Commentary Magazine

Labor Unions and the Negro

To the Editor:

There is a need for an accurate balance sheet of labor’s contributions to the Negroes’ struggle for equal opportunity and labor’s shortcomings with respect to that struggle. But Mr. Herbert Hill in his article (December 1959) has presented a distorted image.

Hill charges that “in 1889 the AFL admitted the International Association of Machinists, then a rigid ‘lily-white’ organization,” but the fact is the Machinists were admitted in 1895, not 1899, and only after six years of extremely bitter struggle over the “lily-white” clause. Finally, in 1895, the clause was removed and the union admitted.

Hill’s article suggests that Gompers had advocated separate locals for Negro workers because of his own racial prejudice. A more careful reading of history will show, rather, that he was moved by the desire to organize Negro workers into the labor movement. Gompers saw the formation of federal locals of Negroes as a means of preventing race conflicts—which arose both from the use of Negroes as strike breakers and from discrimination against them by local unions. This may not have been the best solution, but it was not the act of a racist.

Moreover, Hill conveys the impression that most AFL international unions excluded Negroes until the New Deal era; he says that as late as 1944 twenty-two international unions in the AFL “barred Negroes from membership by constitutional provision.” There is no study of the constitutional exclusion of Negroes by AFL international unions in 1944; however, in 1945 the number was six, not twenty-two. Earlier studies show the following pattern of exclusion: In 1910 nine international unions out of sixty; in 1919 and 1930 ten out of 110.

Attempting to demonstrate the degree to which Negroes were unwelcome in the AFL, Hill says: “As late as 1933, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, with 35,000 members, had nearly half the total number of Negro members in the AFL.” The figure of 35,000 sleeping car porters is, of course, an error. Presumably the more accurate figure of 3,500 was intended.

Recognizing that under William Green the AFL struck a more positive note, Hill then suggests that it was only a pose. Yet Green brought the AFL to support FEPC and other community and governmental efforts for equal rights. Green filled a void—the lack of awareness by labor of its having any responsibility in the field of racial equality—with strong positive stands taken by himself and other leaders including those of the CIO.

No reference to these positions is made by Hill. He states that the 1949 AFL convention endorsed FEPC only after deleting the words “and labor unions” from a motion calling for the elimination of discrimination in industry and labor unions. . . . However, the 1949 convention adopted unchanged a resolution supporting FEPC—introduced by A. Philip Randolph—which reads: “Previous conventions of the AFL have gone on record in support of legislation for FEPC to eliminate discrimination . . . in industry, government and labor unions. . . .”

How can Hill ignore the extensive treatment of civil rights by AFL conventions? To take one example: The 1944 convention referred to above unanimously called for the enactment of a federal anti-lynching law; commended the United States Supreme Court for outlawing the white primaries and called on the Department of Justice to enforce this decision; called for the elimination of discrimination in the Armed Forces; adopted a resolution for fair employment practices legislation; and, finally, commended William Green for seeing to it that the Memphis, Tennessee, labor movement, white and Negro, defeated the attempts of the racist city administration to stop A. Philip Randolph from speaking in that community.

At three different points Hill asserts or implies that unions have played a key role in establishing the discriminatory pattern which characterized American industry in the days before World War II. Such patterns were set by employers prior to unionization, and as a rule, the unions have not challenged them. But where the unions have sought to bring about changes, it was invariably to break down discrimination, not to introduce it. Even in the South, six out of seven industrial locals which include white and Negro workers are integrated.

The differing roles of unions and employers in setting discriminatory patterns can be seen from the report of the first twelve years of operation of the New York State Commission Against Discrimination. The report showed that unions were the guilty party in 17 per cent of employment discrimination complaints, as compared with 83 per cent for employers and employment agencies. It is important to remember that until the New Deal no more than 25 per cent of the (relatively highly organized) building trades workers were unionized, so that unions could hardly have determined the discriminatory practices which characterized that industry.

“The AFL convention in San Francisco this past September,” says Hill, “differed little from the pattern of AFL conventions under Gompers and Green.” This generalization is buttressed by a number of distorted assertions. For example: “Proposals to compel the railroad brotherhoods and other unions to end discrimination in the near future were rejected by the convention of 1959.” Yet the convention of 1959 adopted the following resolution:

This resolution is concerned with the elimination of the color bar in the constitutions of two International unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, and the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. . . . We take note of the fact that the two railway unions concerned have failed to carry out their pledge to the AFL—CIO Executive Council, made by them at the time of their admission, to comply with the civil rights policy of the AFL—CIO. We authorize and request the AFL—CIO Executive Council to work with these organizations to obtain, at the earliest possible date, compliance . . . with the civil rights requirements of the AFL—CIO constitution.

Hill’s article also speaks of such unions as the Airline Pilots Association, “which still excludes Negroes by constitutional provision. . . .” In fact, however, the Airline Pilots eliminated their lily-white clause over a decade ago, and currently have Negro members. With reference to the building trades, Hill writes: “With but two exceptions, no significant departure from the national pattern of racial exclusion has occurred in the building trade unions since the end of the Second World War.” Nobody knows precisely how many locals in the building trades have abandoned racial exclusion since World War II; this writer knows of at least half a dozen besides the “exceptions” mentioned by Hill—locals in California, Michigan, Oregon, Texas and South Carolina.

At two points in the article, the impression is conveyed that the pulp and paper mill industry, and the former AFL and former CIO unions representing the workers, pursue a completely segregationist and discriminatory policy. Segregation does characterize much of this industry, but not outside the South. Moreover, this writer knows of at least two integrated, predominantly white locals with Negro presidents—one of them in Richmond, Virginia.

On the national level, the trade union organizations have moved further toward elimination of segregation and discrimination than any other mass membership organization—religious, business, or civic. In the last decade the trade union movement has shared with Negro and Jewish organizations the main burden of the civil rights fight. In the recently successful campaigns for FEPC in Ohio and California, the trade union movement was the largest source of both financial and community support.

The persistence of discrimination and segregation within certain unions is a matter of serious concern. It is a problem worthy of study, analysis, and of a series of proposals to speed its elimination. Above all, it requires vigorous and intensive effort and, particularly in the South, ingenuity. But this effort is hampered by articles which distort the facts and conclude with calls for special legislation aimed at the trade union movement. Such calls will serve the opponents of organized labor, but contribute nothing to the cause of minority rights.

Emanuel Muravchik
Anti-discrimination Department
Jewish Labor Committee



To the Editor:

It was something of a shock to read the sweeping charges made by Mr. Hill that the AFL—CIO “has failed to eliminate even the most obvious instances of racism within affiliated unions” and that “organized labor seems incapable of overcoming its habitual discriminatory practices.” Certainly, labor has far to go before equality is the order of the day in all unions. But it is questionable whether any other social institution—including the church, business, and political parties—has done as much. Hill credits the early CIO with broadening employment opportunities for Negroes, but charges that since the AFL—CIO merger, racism has continued undisturbed. The facts are otherwise.

The AFL—CIO merger convention in 1955 unanimously adopted a resolution for “equal rights for all, regardless of race, color, creed or national origin.” A Civil Rights Committee was set up to implement this policy. AFL—CIO unions were urged to include anti-discrimination clauses in their collective bargaining agreements. Two Negro union presidents, A. Philip Randolph and William E. Townsend of the United Transport Service Employees, were elected AFL—CIO vice presidents. At a NAACP convention in July 1959, Randolph himself summarized the progress made by Negro workers.

In the controversy at the AFL—CIO San Francisco convention last fall, George Meany noted that the AFL—CIO had remained firm against discrimination, even after he had received 4,000 letters from Southern unions and union members, angered by labor’s support of the Supreme Court school desegregation decisions. On the other hand, Meany argued against drastic ultimatums—with time limits—to unions which still practiced discrimination, and his belief in moral suasion was vindicated in January 1960, when the convention of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen voted to remove the long-standing color-bar in its constitution.

To be sure, many locals, particularly in the building trades, still employ the restrictive practices cited by Hill. Nevertheless, other locals of these same internationals are often integrated: an Urban League census of Negro building trade workers in Cleveland in 1959 counted 57 bricklayers, 80 painters, 6 electricians, 40 plasterers, and 9 plumbers. (It was charged, however, that an under-the-table agreement restricted the Negro workers to Negro neighborhoods.)

But not only white unionists keep some locals segregated. The American Federation of Musicians, for example, has forty-odd Negro locals, many of which have resisted merger efforts by the parent union. Officials of such locals are concerned about their fate in merged unions where the white membership is much larger; members are worried about representation at conventions.

In the South, of course, many workers share the prejudices of their communities. Moreover the use of race-hate materials has become a common—and frequently successful—management practice. But even in the South, there is often a generous fund of good will and desire to support the AFL—CIO’s equalitarian ideals. In Tennessee, one of Jim Carey’s IUE locals won a nondiscrimination clause in its new contract and later beat off a decertification attempt. In Rome, Georgia, a United Auto Workers local elected a Negro as chairman of a predominantly white bargaining committee. State Council conventions in Tennessee, Virginia, and Texas adopted resolutions supporting the Supreme Court decision and opposing plans to create so-called “private” school systems. White and Negro teachers sat in the same hall in Houston, Texas, to organize a new (and fast-growing) local of the American Federation of Teachers.

The overwhelming majority of both white and Negro union members, however, live in the North and West. Though problems of discrimination still loom large, there are many signs of progress. At its 1958 convention, for example, the National Postal Transport Association, by better than a two-thirds vote, amended its constitution to admit Negroes.

Despite all this, Negro union leaders and civil rights organizations insist that labor’s progress is still inadequate, and the AFL—CIO executive council agrees. But the council lacks punitive power to remove discriminatory practices. It can only recommend expulsion, which it is understandably reluctant to do. Expulsion does not end discrimination; it only removes the discriminatory union from the house of labor. Persuasion, unfortunately, takes time, especially when deep-rooted customs are involved.

Various union, Negro, and civil rights groups are urging a more comprehensive program to deal with bias in local unions. Such a program should include:

  1. Regular surveys of all unions ascertaining the state of their civil rights practices;
  2. Power to bring about full compliance with the AFL—CIO’s anti-discrimination policies;
  3. Cooperation with intergroup relations agencies to smooth the transition from segregated to integrated locals;
  4. Coordination of the scattered civil rights activities of international unions, state and city councils, and locals and intergroup relations organizations;
  5. Full involvement of union educational directors and Editors in these activities, insuring greater emphasis on civil rights in the union’s education and publication programs.

Above all, labor must place civil rights—in the shop and in the nation—higher on its action agenda. It must be a passion, not a part-time activity.

Harry Fleischman
National Labor Service
American Jewish Committee



Mr. Hill writes:

In his zeal to defend the AFL—CIO, Mr. Muravchik is, unfortunately in my opinion, compelled to be rather disingenuous.

With regard, to the facts: The color bar was not removed from the official ritual of the International Association of Machinists until 1948 (see the proceedings of the 1948 Convention, pp. 367—368—Wednesday morning session, September 22). Not only the IAM, but other unions that barred Negroes, such as the Boilermakers and the Iron Shipbuilders, were admitted into the AFL before the turn of the century. By 1900, the AFL had developed a fixed pattern of either total exclusion of Negroes or, in those few instances where colored workers were admitted, segregated locals with federal charters.

Mr. Muravchik says that, where unions sought to bring about changes, “they did so almost invariably to break down discrimination, not to introduce it.” He thus chooses to forget a number of scandalous cases, such as that of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers at the Bauer Electric Company in Hartford, Connecticut. Upon becoming the bargaining agent, this union immediately demanded that all Negro electricians be dismissed from their jobs; the jobs of the skilled Negro workers were saved only by a decision of the Connecticut Supreme Court.

Mr. Fleischman, as well as Mr. Muravchik, appears to have missed my essential point—the profound disparity between the public relations image presented by organized labor in Washington and the day-to-day realities as experienced by many Negro workers in the North as well as in the South. I did not deny that many international unions have good records on race relations—indeed, my article singled out the auto, rubber, oil, and packinghouse unions. Nor am I particularly concerned with comparisons between labor’s record and that of other social institutions. The simple fact is that, for the Negro worker in vital areas of the economy, trade unions often mean denial of employment, segregated locals, or separate racial seniority lines in union contracts. . . . The fact that many unions do not discriminate does not exonerate the many which do.

My correspondents would do well if they ceased apologizing for racists’ within the AFL—CIO, and instead joined with Negro workers and with the NAACP in attacking directly the broad pattern of racial discrimination. In the long run, such an attack will undoubtedly prove to be in the best interests of organized labor, as well as those of colored wage earners throughout the United States.



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