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September 05, 2003

Labor's Support for Civil Rights

[Note this history comes from a number of sources, including Working Class New York by Joshua Freeman, Time on the Cross by Taylor Branch and a number of other sources. Only scattered web links.]

Unions and Civil Rights: Progressives fall too easily into thinking of unions as a "special interest" while ignoring the core role unions have played in the whole range of progressive social activism and legislation passed this past century. Nowhere is this truer than in the area of civil rights, where unions were the indispensable actors in mobilizing the grassroots and political power to win most civil rights battles in state and national legislatures. As importantly, they were the vehicles for economically and socially empowering millions of black workers to be able to fight for their rights more broadly.

Yes, many union locals, especially in the building trades, were racist themselves in treatment of black members, but it's too easy to look at the partial failures of unions to live up to their ideals while ignoring the forest of civil rights leadership most unions and union leadership took. It is from the higher ideals unions publicly set for themselves that they failed, since throughout most of this period, they were far more integrated and more actively involved in fighting segregation than almost any major institution in society.

Early Years While many craft locals of the original American Federation of Labor would exclude blacks from membership, African Americans would become a growing part of the membership of the emerging industrial unions, making up 20% of the United Mine Workers by 1900. And, much as the United Farm Workers would become a vehicle for latino pride in the 1960s and 70s, one union in particular would become the emblem of black empowerment in the early part of this century, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, organized in 1925 and then led by A. Phillip Randolph.

Randolph is the most important civil rights leader most people have never heard of, despite being arguably more important to civil rights in the 20th century. The first black head of a labor union in the AFL, Randolph in many ways made the civil rights movement possible. He fought to desegregate defense factories in World War II, threatening to mount the first "March on Washington" during WWII. Roosevelt, fearing the political effects, agreed to establish the Fair Employment Practices Commission, the first major federal agency prosecuting discrimination in US industry. Randolph also fought with Truman to desegregate the US military. In 1963, it was Randolph who proposed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Rise of the CIO: In the 1930s, the new industrial unions in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), then breaking away from the old conservative AFL leadership, were in practice the the main civil rights institutions of their day. When dockworkers on the West Coast organized the ILWU in 1934, this was a major step in ending discrimination on the docks, as the CIO unions in general gave black workers and their burgeoning demands for equal treatment new vehicles to organize within the workplace. Within four months of the CIO organizing, Black progressives from around the U.S. joined together in the formation of the National Negro Congress (NNC), which chose A. Phillip Randolph to be its President. The desgregation of many military contractors in WWII and the union wages paid would become the backbone of an emerging black working class that could take on greater civil rights campaigns, backed by the progressive union leadership that would become the strongest advocates available to support new civil rights legislation.

During WWII, the CIO established a national Committee to Abolish Racial Discrimination to campaign for the end of segregation and after the war launched major organizing drives among the heavily black workforces of the US South-- a drive that was unfortunately stalled and largely defeated by the passage of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act in 1947.

Unions Lead Post-War Civil Rights Wave: Long before national legislation was passed, unions were campaigning for state-level anti-discrimination laws. When New York State passed the 1945 Quinn-Ives Bill, the first law anywhere in the country to prohibit discrimination in hiring, the state AFL and CIO labor federations supported it. The Chamber of Commerce, the American Bar Association and most of the business community fought the law, but the labor movement lined up to help push it through, despite provisions that explicitly targetted discrimination in unions themselves.

In 1946, the United Auto Workers (UAW) helped lead a referendum vote in Michigan to pass a fair employment practices law. The same year, the UAW established as well an internal Fair Practices and Anti-Discrimination Department, sometimes too weak on union locals but still a platform within the union always pushing for greater worker equality and part of what made the UAW an outspoken public advocate for civil rights legislation in the nation. In the postwar period, unions were some of the staunchest funders of the Urban League, NAACP and other civil rights groups.

Fighting Employment Discrimination: The more leftwing unions fought directly with employers to open up hiring to blacks: in the 1930s and after WWII, New York's Retail Drug Employees Union, 1199 (yes, the forefronner of the dominant New York health care union today), despite being largely white at the time, campaigned for black pharmacists to be hired. When an employer rejected a black applicant from the union hiring hall and racism was suspected, the union would ask other members to waive seniority in order to send out another black applicant to force hiring by the employers. The West Coast longshore union practiced affirmative action hiring in the wake of World War II, in order to make sure returning veterans with seniority would not "bump" out recently hired black members annd reverse the wartime gains in racial diversity on the docks.

In the 1950s, the favorite political star of the labor movement was Minnesota's Hubert Humphrey, who was also the legislative hero of the civil rights establishment in the Senate. Humphrey had as mayor of Minneapolis in 1946 established a fair employment law plus the first permanent commission with enforcement powers in the country to give the law teeth. It was Humphrey, labor's champion, who was also the delegate at the 1948 Democratic Convention who pushed through the touch civil rights planks that led Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats to storm out of the Party.

Birthing the modern civil rights movement: One product of the union movement who would become one of the most crucial if unsung fathers of the modern civil rights movement was E.D. Nixon, a leader in the Sleeping Car Porters union and a close associate of Philip Randolph. Nixon became president of the Voters League of Montgomery in 1944 and a statewide leader of the NAACP in Alabama. He was the initial organizer in building the Montgomery bus boycott and became chairman of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) which was formed to manage the boycott, even as the young minister Martin Luther King Jr. would be catapulted into fame during the campaign.

As the 1960s protests took off, unions were in the forefront of supporting public demonstrations, even as they struggled internally with their more recalcitrant discriminatory locals. When the 1960 sit-ins began in southern Woolworth stores, the New York Central Labor Council organized picketing at the NYC Woolworth stores. On one day alone, the ILGWU garment union sent 800 picketers out.

Funding the Movement: When in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. and the children of Birmingham put 2000 protesters in jail, it was the union movement leadership -- and not just the liberal wing but leaders like AFL-CIO President George Meany often seen as more conservative -- who paid the $160,000 to bail them out so they could march again.

Bayard Rustin, the chief hands-on organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, was on union payroll in New York and using a union office when he did his organizing for the March. Reverend King himself worked out of the national UAW headquarters himself during planning of the march. Sometimes forgotten in history is the July 1963 Detroit march for civil rights in July proceeding the national march, where 200,000 people marched down the streets of Detroit with UAW head Walter Reuther leading the march with Martin Luther King. In fact, the march's official name was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Unions like the United Auto Workers bussed in large numbers to the crowd that day.

Crucified on a Picket Line: Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis in 1968, yet many people forget why he was there-- to support a unionization drive of black Memphis garbage workers who were organizing under the auspices of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which had made the Memphis struggle a national cornerstone of their organizing efforts in southern cities.

Martin Luther King Jr. knew he was risking his life, but also believed that the risk was worth it, since for workers seeking their civil rights, unionization was a key part of that struggle. As then, as today, the labor movement and the civil rights movement have advanced (and sadly been set back at times) together.

Now, within labor and progressive circles, there is plenty of criticism for where the labor movement failed at times in its ideals of fighting discrimination, both in society and within its ranks. I recommend reading a few of the following pieces for some of that debate, but it's worth remembering that the labor movement, however haltingly at times, was far ahead of all other groups in leading the charge for civil rights. Without the labor movement, the major civil rights laws would probably never have been passed, or at least it would have taken many more years.
* See Bayard Rustin's The Blacks and the Unions and this debate on the role of the AFL-CIO and the UAW in pushing civil rights

Posted by Nathan at September 5, 2003 09:00 AM