endorse this path-breaking movement.

NNC support for the CIO was probably most keenly felt in the organizing of tobacco workers in Richmond, Virginia and in the steel industry. The work of the NNC in Richmond is particularly important given that it was primarily among Black women workers who labored in the tobacco factories of the city.

Tobacco workers labored under dreadful conditions. Describing the conditions faced by Black workers during the 1920s, shortly before they became organized, one commentator noted that as miserable as the conditions were for all workers, Black women worked in the worst situations. Black women performed the re-handling of tobacco, whereas operations in the manufacturing of cigars and cigarettes were the exclusive province of white women. Black women were completely barred from manufacturing. Additionally, there was the complete segregation of the workers within the same factories.

The owners or managers ruled over these plants with an iron hand, treating the plants as if they were plantations. In some cases the shops had changed very little since the days of slavery, both structurally, and in the forms and methods management followed. In Richmond, the tobacco workers were among the poorest of the poor, in the winter going so far as to drape themselves in the tobacco burlap bags in order to keep warm. The women were completely subservient to theire white foremen, having to submit to their sexual advances or face the loss of their employment. The employers were apparently confident that real labor organization would either never come or never survive in the tobacco industry. Management could have such confidence since the AFL-affiliate, the Tobacco Workers International Union (TWIU), was entirely ineffective and openly collaborated with the employers.

The organization of the tobacco workers was in many ways the direct outgrowth of the preparatory work for the founding of the "Southern Negro Youth Congress" -- a little known wing of the NNC. Organizers of the SNYC in Richmond, Virginia, working up to the founding convention (held in February 1937) established contact with tobacco workers. The tobacco workers wanted the SNYC to address the miserable conditions faced by them at work. It was out of this contact that the Tobacco Stemmers' and Laborers' Industrial Union (TSLIU) was established in the city.

The TSLIU began what was for Richmond a remarkable period of growth -- remarkable for at least two reasons. For one, Richmond had not been the scene of much in the way of union activity since the strike of street car workers earlier in the century. Second, Richmond was witnessing the unionization of Black workers, and Black females at that, who the white power structure had led everyone to believe would never carry out such an affront to the city establishment. The mere act of organizing and demanding collective bargaining was in many ways perceived as a form of revolt.

With the help of SNYC organizers such as James Jackson and Ed Strong, the TSLIU began to organize a series of plants. Jackson later noted that the workers became transformed through the process of building the union. Many of the Black women, who had been told time and again that they could do nothing of the kind, showed talented leadership and organizing skill, such as that exhibited by the secretary of the union, a Mrs. Harris. In fact, during the struggle at British-American Tobacco, one of the key demands of the workers was to be referred to by their supervisors and plant management as "Mr. X" or "Mrs. Y," rather than in the first name, over-familiar fashion (as well as in other derogatory ways) so commonly taught by whites with regard to how they should relate to African Americans. Thus, the Richmond organizing effort became not only a struggle for improved wages and working conditions, but also a battle for human dignity against a very racist, in fact, "Jim Crow" establishment. The inspiration of this SNYC-supported Black unionization spread through the rest of the city, and influenced other unionization campaigns.

The NNC specifically, and Black workers generally, also played an important role in organizing the steel industry. In the steel centers such as Birmingham, Alabama, Gary, Indiana and Chicago, Black workers played a key role in establishing a CIO presence. The Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC -- formed in part out of the old Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers, though committed to the principle of industrial unionism) openly courted the NNC and the Black community generally, realizing that Black workers were decisive in the unionization of the plants. This attitude on the part of the SWOC brought forward a generally positive response from the African American community.

The attitude of the SWOC was not based on moralism, nor necessarily on some higher level of principle. As NNC executive John P. Davis pointed out at the time, Black workers constituted 20 percent of all laborers in the steel mills and six percent of all the operatives. More importantly, the strategic significance of Black workers had to be under- stood in terms of their high proportion in the three or four key geographic areas of steel production, not simply in terms of their overall percentage within the steel industry.

In these areas of concentration, Black workers faced various forms of racist discrimination. There were disproportionately fewer Black workers in skilled positions. In the South, Black workers doing the same work as whites were paid less. Black workers doing piece work were often subject to job assignments that would take much more time to complete than jobs assigned to their white co-workers. In addition, the job assignments of Black workers were generally more hazardous than those received by white workers.

The SWOC found that in many locations Black workers responded more quickly to unionization efforts than did white workers. This did not mean, however, that Black worker support for unionizing was universal. One step taken by SWOC to encourage Black recruitment was the employment of Black organizers. Given the understandable levels of suspicion held by the African American community towards unions, Black organizers and favorable support by Black community organizations were essential for the creation of the type of climate necessary for unionizing efforts to win.

The SWOC did not stop with the employment of organizers. The national office encouraged the election of Black workers to positions within the unions themselves, including their placement on all committees of the union.

These new Black labor leaders were able to achieve some influence in the direction taken by the industrial union movement. Besides this accomplishment, the SWOC raised wages by one-third, reduced working hours and helped to alter some of the segregationist employer practices current at the time.

With 20/20 hindsight one may conclude that the Black community did not place sufficient demands on the CIO or that it was perhaps over-optimistic about what the CIO could accomplish. It is, however, too easy to say that the Black community was not demanding enough. By the late 1930s, Black progressives actually were well aware that uncritical support for the CIO was illogical and strategically inappropriate. Compromises and conservative tendencies within the CIO would and did inevitably develop that would not be to the advantage of the African American community and worker. Problems which arose within the left-wing-led Transport Workers Union-CIO (in New York City), specifically a hesitation and/or unwillingness on the part of the union to confront racist structural problems in the workplace, led otherwise pro-CIO Black minister and later politician Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to comment that Blacks would have to fight a battle on two fronts: against the employer and against the unions for admission, recognition and advancement.

What was understood by the progressive section of the Black community in the mid-1930s, however, was that there was a development going on within labor which could significantly influence the state of the African American worker. It was understood that a section of organized labor was making a direct appeal to the African American community in general, and the African American worker in particular, to jump on board. When contrasted with the treatment Black workers received from the AFL, it made sense to unite with this motion. What must be understood is that the massive entry of Black workers into organized labor via the alliance between the progressive section of the African American population and the progressive section of organized labor created the conditions for eventually changing the policies of organized labor. That these policies have not been changed to the satisfaction of Black workers and other progressive workers should not be misunderstood or lead to the conclusion that the initial alliance was incorrect. Rather, the post-World War II problems speak to some deeper difficulties within the leadership and perhaps the structure of organized labor as well as problems in the strategies advanced by progressive unionists.

The CIO organizing experience of the 1930s and early 1940s pointed out that the labor movement could not grow without organizing Black workers and without mobilizing some significant support in the Black community. The CIO also advanced an entirely different approach to organizing -- that is, the creation of something on the lines of a mass movement by which entire industries were confronted with organizing campaigns. Pulling such campaigns together were talented organizers, many of whom were Black, leftists or both. Their commitment and skill, along with a vision of a socially just society, helped to inspire hundreds of thousands of workers across the U.S. to organize into industrial unions. This inspired view placed labor, not into the camp of what later would be called a "special interest," but rather as a centerpiece for progressive change. By aligning itself with African Americans the CIO attempted to represent more than just its own members: it attempted to represent the interests of the majority of peoples of the United States.

This article is an abbreviated version of the original published in 1987 by the University of Massachusetts, Boston, William Monroe Trotter Institute. It is reprinted with permission of the authors.

Copyright (c) 1987-2001 Bill Fletcher Jr. and Peter Agard.