Commentary Magazine


Race Discrimination in Trade Unions

The racial policies of American unions vary from the outright exclusion of some minority groups to their complete acceptance, with all the rights and privileges of members. The pattern of union discrimination is multi-colored and fluid. In part it follows the national pattern of discrimination. But it also reflects the economic and local conditions under which the particular union operates: the type of industry, the kind of leadership it has, the workers it wishes to bring into and keep in the union, the character and policy of competing unions in the field.

These factors explain why we find non-discriminating unions affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations soft-pedaling the race issue when organizing Southern workers in competition with openly discriminating affiliates of the American Federation of Labor, like the International Association of Machinists and the Boilermakers and Shipbuilders. We also find some AFL unions giving up discriminatory practices because of the competition of nondiscriminatory CIO affiliates (as for example in the cases of the AFL Commercial Telegraphers Union and Hotel and Restaurant Workers). Within the same union, we find Negroes refused membership in one local while freely admitted in another. There will be anti-Semitism among members of a union in one town, while officers of that union nationally are themselves Jews. In one local, a sympathetic president or business agent may do a great deal to keep down prejudice; in another, a prejudiced union leader may do much to heighten it.

The apparently changeable and contradictory race policies of unions are often due to differences between the attitudes and desires of union rank-and-file membership and union leadership. In the United Automobile Workers (CIO), the genuinely equalitarian policies and practices of the leadership have not prevented “hate strikes” by members opposed to the employment of Negroes. On the other hand, some locals of the International Association of Machinists have admitted Negroes in violation of their union’s national by-laws.

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Most Unions Fight Prejudice

The fact that this article will perforce deal through most of its course with the unions which discriminate against minority groups should not obscure the basic fact that the overwhelming majority of American unions are opponents of discrimination, theoretically and actually.

Most trade unions hold race discrimination a danger to their practical operations; most union leaders are aware of the link, in the past and today, between anti-Negro and anti-Jewish elements and anti-labor elements in general. On a practical level, union policies have been of inestimable value in achieving equality in conditions of employment for many minority groups.

Union seniority clauses and union pressure resulted in the upgrading during the war of many thousands of Negro workers into better-paying jobs that had hitherto been reserved for whites. The United Automobile Workers, the United Steel Workers, the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (all CIO), and the International Ladies Garment Workers (AFL), all insisted on securing for Negro workers the same protection their other members had. The Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers Union (CIO) fought for the rights of Mexican and American Indian workers in the Southwest.

Unions have also fought race prejudice outside the fields of traditional union activity. The United Automobile Workers (CIO) has established its own fair-employment-practices committee to investigate cases of discrimination against its own members. The Political Action Committee of the CIO publishes pamphlets attacking race discrimination and exposing its anti-labor implications. A number of AFL and CIO unions sponsor the Jewish Labor Committee, which has carried on educational work combating anti-Semitism among workers. The Longshoreman’s and Warehousemen’s Union (CIO) has fought for equal treatment for Japanese workers on the West Coast. And most unions have given full support to such legislative measures as the anti-poll tax bill and the permanent FEPC bill.

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Some Unions Discriminate

But a sizable group of unions openly discriminates against minority groups. Why should some unions be in the forefront of those fighting for the equality of all racial and ethnic groups while others practice discrimination in their own activities? That some are located in the North and others in the South does not explain much; many national unions whose main membership is in the North—for example, the national railroad unions—are the worst offenders.

We come closer to an explanation when we examine the basic economic and technological conditions of the particular industry. Those unions which actively fight race discrimination—the Auto Workers, the Steel Workers, the Ladies Garment Workers—are, we will notice, organized on an industrial basis, the only type of union structure feasible in a mass production industry. Such unions derive their bargaining power by admitting all the workers in their industries to membership and by bargaining for them without discrimination. If they excluded any racial or ethnic group, they would weaken their bargaining power. Exclusion would invite the excluded group to join another union or to break strikes. Racial discrimination by unions in mass production industries is not only impractical. It endangers the union’s very existence.

On the other hand, unions organized on a craft basis derive their bargaining power by controlling the entrance of new workers to a trade or by monopolizing a strategic occupation. Such unions may find that race discrimination conveniently and effectively limits the number of workers available to that trade and thus raises the price of labor. It is no accident that craft unions like the Plumbers and Steamfitters’ union have long had discriminatory policies.

This is not the whole story: there are craft unions that do not discriminate, and industrial unions that do. Many other factors are involved, and in each case they are mixed in different ways. In the case of the railway unions, for example, much can be explained by their character as fraternal societies. The first two railway unions (the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the Order of Railway Conductors) were fraternal and benevolent societies, and discriminatory rules are traditional in many areas of the fraternal field. As other railway unions came into existence, they copied the by-laws of the older organizations, including the discriminatory rules, as a matter of course, even though they may have become by then more important as bargaining than as fraternal organizations.

Recently, however, economic factors have been most important in maintaining the discriminatory practices of the railway unions. Employment on the railways has been declining and the railway unions have been trying to shift to colored workers, whom they bar from membership, the burden of unemployment. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen and the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen have succeeded in getting nearly every railroad in the South to either limit the number of Negroes hired as brakemen and firemen, or, more often, to eliminate Negroes from these jobs altogether within a few years. Negroes are thus being deprived of jobs that have been open to members of their race since the Southern railroads were built, and which have been among the highest paying jobs they could aspire to.

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Discrimination in The Aircraft Industry

The background of discrimination in an expanding industry is somewhat different. In March 1941, the magazine Fortune declared that the aircraft industry had “an almost universal prejudice against Negroes—and in the West Coast plants against Jews.” During the war this policy broke down, and thousands of Negroes and Jews were employed in aircraft plants. In general, the influx of minority-group workers was aided by the United Automobile Workers (CIO) and hindered by the International Association of Machinists (AFL), the two dominant unions in the industry. However, some locals of the former, particularly in the South and in the New York metropolitan area, were antagonistic to Negroes, and the local of the latter in the Lockheed-Vega plants (Burbank, California) admitted Negroes to full membership in defiance of its national union’s rules.

The decline of aircraft employment after the war washed out most of the gain minority workers made. The one sector of the industry which is now expanding—airline transportation—did not budge from its “white, Christian only” hiring policy during the war and has demonstrated no intention of so doing now. No colored workers are employed by airlines except as janitors, redcaps, or maintenance workers; Negro members of the Army Air Force have no opportunity to break in as airline pilots because no branch of the armed services trained Negroes on multiple engine planes, a prerequisite for civilian airline flying, and no such training is being offered by the airlines to any person.

It is doubtful that a single Jew is employed as a pilot. The following story indicates what happens when qualified men of Jewish faith seek employment with the airlines. A lieutenant commander in the Navy Air Force, who had spent five years flying multiple engine planes, was advised by the chief pilot of one of the larger airlines to resign from the Navy and seek employment with the airline. At every step in the process of application and testing he met with intense hostility. Only the intervention of a U.S. Senator, a friend of the family, with high officials of the airline enabled him to get his application considered and himself finally accepted. At a flying field for preliminary training he again encountered exceptional hostility. The instructors continually criticized his flying, until one day he overheard one of the instructors remark: “We’ll get rid of that Jew bastard yet.” As soon as he told them that, although his name was a common one among Jewish people, he was not Jewish (in fact his father was a prominent Protestant clergyman), his troubles ceased.

Soon after, he encountered a friend who, on hearing the story, said: “Who the hell doesn’t know that Jews are not employed by any airline as pilots?”

What role do unions play in the discriminatory policies of the airlines? The Airline Pilots’ Association (AFL) has contracts with all air transport companies, but none contains a closed shop. The Association formerly excluded Negroes by constitutional provision, but later removed its discriminatory rule. It has never had a colored member because the airlines have never employed a colored pilot. As far as the anti-Jewish policies of the airlines are concerned, the Association has taken no official position, but no evidence exists that it has in any manner opposed this policy.

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The Picture of Union Discrimination

Let us make a brief survey of the entire field of union discrimination. Unions discriminating against Negroes are most common and most easily recognizable:

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I. Unions excluding Negroes by color bar in by-laws:

AFL affiliates: International Association of Machinists; Order of Railroad Telegraphers; Railway Mail Association; Switchmen’s Union of North America; American Wire Weavers’ Protective Association.

Independent unions: Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers; Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen; Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen; Railroad Yardmasters of North America; Order of Railway Conductors; American Train Dispatchers’ Association.

II. Unions habitually excluding Negroes by tacit consent:

AFL affiliates: Asbestos Workers, Heat and Frost Insulators; International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (craft locals only); American Flint Glass Workers’ Union; Granite Cutters’ International Association; United Association of Journeymen Plumbers and Steamfitters.

Independent unions: Marine Firemen, Oilers, Watertenders, and Wipers’ Association, Pacific Coast, Brotherhood of Railroad Shop Crafts.

III. Unions confining Negroes to Jim Crow “auxiliary locals”:

AFL affiliates: Brotherhood of Blacksmiths, Drop Forgers, and Helpers; Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Shipbuilders, Welders, and Helpers; Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes; Brotherhood of Railway Carmen of America; Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks, Freight Handlers, Express and Station Employes; Federation of Rural Letter Carriers; Seafarers’ International Union; Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association.

Independent unions: American Federaof Railroad Workers; Rural Letter Carriers’ Association.

The first group includes unions like the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, whose constitution states that “any white male” is eligible for membership. The second group is “lily-white” by tacit understanding; for example, a Negro applicant may be rejected as “incompetent”—as always appears to happen to Negro plumbers who apply for admission to the Plumbers and Steamfitters’ union, although the Negro plumber in question may be a first-class mechanic.

The third group, admitting Negroes to a “second-class” membership in Jim Crow “auxiliaries,” under rules which deny them any voice in union affairs or an opportunity to be promoted to better jobs, is exemplified by the Brotherhood of Blacksmiths, Drop Forgers, and Helpers, whose constitution states: “Where there are sufficient number of colored helpers they may be organized as an auxiliary local and shall be under the jurisdiction of the white local having jurisdiction over that territory. . . . Colored helpers shall not transfer except to another auxiliary local composed of colored members and colored members shall not be promoted to blacksmiths or helper apprentices and will not be admitted to shops where white helpers are now employed.” Small wonder that few Negroes have taken advantage of the “opportunity” to join the Blacksmiths’ union!

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Orientals and Latin Americans

Although the racial restrictions of these discriminatory unions were aimed primarily at Negroes, they are applied also to other non-whites, particularly those of Oriental extraction. In fact, many discriminatory clauses found their way into union constitutions as a result of the combined voting power of Southern members, who were aiming at the restriction of Negroes, and Far Western members, mindful of the Chinese or Japanese “menace.”

In a few organizations, Orientals have fared worse than have Negroes. The Journeymen Barbers’ Union, AFL, which admits Negroes, excludes Orientals. West Coast unions have long been in the forefront of anti-Oriental agitation, ostensibly as a protest against “cheap labor.” The war against Japan has intensified this attitude. The West Coast director of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, AFL, an organization which has many Negro members, recently announced that only Japanese-Americans who fought in the United States Army would henceforth be eligible for membership in local unions under its jurisdiction. T/Sgt. Ben Kuroki, Nebraska-born Army Air Force veteran, and first Nisei to win the Congressional Medal of Honor, recently stated that many unions on the West Coast “are refusing membership to Nisei war veterans.” Similar cases involving Chinese and Filipinos have been reported.

American Indians are also non-whites, and hence come under the restrictive union rules which limit membership to the white race. Sometimes, however, Indians are considered “white,” or given special dispensation. The constitution of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen provides that Indians may be admitted by special permission of the union president.

Mexican workers are also included within the definition of “non-white” by these restrictive union rules, although some organizations have, after heated discussions, decided that Mexicans are white. The Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, AFL, decided that Mexicans could be admitted to membership, but several representatives of Mexican railroad employees reported to the President’s Committee on Fair Employment Practice that this organization, together with the Machinists’ and the Boilermakers’ unions, also AFL affiliates, was preventing Mexican workers, and Americans of Mexican descent, from obtaining any jobs but that of common laborer in the railway shops of the Union Pacific Railroad.

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, AFL, also admits Mexicans without the restrictions placed upon Negroes and Orientals, but in 1921 this union amended its constitution to provide that only American citizens could hold office in local unions. This was to prevent Mexicans from becoming union officials in the Southwest, where almost all railway maintenance-of-way workers are Mexican. During the war, when thousands of Mexican workers were imported for maintenance-of-way labor on railroads, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes not only ignored their interests, although on all the larger roads but two it was their official bargaining agent, but according to many reports, its officials and delegates actually participated in the numerous swindles which were practiced on these temporary immigrants—one of the most sordid chapters in American industrial history.

Some unions extend their restrictions to other Latin Americans. Thus the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen specifically excludes not only all non-whites, but Mexicans and Spanish Americans as well. This same Brotherhood (which we noted admits Indians under special dispensation) also provides in its constitution that Italian Americans are eligible to membership.

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Unions, Workers, and Jews

Discrimination against Jews by trade unions is quite uncommon. Only one unimportant union, the American Wire Weavers’ Protective Association, AFL, (300 members) specifically limits its membership to “white Christian Americans.” During the war, this restriction was deleted from the published constitution in order to avoid censure from the National War Labor Board. The writer has learned, however, that there has been no actual change in either the union’s by-laws or in union policy in this regard.

Although formal restrictions against Jews are virtually non-existent in trade union constitutions, that does not mean that anti-Semitism is absent from union ranks. Several rather flagrant displays of this type of race hatred have come to the writer’s attention. A prominent AFL union president informed the head of an industrial-relations department of a leading Eastern university that his organization would not participate in a union educational program if too many representatives from “Jewish unions” were accepted. A bakery workers’ local union in Buffalo, New York, refused to come to a National War Labor Board hearing because the NWLB had appointed a prominent rabbi as public member and chairman of the hearing panel. Officials of several railway unions have attempted to prevent the Railroad Retirement Board from appointing Jews to positions on that agency. And in New York City, Detroit, and Chicago, followers of Father Coughlin, G. L. K. Smith, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Christian Front have been active in their attempts to take over local unions or to spread their vicious propaganda.

A study of anti-Semitism among workers has been made by the Institute of Social Research of Columbia University for the Jewish Labor Committee. It is based on sample interviews with more than 600 workers in five key industrial centers, including New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles. The interviews were conducted by regular shop employees who were specially trained for the task by experts in public opinion research. The study found that “anti-Semitism exists to almost the same extent among laborers as in the population as a whole . . . 20 per cent are violently anti-Semitic and an equal percentage is fully tolerant, with the middle 60 per cent undecided or inconsistent in their views. Length of union membership and affiliation in different trade unions did not correlate with the lack of or presence of anti-Semitic feeling. The concept of ‘Jew’ among workers is mainly that of a small businessman. Awareness of the political aspects of unionism showed a negative correlation with anti-Semitism: those who possessed it were not anti-Semitic. Religious affiliation showed no correlation, but it was found that church-goers were, on the whole, more tolerant than those who did not attend church.”

This study demonstrates the great need for more effective education aimed, not at the 20 per cent who have succumbed to anti-Semitic propaganda, but perhaps more important, at the 60 per cent who are undecided and confused. Another such study might pay particular attention to the railroads and to the airlines. The writer has encountered several instances of definite anti-Semitic feeling among both railroad company and railroad union officials, and the situation on the airlines has already been described. We should find out why Jewish conductors, engineers, and pilots are virtually absent from American railroads and airlines.

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AFL and CIO

The unions which habitually discriminate against minority groups have two characteristics in common. They are predominantly craft unions or railway unions, for reasons we have already discussed; and none are affiliated with the CIO.

The independent unions are, of course, not connected with any central body which might challenge their discriminatory practices. But the policies of the AFL affiliates are directly contradictory to the preaching of the AFL itself, the spokesmen for which never tire of “reiterating, re-endorsing, and reaffirming” the fact that the AFL has no color bar, and of proclaiming that “workers must organize and unite under the Federation’s banner without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin.” At one time, the AFL actually practiced what it preached. In 1890, it refused affiliation to the International Association of Machinists because that union had a color bar in its constitution. In 1895, however, the Machinists’ union was allowed to affiliate, although it had merely transferred the color bar from its constitution to its ritual, where it remains today. Since 1895, the AFL has not once refused affiliation to any organization because of a discriminatory clause in its by-laws.

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What Can Be Done?

Will union racial discrimination be corrected by the unions themselves? One cannot be too sanguine. There has been some self-improvement, it is true. The Masters, Mates, and Pilots, the Hotel and Restaurant Workers, and the Commercial Telegraphers, all AFL affiliates, formerly had discriminatory by-laws and have recently removed them and really admitted colored workers. Industrial local unions of the International Brother hood of Electrical Workers, AFL, have begun to admit Negroes. By and large, however, those organizations that habitually discriminate against minorities have shown little desire to change policy or practices. Nearly every one has had a convention in recent years and has voted down attempts by some members to abolish the discriminatory rules.

If improvement cannot then be expected within the union movement, should the government take action? Those who oppose such a step usually argue that government control is undesirable for “private” organizations. A union, however, cannot claim any such immunity. There are almost fifteen million union members, and union agreements, according to the latest United States Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, cover twenty-nine million workers. Unions are protected by special government legislation; employers must deal with them or suffer severe financial penalties. In short, unions are affected with the public interest, and cannot be compared with churches, golf clubs, or other private organizations.

Government could effectively attack discrimination in employment by amendment to the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act to provide that discrimination by either employers or unions because of race, color, creed, or national origin is an unfair labor practice, or by creating special fair employment practice commissions. The first method has many advantages. The problem of discrimination in employment, whether by unions or employers, is essentially a problem of labor relations. The National Labor Relations Board is fully equipped and thoroughly experienced in handling such problems, and the Wagner Act is more easily enforced than vague anti-discrimination laws. In such industries as railway transportation, in which the NLRB has no jurisdiction, authority could be granted to it over discriminatory practices by further amendment to the Wagner Act. Discrimination could thus be efficiently curbed at little expense and without adding to the administrative complexity of the government.

Thus far, however, most programs to curb discrimination in industry provide for administration by special agencies.

During the war, the President’s Committee on Fair Employment Practice was able, despite the lack of any power of enforcing its directives, to open up a sizable number of job opportunities to Negroes and other minority groups. The FEPC had its greatest difficulty in implementing orders which affected unions, since it had no sanctions. It was completely unsuccessful in its attempt to prohibit the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen and the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen from depriving competent Negro workers of their jobs. The FEPC has now expired and the bill for a permanent FEPC has been for the moment effectively buried by the filibuster of the Southern Democrats.

Three states, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, have passed “little FEPC” laws, but they have been in effect too short a time to assess their value. Nearly every union which discriminates against minority groups has locals in these states. It remains to be seen how long it will be before the state anti-discrimination agencies begin proceedings against the discriminatory unions.

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The Future of Union Racial Policies

How important are the discriminatory unions? Thirty of the more than one hundred national unions can be classified as discriminatory, but most of these thirty organizations are small and their influence inconsequential. A few labor organizations do, however, present grave dangers to minority groups. At its wartime peak, the International Association of Machinists had 750,000 members in aircraft, shipbuilding, railroad shops, machine shops, tool and die plants, and the like. Its control over these jobs means they will be closed to colored workers. The railroad unions insure the continuance of discrimination in that industry, but more important, they are invading expanding competitive fields. The Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen has now organized many over-the-road bus drivers, and the Railway Clerks is attempting to organize air transport clerical workers.

Long-range trends in unionization, however, appear favorable to minority groups. Before 1935, unionism probably hurt minority groups more than it helped them. The most completely organized industries—railroads, building, and printing—were those in which unions practiced discrimination or where the proportion of minority groups in the working force was small. Since then, the pendulum has swung the other way. Mass production industries and unskilled workers have been organized, and thousands of Negroes, Orientals, Mexicans, and other minority groups have shared in the benefits of higher wages and superior working conditions resulting from unionization. It seems likely that the continued growth of unionism will continue to affect minorities favorably. Almost two-thirds of the discriminatory unions are found in the railway industry, where employment may be expected to fall sharply within the next few years. The Boilermakers’ and Shipbuilders’ union is concentrated in an industry which has declined sharply since the end of the war. The remaining discriminatory unions, except for the Machinists’, the Electrical Workers’, and the Plumbers and Steamfitters’ unions, are small and not very important.

One must not be too optimistic, however. Much depends on the development of race relations in the country as a whole. The worker, it must be remembered, is a citizen of the community in addition to being a union member, and his opinions are affected by the national climate of opinion, as well as by the attitudes of neighbors, the members of his church, his political party, as well as by other groups. A serious worsening of race relations, perhaps a series of race riots, would split the labor movement asunder and prevent equalitarian unions from carrying out their programs. Only if, in the general scheme, race relations improve, will those union leaders who realize the gravity of group dissension successfully persuade their membership of the need for equal treatment of all groups.

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