The removal of the sanction of law from racial segregation has sharply posed the issue of the Negro’s status in virtually every area of American life. As much as the public schools, religious organizations, and business firms, the labor movement is on trial today. For labor’s democratic ideals are in serious conflict with a tradition of racial discrimination in the unions that is currently very much alive.
To some degree, union discrimination simply reflects the racial and religious prejudices among union members—prejudices that many unionists share with other prejudiced persons. Thus recently in the North, groups of white workers participated in violence against Negroes at Trumbull Park in Chicago and at Levittown, Pennsylvania. And in the South, workers have given considerable support to the White Citizens Councils and other groups seeking to perpetuate segregated institutions.
But trade union discrimination against the Negro is something more than the simple result of rank-and-file prejudices. To understand this one must make a distinction, in the history of the American labor movement, between economic and non-economic liberalism. Organized labor’s struggle for the right to bargain collectively, unemployment insurance, and minimum wage laws was a central part of the liberal program. But in non-economic matters—in such areas as civil liberties for political dissidents, and equality of opportunity for racial minorities—the practices of many important labor unions can hardly be described as liberal. Many unions have a long history of racial discrimination—and it is this tradition of discrimination which is responsible, at least in part, for the marginal status that Negro wage earners have today in key sectors of the American economy.
Today, as in the past, there is a profound disparity between the public image presented by the national AFL-CIO, with its professed devotion to racial equality, and the day-today experience of many Negro workers, in the North as well as the South, with individual unions. To be sure, there are important exceptions, particularly in the mass-production industries, where a large concentration of Negro workers actually preceded unionization. Such unions as the United Automobile Workers, the United Packinghouse Workers, and the Rubber Workers Union have conscientiously worked to eradicate institutionalized job bias. Nevertheless, the Negro is discriminated against by unions in major areas of the economy—including the building and construction trades (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Plumbers Union, Carpenters Union, Operating Engineers, etc.), the railroad industry (the four “operating” railroad brotherhoods, and the Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks), the metal crafts (the Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders Union, etc.), and pulp and paper manufacturing (Pulp, Sulphite, and Paper Mill Workers Union, United Papermakers and Paper-workers Union). In these and other industries, trade unions practice either total exclusion of the Negro, segregation (in the form of “Jim Crow” locals, or “auxiliaries”), or enforce separate, racial seniority lines Which limit Negro employment to menial and unskilled classifications.
The Negro worker’s historical experience with organized labor has not been a happy one. In the South, unions frequently acted to force Negroes out of jobs that had formerly been considered theirs. Before the Civil War, Negroes had been carpenters, bricklayers, painters, blacksmiths, harness-makers, tailors, and shoemakers. However, in urban centers like New Orleans, the historian Charles B. Rousseve observed in The Negro in Louisiana, “the Negro who in ante-bellum days performed all types of labor, skilled and unskilled, found himself gradually almost eliminated from the various trades.” Unionization in the South often led to the redesignating of “Negro jobs” as “white man’s work,” and even to excluding Negroes from entire industries.
In the North, unions were stronger at an earlier period, especially among the craft occupations. But, as Gunnar Myrdal stated in An American Dilemma, “most of the time they effectively kept Negroes out of skilled work.” The fact, Myrdal continued, “that the American Federation of Labor as such is officially against racial discrimination does not mean much. The Federation has never done anything to check racial discrimination exercised by its member organizations.”
The AFL’s failure to organize the Negro worker and to accord him full brotherhood within the union ranks was not a policy born of necessity. The old Knights of Labor, the International Workers of the World, and (much later) industrial unions in the Congress of Industrial Organizations were able to organize Negro and white workers together, in the North and in the South; whereas the early AFL attacked the organizing activities of the Knights of Labor among unskilled and Negro workers.
To be sure, the AFL executive council stated, shortly after the organization’s founding, that a union that draws the color line “cannot be admitted into affiliation to this body.” But soon afterward, in 1899, the AFL admitted the International Association of Machinists, then a rigid “lily-white” organization. And the traditional hostility of the AFL leaders to immigration—particularly Asian immigration—fostered a veritable racist ideology. At the 1901 convention of the AFL, the Resolutions Committee denounced the Chinese as “people of vice and sexual immorality” who were of “inferior social standards.” Samuel Gompers, president of the AFL, observed that the “Negro slaves of the South were as a race kind and faithful,” but the “Chinese as a race are cruel and treacherous.” In his memoir, Seventy Years of Life and Labor, Gompers later expressed his belief in “the principle that maintenance of the nation depended upon maintenance of racial purity.” He also recalled his vigorous support for Mayor E. Z. Schmitz of San Francisco, “a labor candidate and elected on a labor platform [who] began the work of segregating Japanese children from white children in the public schools.”1
Throughout the Gompers period, the AFL continued to uphold a racist position. In 1914, it demanded that “all races native to Asia” be excluded permanently from the United States, declaring that “the racial incompatibility as between the peoples of the Orient and the United States presents a problem of race preservation which . . . can only be effectively solved by a policy of exclusion.” The AFL under Gompers worked to halt immigration from Eastern Europe as well. It believed that the flood of immigrants (among whom were those fleeing the tyranny of the Russian Czar and the anti-Jewish pogroms) threatened both labor standards and “racial purity.”
Gompers also criticized American Negroes for allowing themselves to be used by employers as “cheap men.” He urged Negroes to “form colored workers’ unions”; the AFL, he wrote, “does not necessarily proclaim that the social barriers which exist between the whites and the blacks could be or should be obliterated. . . .” And he warned that “if the colored man continues to lend himself to the work of tearing down what the white man has built up, a race hatred far worse than any ever known will result. Caucasian civilization will serve notice that its uplifting process is not to be interfered with in any way.”
Professor Marc Karson of Southern Illinois University, in his valuable book American Labor Unions in Politics, 1900-18, has summarized the results of Gompers’ attitudes: “There was no evidence that the federation leadership in the first half of the 20th century gave more than occasional lip-service opposition to racial discrimination within the union movement. After 1900, in cases where Negro workers were refused admission to an affiliated AFL union, the federation adopted a policy of organizing them into separate locals or directly affiliated ‘federal’ labor unions.” This policy was sanctioned by Article XI, Section VI of the AFL Constitution, which read: “Separate charters will be issued to central labor unions, local unions, federal labor unions, composed exclusively of colored members, where in the judgment of the Executive Council it appears advisable and to the best interests of the trade union movement to do so.”
In the early years of this century, the hostile feeling toward Negroes in American trade unions often led to racial and ethnic violence. In the tragic East St. Louis race riots of July 1917, trade union provocation was a major factor.
When workers at the Aluminum Ore Company went on strike, the firm brought up a small number of Negroes from the Deep South to be used as strikebreakers. In response, the local AFL leaders provoked a veritable hysteria of race hatred. Finally, raging fires on July 2, 1917 engulfed the entire Negro residential district of East St. Louis, destroying $7,000,000 worth of property, driving 10,000 colored persons from their homes, and ending in the death of more than two hundred Negroes and eight whites.
About a month before the riots, Edward F. Mason, secretary of the East St. Louis AFL Central Trades & Labor Union, called on union members to march to City Hall on May 28, 1917, to demand a halt to “the importation” of Negroes. “The immigration of the Southern Negro into our city,” Mason stated, “for the past eight months has reached a point where drastic action must be taken. . . . On next Monday evening the entire body of delegates to the Central Trades and Labor Union will call upon the Mayor and the City Council and demand that they take some action to retard this growing menace and . . . get rid of a certain portion of those who are already here.”
Richard L. Stokes, in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat (July 8, 1917), reported that on the night of the march on City Hall, “some of the [union] leaders made speeches advising that in case the authorities took no action, they should resort to mob law.” And immediately after the May 28 meeting, there began a series of sporadic violent attacks against Negroes which culminated in the holocaust a few weeks later.
John T. Stewart reported the fires and riots in the St. Louis Star for July 3: “Negroes were ‘flushed’ from the burning houses, and ran for their lives, screaming and begging for mercy. . . . Rioters formed in gangs and trooped through the streets, chasing Negroes. They stood around in groups, laughing and jeering While they witnessed the final writhings of the terror and pain-racked wretches who crawled to the streets to die after their flesh had been cooked in their own homes. . . .”
Shortly after the riots, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch quoted the opinion of City Clerk Whelan, president of the Central Trades & Labor Union of East St. Louis. “Before the tenseness of this situation is relieved,” said Whelan, “these employers must convince the laboring whites that they will be given preference over imported blacks in applying for work. . . .”
Special investigators for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People later reported that “by all accounts of eye-witnesses, both white and black, the East St. Louis outrage was deliberately planned and executed.” As for the excuse offered by the unions, William English Walling, a highly respected liberal journalist and reformer, noted in a telegram to President Wilson: “The pretext of labor invasion from the South is invalid.”
AFL President Gompers, however, attempted to defend the rioters, in response to a sharp attack on them by former President Theodore Roosevelt. At a meeting held at Carnegie Hall in New York City, welcoming envoys from the new Russian Provisional government, Roosevelt (according to the New York Herald) heatedly condemned the riot, “for which, so far as we can see, there was no justification and no provocation, and Which was waged with such appalling fatality as to leave an indelible stigma upon the American name.” Gompers rose to excuse the rioters, on the grounds that the capitalists of East St. Louis had been “luring colored men into that dry to supplant white labor.” Roosevelt would not be put off. “Justice with me is not a mere form of words,” he shouted. “In the past I have had to listen too often to the same kind of apologies for the murders committed against the Armenians and the Jews. . . . I say to you, sir, that there can be no justification, no apology for such gross atrocities. . . .”
Few union officials today would dare speak out as bluntly as Gompers did half a century ago. The new era of public relations in the AFL began in the 1920”s under the leadership of benign William Green, who occasionally spoke against racism but did nothing to curb it in the AFL. The Negro had established his first beachheads in industry during World War I, but most AFL unions still practiced a rigorous exclusionist policy throughout the 1920’s. In some instances still, Negroes were able to enter industry only when employers hired them as strikebreakers.2 In other industries, predominantly those employing mass production methods, the Negro was able to gain a modest foothold because the craft-proud AFL would not organize them. But the limited gains of the Negroes in the 20’s were destroyed during the Depression, largely because the AFL had not extended union protection to the Negro in the earlier period. As late as 1933, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, with 35,000 members, had almost half the total number of Negro members in the AFL.
As a result of pressure by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the AFL’s 1934 convention passed a resolution authorizing a “Committee of Five to Investigate the Conditions of Negro Workers.” Green called a meeting of the committee in Washington in 1935, at which the NAACP was represented by its Chief Counsel, Charles H. Houston. The latter reported that signed statements of specific acts of racial discrimination by AFL affiliates were being collected by NAACP branches throughout the country for presentation at subsequent hearings. But Green soon afterward notified the NAACP that no more hearings would be held, since the first Washington hearing had gathered “sufficient information.”
John Brophy, of the Mine Workers Union, who was secretary of the Committee of Five, resigned in protest. “The maneuvering,” said Brophy, “on the part of the Executive Council plainly indicated that you wanted the “Committee of Five to Investigate Conditions of Negro Workers’ to be merely a face-saving device for the AFL rather than an honest attempt to find a solution to the Negro problem in the American labor movement.”
“Internal autonomy” was the excuse Green offered in a later case involving the New York local of the Motion Pictures Operators Union, which restricted colored workers to a small number of Harlem theaters and forced them to accept low-paying jobs. Green, in response to an appeal from the NAACP, said it was impossible for the AFL to interfere in the internal affairs of affiliated unions. This plea of autonomy is often invoked even today.
In 1939, the AFL organized shipyard workers in the Tampa (Florida) shipbuilding industry. Prior to unionization, some 600 semi-skilled and skilled Negroes had worked in the Tampa yards. As soon as the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers was recognized as the bargaining agent, however, the Negro workers were forced out of their jobs by the union’s exclusionist policy. Green made an ineffectual gesture toward an investigation, but the 600 Negro workers were still kept out of their old jobs. The same thing happened soon afterward at the New Orleans shipyards and at the Boeing Aircraft Plant in Seattle, where the International Association of Machinists was empowered to bargain collectively. Nevertheless, in 1940, before the Brotherhood of Sleeping Oar Porters’ convention, Green asserted—without a blush—that “so long as I can express myself, I shall fight against racial intolerance and hatred in America.”
In 1941, the Federation rejected resolutions, introduced by A. Philip Randolph and Milton P. Webster of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, condemning auxiliary “Jim Crow” locals, exclusion of Negroes, and other discriminatory practices of AFL affiliates. At the 1944 convention, when twenty-two international unions still barred Negroes from membership by constitutional provision, John P. Frey, secretary of the Resolutions committee, defended the AFL’s policies in these terms: “I am familiar with the South. I spent many years there as an organizer and otherwise, and I know that in some of the denominations the whites go to their church and the colored go to their church buildings, of the same denominations. They get along as Christians should. In fact, the colored members prefer to have the privilege of employing and discharging their own pastors.”
This basic AFL attitude continued after the end of the Second World War. The 1946 AFL convention defeated resolutions aimed at ending the system of “Jim Crow” auxiliary locals. In 1949, a resolution endorsing federal Fair Employment Practices legislation passed only after delegates deleted the words “and labor unions” from a motion, calling for the “elimination of discrimination in industry and labor unions based upon race, color, religion, national origin or ancestry. . . .”
Discrimination has traditionally been most severe in the AFL building trades unions and the powerful railroad brotherhoods. The result of this today is that when the colored worker is forced out of the railroad industry, where employment is diminishing, he is prevented from finding employment in the construction industry, where the job market has been rapidly expanding.
Fifty years ago Negro firemen, brakemen, and switchmen worked on all the Southern and Southwestern railroads. As late as 1920, there were 6,595 Negro firemen, and a total of 8,275 Negro brakemen, switchmen, flagmen, and yardmen. In 1940, the number of firemen had dwindled to 2,263 and the other job categories to 2,739. Today’s Negro employment figures in these highly skilled, well-paid railroad jobs are much lower, for there has been virtually no hiring of Negro replacements as the older workers have retired or died.
The efforts of the four railway brotherhoods to keep Negroes out date back to the 1890’s at least. In 1909, the Firemen’s Brotherhood staged a violent strike against Negro firemen on the Georgia railroad, demanding their replacement by white men. In 1890, the Trainmen and the Conductors negotiated what is called the “Washington Agreement” with most of the Southeastern railroads; this provided that Negroes were not to be employed as baggagemen, flagmen, or yard foremen. A similar agreement was concluded with the Mississippi Valley railroads in 1911.
During World War II, the Federal Fair Employment Practices Commission was able to crack discriminatory patterns in several major industries, but it could not budge the railroad brotherhoods. The FEPC formally charged that the unions had clauses in their constitutions excluding Negroes from membership, and also cited hostile acts by the unions against the remaining Negro train and engine service workers. The brotherhoods simply ignored the charges. The FEPC held a four-day hearing in Washington in September 1943, charging the railroad unions with impeding the war effort; the unions simply refused to attend. The FEPC ordered the carriers and the unions to cease and desist their discriminatory practices; neither obeyed the order. Instead, both preferred charges against the FEPC before the Smith Committee of the House of Representatives and hinted at a work stoppage (in wartime) if the government insisted on an end to discrimination.
Where they do work on the rail lines today, Negro employees are denied proper job classifications, seniority rights, and wages. During World War II, the FEPC tried to determine the difference between a steward and a waiter-in-charge in dining cars; it finally concluded that the only difference was that the (white) steward wore a black coat, while the (Negro) waiter-in-charge wore a White coat and was paid half the steward’s wages. Today, when the Pullman company places a Negro in charge of a sleeping car, it calls him a “porter-in-charge” instead of a Pullman conductor, thereby saving a substantial amount on his wages.
Because of these discriminatory practices, Negro railway workers formed their own union organizations and turned to the courts for protection. In 1948, seven all-Negro rail unions banded together into the Negro Railway Labor Executive Committee, which brought many cases to the Federal courts on behalf of colored railway workers. In the Steele and Tunstall cases, the U. S. Supreme Court decided that a majority union cannot, under the Railway Labor Act, make contracts and discriminate against non-member minority groups. The principle established by this decision is all that stands in the way of total extinction for the Negro railroad worker.
But the American Federation of Labor and the railroad brotherhoods were never able to hold the fate of America’s working people, white or colored, in their unchallenged control. The phenomenal success of union organization in major manufacturing centers across the country in 1937 and 1938 was not limited to white industrial workers. In the early Congress of Industrial Organizations, for the first time in American labor history, tens of thousands of American Negroes became union members.
In the great sit-down strikes involving entire industries, Negroes were placed on organizing committees, appointed as picket captains, and participated in the local union leadership. Even in the South, though organizers were kidnapped, clubbed, tarred and feathered, and a few lost their lives, the CIO was able to organize important numbers of white and Negro workers in the same unions.
The CIO record in race relations toward the end of its years as a separate organization did not always fulfill the bright promise of its early days. In some Southern plants, rigid patterns of job discrimination were established based on separate racial lines of advancement, limiting all Negroes, however well qualified, to menial job classifications, and denying them equal seniority rights. Nevertheless, the rise of the CIO was a great step forward for tens of thousands of colored and white workers alike.
At the merger convention of AFL and CIO in 1955, a constitutional provision was adopted declaring that “all workers without regard to race, creed, color, national origin or ancestry shall share equally in the full benefits of union organization.” In both North and South, however, racial discrimination and segregation have continued in the merged labor movement.
In addition to the Brotherhood of Firemen and Enginemen, the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, and the Airline Pilots Association, which still exclude Negroes by constitutional provision, a number of important international unions continue to exclude them by tacit consent. Many other AFL-CIO unions limit Negro membership to segregated or “auxiliary” locals. Others negotiate contracts which contain separate lines of promotion and seniority for whites and Negroes, thus barring Negroes from skilled and supervisory jobs.
The Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks, which maintains many segregated local lodges in Northern cities as well as in the South, is a good illustration of the current pattern of discrimination. In this union, as in others, the existence of segregated locals and separate seniority rosters frequently limits job mobility and violates the seniority rights of Negro union members. The union has persisted in its racist practices despite repeated protests. On April 30, 1957, the New York State Commission Against Discrimination ordered the merger of the “lily-white” George M. Harrison Lodge (Lodge 783) and the all-Negro Friendship Lodge (Lodge 6118). The white union refused to comply; the locals remain segregated to this day. Similar situations exist in Chicago, where Negro workers are in segregated local Lodge 6132; in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in Lodge 62573; and in East St. Louis and St. Louis, where there are fourteen all-colored local lodges and fourteen all-white lodges together with segregated joint councils. The practice of segregation is so well institutionalized in this union that the designation of the Negro lodges begins with the numeral “6.” In Minneapolis, Lodge 364 of the Railway Clerks refused for a year to accept a single Negro into membership; it finally did so only after the Minnesota Fair Employment Practices Commission had threatened to use its full penal powers. Ironically, the president of the Railway Clerks, George M. Harrison, is a member of the Civil Rights Committee of the AFL-CIO and a Federation vice president.
Discrimination also exists in some important mass production industries, organized by industrial unions. For example, the United Brotherhood of Papermakers and Paperworkers Union and the International Brotherhood of Pulp, Sulphite and Paper Mill Workers operate segregated locals in more than forty major pulp and paper mills; Negro employment is limited to menial and unskilled classifications by separate, racial seniority lines of progression in virtually all unionized pulp and paper mills. These are “necessary,” the union representative will hasten to explain, to prevent a Negro from “supervising white men.”
The building trades, as always, remain the citadel of anti-Negro discrimination. Addressing a conference of Negro trade unionists in Detroit on February 7, A. Philip Randolph declared that “racial discrimination is practiced by building trades unions in practically every community of the country, varying in intensity from community to community and local to local. . . .” This charge was substantiated by an extensive survey made by the National Urban League of the racial practices of building trades unions in thirty-two cities, which revealed a broad pattern of anti-Negro practices. In many instances, Negroes are totally excluded from membership in building trades unions in Northern communities. In some, they are admitted on a segregated basis, as in New York City, where the Carpenters Union operates Local 1088 as an all-Negro local.
Since unions in the building trades control the (hiring process, their refusal to admit colored persons to membership effectively prevents qualified Negro craftsmen from securing employment. For example, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (not to be confused with the International Union of Electrical Workers whose president is James B. Carey), largely excludes Negroes from membership in the key local unions having jurisdiction in new construction, installation, and wiring. Thus, because IBEW Local 26 in Washington, D. C. refuses membership to non-white persons, Negroes were prevented from working on the construction of the national AFL-CIO headquarters, the new House of Representatives office building, and other public and private construction in the nation’s capital.
Although the Taft-Hartley law forbids the “closed shop,” as does so-called “right to work” legislation now adopted by twenty states, the building trades unions continue to exercise almost complete control of all hiring on construction projects over the United States. A recent study by the Fund for the Republic in Texas concludes: “A review of actual labor-management practices on the traditional ‘closed shop’ trades in Texas confirms the fact that ‘right to work’ has not brought about any basic change over the past eleven years. In the building construction industry, the statute is almost universally violated. . . .” Significantly, the Fund for the Republic study reported how “. . . an unlawful closed shop operated to deprive certain Negro employees of work they had performed in the past, despite their continued membership in a Negro local of the union whose white-local members were engaging in this job imperialism. . . .” With but two exceptions,4 no significant departure from the national pattern of racial exclusion has occurred in the major building trades unions since the end of the Second World War.
Quite as injurious to Negroes as the closed shop is union control of admissions into apprenticeship training programs. In the building trades, union power is used to limit the supply of skilled workers, and Negroes and members of other minority groups are the most frequent victims of such exclusionist practices. In the printing trades, too, union control of apprenticeship programs has operated to bar Negroes from skilled jobs.
As of January 1, 1959, complaints of discrimination were pending with the President’s Committee on Government Contracts against many of America’s leading international unions.5 In addition, many other complaints against local unions were pending with state and municipal Fair Employment Practices Commissions.
The record seems clear: in the four years since the merger of the AFL and the CIO, the national labor organization has failed to eliminate even the most obvious instances of racism within affiliated unions. As for the Federation’s Civil Rights Department, its performance would seem to indicate that its major function is to create a “liberal” public relations image.
The AFL-CIO convention in San Francisco this past September differed little from the pattern of AFL conventions under Gompers and Green. Even as the delegates were meeting, the local Fair Employment Practices Commission was investigating the complaint of Ray Bass, a Negro who for over a year has been denied membership in the Bartenders Union solely because of his color and therefore denied employment. Meanwhile, the convention again rejected proposals to compel the railroad brotherhoods and other unions to end discrimination in the near future. It also prepared to readmit (provisionally) the International Longshoremens Association to the Federation, despite Randolph’s charge that the ILA discriminated against Negro and Puerto Rican workers.6 (Since the merger, the AFL-CIO had also admitted the Railroad Trainmen, and the Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen—both with racial-exclusion clauses in their constitutions. In November 1958, the Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen successfully defended these clauses in the Federal Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio; and the continued silence of the national AFL-CIO in this case is instructive, indeed.)
Negro wage earners, perhaps more than any other group among American workers, need the protection and benefits that derive from full membership in a trade union. And international unions can, if they are prepared to invoke authority, eliminate discriminatory employment practices. In 1958, for example, the United Automobile Workers eliminated the traditional discriminatory seniority provisions which limited Negro seniority and promotion at the General Motors Fisher Body plant in St. Louis. At the large Magnolia Oil Refinery in Beaumont, Texas, thirty-two Negro workers were recently promoted for the first time into the hitherto all-white “process mechanical division,” and several other Negroes were employed in production departments previously barred to them. The Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union helped, rather than resisted, their efforts. A new union policy formally prohibited separate lines of promotion in collective bargaining agreements; and the union called on its members to eliminate discriminatory practices and segregated locals. The International Association of Machinists, which until a decade ago had an all-white clause in its constitution, has also cautiously begun to curb discrimination within its ranks. In too many trades and crafts, however, union power today remains a major obstacle to securing equal employment opportunities for the Negro.
This is not the only obstacle the Negro worker faces, of course. Because there is a disproportionate concentration of Negro workers in the ranks of the unskilled and semi-skilled, there has already been a high rate of Negro displacement and unemployment as the result of automation and other technological innovations. Periodic recessions, too, have had a devastating effect on the Negro community; during several months in 1958, non-white unemployment was more than two-and-a-half times as great as unemployment among white workers. Inevitably, then, in the face of these developments, and the continued inability of the AFL-CIO to curb discrimination in its ranks, the Negro worker has turned to governmental agencies, and to the courts, for protection.
In several cases, discriminatory unions have invoked the legal doctrine of “voluntary association” to justify their exclusion of Negroes. In the Wisconsin Supreme Court, for example, the Bricklayers Union in 1956 challenged the Wisconsin Industrial Commission’s recommendation that it admit two Negroes to membership. The Court upheld the union; it declared that “membership in a voluntary association is a privilege which may be accorded or withheld, and not a right which can be gained and then enforced. The courts cannot compel the admission of an individual into such an association, and if his application is refused, he is entirely without legal remedy, no matter how arbitrary or unjust may be his exclusion. . . .”
Nevertheless, the body of law that has been evolving over the last two decades has tended to forge mew protections for the Negro worker. In these cases,7 the principle of “voluntary association” has been no defense to the charge of racial discrimination. In the 1958 case of Sam H. Clark v. Norfolk and Western Railway Company and Brotherhood of Locomotive Trainmen, a Federal District Court granted a permanent injunction preventing the union from halting promotion of Negroes into certain job classifications; the Negro plaintiffs were also awarded compensatory damages. In a case last March, Oliphant v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, the Supreme Court refused to review a ruling of the Circuit Court in Cincinnati, which upheld the union’s refusal to admit Negroes; but the Supreme Court clearly hinted that it would welcome reviewing, in some other case, the basic constitutional question: whether a union has a right to restrict membership because of race.
Negro workers have placed so many of their hopes in the courts, and in state and local Fair Employment Practices Commissions, because organized labor seems incapable of overcoming its habitual discriminatory practices. On the level of the small shop and local union, the traditions of discrimination have often been institutionalized. A form of caste psychology impels many workers to regard their own positions as “white men’s jobs,” to which no Negro should aspire. These workers and, often, their union leaders regard jobs in their industries as a kind of private privilege, to be accorded and denied by them as they see fit. Often, Negroes are not alone in being barred from such unions, which attempt to maintain an artificial labor shortage. This is especially true in the building and printing trades, which have much of the character of the medieval guild. On the local level, the inertia which sustains discrimination is to be found among skilled workers in big industry as well as among craftsmen, and in the North almost as commonly as in the South.
The national labor leadership, for its part, indignantly explains that it is besieged at this time, by too many enemies to risk internal conflict over discrimination. The presence of a Republican in the White House since 1953, the Congressional exposures of union corruption, industry’s more aggressive attitude in the last two years8—all of these have caused labor’s leadership to adopt a defensive posture. Within the large unions, automation and technological progress have stimulated new tensions between skilled and unskilled workers; the struggles between unions in various jurisdictions, and in various parts of the country, continue unabated. Because of these pressures, the very AFL-CIO leaders who oppose bias in other institutions have been reluctant to combat it within the labor movement. “We don’t want to be torn apart,” is their argument. They fear that any militant decision to ban discrimination, no matter how gradually it was applied, would split the AFL-CIO wide open, and thus weaken the liberal cause.
However, for the Negro seeking employment, union discrimination is a cruel fact which these other considerations can hardly be expected to make easier. Given union control of the hiring process and of apprenticeship programs in the building trades, the printing trades, on the waterfront, on the railways, and in so many other industries, labor bias is no longer the private matter of a “voluntary association”—or of a “quasi-sovereignty,” as Robert M. Hutchins describes American labor today. Such discrimination is a fundamental social barrier to the Negro, hardly less serious than segregation in the public schools. The intervention of the larger community may, it seems, be necessary to remove that barrier.
1 In the May 1905 issue of the American Federationist, Gompers referred to Sen Katyama, a well-known Japanese Socialist then visiting the United States, and an intellectual of considerable cultivation, as a “presumptuous Jap” with a “leprous mouth whose utterances show this mongrel's perverseness, ignorance, and maliciousness. . . .”
2 According to the Inter-Church Commission of Inquiry into the 1919 Steel Strike: “It is evident that the great numbers of Negroes who flowed into the Chicago and Pittsburgh plants were conscious of strikebreaking. For this attitude, the steel strikers rightly blamed American organized labor. . . . Through many an experience Negroes came to believe that the only way they could break into a unionized industry was through strikebreaking.” This was also a factor in the terrible Chicago race riots of 1919 and in other racial disturbances of that period.
3 On March 3, 1957 the president of the Negro local in Tulsa, in a letter to the general chairman of the Union's “Frisco System Board,” requested the elimination of segregated locals and stated: “At a meeting held February 15, members of this organization decided that it would be to our best interests to merge with [white] Lodge 777 and surrender our charter. Since the schools of our city and state have integrated without incidents, we are sure the same would happen between our Lodges.” The Brotherhood of Railway Clerks refused the request.
4 Local 38 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Cleveland and Local 8 of the Bricklayers, Masons, and Plasterers Union in Milwaukee, Wisconsin originally defied the orders of Fair Employment Practices commissions, but admitted a token number of Negro mechanics when confronted by widespread public denunciation and the threat of litigation. In the IBEW case, the union still refuses to admit Theodore Pinkston, the plaintiff before the Cleveland Community Relations Commission, and other qualified Negro workers.
5 Among them were the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the International Association of Machinists, the International Union of Operating Engineers, the Communications Workers of America, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, the Bricklayers, Mason and Plasterers International Union, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, the Iron Ship Builders Union, the International Union of Elevator Constructors, the Order of Railroad Telegraphers, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Engine-men, and the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen.
6 AFL-CIO President George Meany claimed ignorance of such discrimination. He said: “Now, in regard to Phil Randolph . . . I never knew of discrimination in the ILA . . . and to come at this late date where he has an audience, a convention of the AFL-CIO, and come up with this material, I just don't think is playing the game.” However, the Urban League had, a week before the convention, sent a lengthy report on waterfront discrimination to Meany, members of the AFL-CIO Executive Council, and members of its special subcommittee on the ILA. Several of these members—including Meany—bad formally acknowledged receipt of the report.
7 Among them: Joseph James v. Marinship Corporation and International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Tunstall v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen & Enginemen, Steele v. Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company, and Betts v. Easely and Syres v. Oil Workers International Union.
8 See “Labor's Time of Troubles,” by A. H. Raskin in our August issue.—Ed.