Unionising black workers in the USA

Submitted by cathy n on 5 August, 2020 - 7:26 Author: Dan Katz

African Americans who maintained train engines had to sue the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen to gain admission to the union in 1944. Outside the court.

The Memphis, Tennessee, bin workers’ strike of 1968 is now mainly remembered as an event that provided the backdrop for the assassination of Martin Luther King. King had made a turn, with his Poor People’s Campaign, towards fighting against poverty.

1300 black workers in Memphis struck against poverty pay rates that were so low many of the men wore dirty old clothes and needed social security payments to feed their children. But, watching the footage of the workers’ marches today, the most striking fact is that almost no white workers marched with them.

US academic Michael Goldfield’s new book The Southern Key: Class, Race and Radicalism argues that the unionisation drives in America, in the 1930s and 1940s, failed to unionise the South. This failure had a number of consequences, one of which was that the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s was weaker and less effective that it could have been, as white workers were pulled behind populist racist demagogues instead of fighting in solidarity with black workers. Goldfield – rightly – distinguishes between the Civil Rights movement as it was actually constituted, around King and the NAACP, and a better model rooted in labour movement-led anti-racism.

He places the blame for the failure on the right-wing business unionism of the US labour movement’s leaders, the Stalinist policy of the Communist Party and “racially deficient liberalism, unwilling to mobilise workers for democratic struggle.”

Goldfield argues the defeat of the unions’ organising efforts in the South undermined unions in the rest of the country, allowing some anti-union employers a low-wage and unorganised area they could easily relocate to.

By focussing on minority movements in the unions and pockets of better practice Goldfield also shows what might have been possible.

Goldfield has produced a useful and interesting book, although it could probably have been half as long if he had stuck more closely to discussing his thesis. The key problems with his book are:

• He does not place any emphasis on the failure of the US trade unions to form a labour party, following the explosion of industrial union organisation after the mid-1930s. The lack of a mass labour party, even more than the lack of a unionised South, has debilitated the US left, unions and struggle for black equality.

• Goldfield’s analysis of the Communist Party is muddled. He quotes James P Cannon, a US Trotskyist leader, extensively, and approvingly, including: “The Roosevelt social program was the de­cisive factor in heading off the mass movement and diverting it into re­formist channels, but the Stalinists, who supported Roosevelt for reasons of Kremlin foreign policy, miseducated, betrayed, corrupted, and demor­alized the vanguard of this movement.” But Goldfield also writes, “[The CP’s] elimination as a political force in the labour movement and in the political life of this country meant a crippling of the Left.” The point is that the CP, after the 1920s, was not a left force of any type. If the American CP of the 1930s, 40s and 50s backed strikes and fought for black rights, they did so because Moscow found it useful. If the CP scabbed on strikes and abandoned the fight against Jim Crow (as it did in the period 1941-5) or derailed the movement for a labour party (as it did in the late 30s), they did so because Moscow found it useful.

• And there are odd omissions in Goldfield’s account, such as failing to discuss the role of A Philip Randolph, leader of the first major predominantly black union in the US, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Randolph played a useful role campaigning against segregated AFL unions and calling for civil disobedience against Jim Crow during World War Two.

From Civil War to black working class

The census of 1870 shows that 4,880,000 black Americans made up 12.7% of the population. Black literacy was 18.6%, and following efforts during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period rose to 43% in 1890.

Facing a sweeping white, racist counter-revolution in the former Confederate states of the US South, after the election of 1876 and the ending of Northern intervention in the South in 1877, racist Jim Crow segregation was imposed.

In 1883 the Supreme Court declared the 1875 Civil Rights Act unconstitutional. Political rights were removed. For example, in 1900, 181,000 black people in Alabama were entitled to vote, but two years later only 3000 black voters were registered.

Jim Crow segregation was enforced by violence and the threat of violence. Between 1882 and 1903 2060 black people were lynched. In the Chicago race riots of 1919 38 people were killed and 537 were injured.

Migrations of black Americans led black people to move from the lower South. In 1879 60,000 rural black people left Mississippi for Kansas. Dozens of all-black towns were established in Oklahoma.

In the decades after 1900 hundreds of thousands of black people moved further north, and in ever bigger numbers: 170,000 in 1900-10, 454,000 in 1910-20, 749,000 in 1920-30. The movement slowed in the Depression decade of the 1930s, but accelerated again in 1940-50 when 1,599,000 moved from the South to the North.

The black population of Illinois (which includes Chicago) increased from 109,000 in 1910 to 387,000 in 1940. New York’s black population increased from 134,000 to 571,000 in the same period.

In 1940 22% of all black people lived in the North, compared to 10% in 1910. And black employment had shifted radically. In 1890 63% of all black men were agricultural workers, 22% were domestic servants and only 14% worked in transport/manufacturing. By 1930 the proportion in agriculture had declined to 42% and the percentage in transport/manufacturing had risen to 36%.

By the war there was a small but significant black middle class and black workers formed an important section of the urban working class on the west coast and in the towns of the industrial north.

By 1940 annual per capita spending on black school children in nine Southern states was $18.82, and on whites was $58.69. Non-white male life expectancy was 51.5 years; white male life expectancy was 62.1 years. Of the 1284 executions in the US in the 1940s black people accounted for 781; of those executed for rape 19 were white and 179 black.

During the Second World War three million black Americans registered to fight and half a million went abroad to do so, but under white officers in segregated armed forces.

The unions organise

Prior to the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO) in 1935, the US trade union movement was dominated by the American Federation of Labour (AFL). The AFL rested on craft unions and some of its affiliates split union locals on racial lines, or refused to organise black workers, or aimed to keep workplaces white only.

Against the backdrop of the post-crash Depression, and then Roosevelt’s New Deal and its vaguely pro-worker rhetoric, the US working class began to move. Three left-led strikes in 1934 - the west coast dockers’ strike, the Toledo Auto-Lite dispute and the Trotskyist-led Minneapolis teamsters' (truck drivers) strike – were bitterly and violently fought-out and opened the way to create a union centre, the CIO, which would organise the basic sections of the US working class in industrial unions. Steel, car workers, miners, electrical, textiles, rubber and transportation workers were unionised. And for the first time very large numbers of black workers joined the US labour movement.

Miners and Sharecroppers

The coal miners had been the first major group of Southern workers to organise. Armed confrontations and battles frequently accompanied the class struggle and bosses resorted to hiring vigilantes, using security firms and troops. Even at the height of Jim Crow terror significant black-white workers' unity continued to exist in the Alabama coalfields. The Southern miners’ unions were eventually broken by the 1920s, only recovering in the 1930s. In areas such as Alabama and West Virginia black and white workers’ unity was essential to win. The upsurge in organising activity, predating New Deal legislation, also led to miners helping other groups of workers organise. The farmers’ union organised black and white sharecroppers in Alabama and textile workers organised, too. The miners helped organising drives in steel and car plants.

The miners took national strike action in 1943 and 1950. By 1950 the miners’ union, led by the maverick and corrupt right-winger John L Lewis, had half a million members. That declined to 175,000 by 1960, with mechanisation and a move away from coal. The union became a narrow, bureaucratic business union, leaving mining areas such as Tennessee and Kentucky violently anti-union.

In the early 30s union action included unemployed workers' groups which existed across the country, including multi-racial groups in the South. In December 1930, the Communist Party, for example, led a protest of 7000 unemployed black and white workers in Birmingham, Alabama, to demand an end to evictions and relief. As a result, by 1933, the CP had 500 dues-paying members in Birmingham. At this time the Communist Party was insisting that black rights in the unions were to be fought for and respected by white workers.

The Socialist Party and Communist Party both took initiatives in the South to organise sharecroppers. The CP’s Sharecroppers’ Union was the more militant and met enormous repression. The CP believed the black workers and farmers of the lower South would be become a key revolutionary force, despite the decline of cotton prices and inefficient cultivation methods. The SP’s Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU), whose original base was in Arkansas, included significant numbers of poor whites alongside black farmers. During the Popular Front period of the late 1930s the CP dissolved its organisation into the STFU. The militant CP organisation, the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, was also wound up.

From the late 1920s the Communist Party, under the direction of the Russian Stalinists and their Third Period policy, had made a sectarian turn away from joint work with other leftists. By 1930 CP membership had dropped to 7,500.

Beginning in 1928 the CP also demanded self-determination for the black people living in black-majority areas in the lower south. The practical effect was that the CP militantly championed the fight against racism in the US in the 1930s.

In 1931 the CP energetically defended the nine black Scottsboro defendants, convicted of raping two young white women, when the NAACP hesitated to be involved. The defence was accompanied by a vigorous country-wide campaign to mobilise outrage at Southern lynch-law.

The CP ran black leader James Ford as its Vice Presidential candidate in 1932.

From 1935 and the start of the Popular Front period, until the Stalin-Hitler pact in 1939, the CP worked through the National Negro Congress and toned down aggressive campaigning for black rights as it sought an alliance with Roosevelt and the Democrats, and right-wing union leaders. In that it followed the new tactics of Russian foreign policy. After the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941 the CP subordinated all its work to supporting the US war effort. Communist leader Earl Browder went as far as to say the policy of the CP was to remain silent about Jim Crow segregation in the Army during the war as it would endanger national unity (Sunday Worker, 4 March 1945).

In contrast the Trotskyists maintained militant opposition to all manifestation of Jim Crow.

The two most important industries in the South of the US during the 1930s and 40s were textiles (largely white) and logging/sawmills (with a balance of black and white workers). The CIO failed to effectively organise these workers.

In 1937 timber workers were earning three-quarters of the weekly wage of workers doing similar labour in the north east, for a longer work-week. The woodworkers’ union, the International Woodworkers of American (IWA), leadership - incompetent, provincial and right-wing - showed little interest in organising the South, concentrating on maintaining their base in the North West. They left this key Southern industry, whose majority workforce was black, unorganised.

Textiles and Steel

In steel, between 1910 and the 1930s, 30 to 40% of Southern steel workers were black. Black steel workers often held the lowest paid positions. It was left to local left-led unions to fight for better opportunities for black workers. The major union, USWA, remained under tight bureaucratic right-wing control.

Under pressure from black steelworkers the union set up a Civil Rights Committee in 1948. However, all the committee’s membership was white. The USWA continued to have racially segregated facilities at its southern offices into the 1950s. The USWA leadership under Philip Murray was unwilling to take on racist white workers.

In the 1930s and 40s the textile industry was the largest in the US, both by numbers of workers and by cash sales. The bulk of the industry was in the South. Emil Rieve, former president of the Textile Workers' Union of America and then head of the CIO’s Southern organising campaign, told a meeting in 1949, in Birmingham, Alabama: “Unless Textile is organized in the South, you have no labour movement in the South. You may have a labour move­ment in Alabama because you have a steel industry and coal industry, but not in the entire South.”

Textile workers had organised militant strikes, including in the South, where there was a strike wave in 1929-30. Some important disputes were led by Communist organisers who took a firm, clear stance for black rights. A textile general strike took place in 1934 against massive pay cuts, with many women workers taking the lead, often facing murderous violence from the bosses. The strike was sold out in September 1934 leading to thousands of victimisations and the wholesale destruction of many union branches.

A top-down, massively-funded, CIO drive to organise textiles in 1937-8 ended in disaster in the South. Despite mobilising 600 organisers, including 100 in two Southern regions, the drive against relentless and uncompromising mill owners failed because the union advocated "agreement not conflict" with bosses who had no intention of agreeing to any union proposals. The bosses sacked workers and hired thugs to attack organisers; and the union leaderships had no idea how to respond.

At the end of the 1930s the CIO created the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) as a narrow business union which largely abandoned organising in the South.

Operation Dixie

By the end of World War Two 14 million US workers were unionised. CIO affiliates had about a quarter of a million members in the South. In addition the miners’ union had 100,000 members. Most of the union organisation in the South was in the big cities.

The CIO had a drive, beginning in February 1946, called Operation Dixie, to unionise the South, still poorly organised and an area of cheap labour. The AFL, a separate US union federation at the time, began a similar initiative in May 1946, before giving up less than a year later following strong resistance from Southern bosses.

The CIO’s campaign was better-resourced than the AFL’s, and initially met with some significant successes, extending their organisation in New Orleans, Memphis, Atlanta and several towns in Mississippi. The CIO had 6000 members, in Laurel, Mississippi, a town of 30,000, and in 1948 unionised the last big textile plant in town. White workers voted for the union despite ultra-reactionary racist Senator Theodore Bilbo campaigning against the union.

However, the drive organised by right-wing CIO bureaucrats quickly ground to a halt when the unions attempted to organise the textile sector, whose mills were often in isolated, smaller towns. And the unions began to lose the gains made during World War 2 as the Cold War began in earnest and all those associated with the unions and the left were targeted as “Reds”.

One mill which the unions believed they could organise had 41,000 workers.Only 839 (or 2%) joined the union. It required 50-60% to get a legal ballot for recognition. Similar experiences were repeated across the South.

The CIO leaders in charge of the campaign witch-hunted the left and denounced black organisations which wanted to help the union. They came up against resistance from a great many workers who had joined one or more union in the past, but had been let down. And the organisers were chosen for being Southerners, rather than for being competent. Almost all the organisers were men, despite the large number of women textile workers.

Some of the CIO’s Southern leadership also had open links with racist southern Dixiecrat politicians.

South Carolina union campaign director Franz Daniel considered himself a friend of Strom Thurmond, even after Thurmond had run as the 1948 presiden­tial candidate for the racist States Rights Democratic Party. Southern CIO director, Carey Haigler, was an active campaigner for the racist Bull Connor’s campaign for mayor of Birmingham, Alabama.

Goldfield describes Operation Dixie as “a bureaucratic nightmare, characterised by gross incompetence, one of the most racist (by which I mean unaware, insen­sitive, and discriminatory) of all major CIO campaigns to date… Operation Dixie is a primer on how not to organise”.

Something better was possible

Across the South there were patches of good practice. Where industries had been organised in the North and West, the unions had often won bases in the South too. In Louisville, Kentucky, the Harvester plant that opened in 1946 employed 6000 workers, of which 14% were black. The left-led union branch had black leaders as well as white, and aggressively opposed segregation in the workplace as well as leading the local fight for integration of Louisville parks and hotels.

In the late 1940s and 1950s packinghouse (meat processing) workers in the UPWA fought to integrate schools, parks and public venues in Kansas City. Unions found that aggressive action on black equality helped to change the views of racist white workers: racist whites who came to work alongside black workers often then elected black reps.

The key, Goldfield argues, was leadership. When the UPWA negotiated a deal with the Armour firm in 1952 to desegregate all facilities in its plants, there was a serious backlash from racists in a Texas factory. 200 white union members, armed with knives and guns, stormed the union offices demanding the policy be reversed. The union sent organisers to the plant, leafletted it, and threatened the company, which was wobbling, with strikes at its other plants if it reintroduced segregation.

However, at national leadership level the conservative union leaderships, backward on questions of race, capitulated often to white racism, especially in the South.

Goldfield’s point is that organising the South required militant tactics, on-the-ground organising by left-led union organisations which had uncompromising anti-racist politics and mobilised local communities to back the unions and, in turn, went out beyond the workplaces to fight for social justice. If that had happened, then the black Memphis refuse workers in 1968 would have been backed by substantial numbers of white Southern workers.

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