BLACK LABOR AT THE CROSSROADS
For years blacks had urged the AFL leadership to outlaw racial discrimination within the federation and honor its promises to organize Negro workers. At every step, however, the AFL leadership and nearly all the affiliated unions stubbornly opposed such a move. There had been temporary alternatives such as the IWW, the TUEL, and the TUUL unions, but none had reached a significant number of Afro-American workers.
There had been some local success, even within the AFL. In 1925, for example, Frank Crosswaith, a black socialist, established the Trade Union Committee for Organizing Negro Workers. As secretary of the TUC, he urged blacks to demand admission to established unions, and tried to convince the unions that they should accept black members. In early 1934, Crosswaith established the Harlem Labor Committee to cooperate with AFL unions seeking to organize blacks, and to conduct organizational campaigns for those unions. On January 6, 1935, the HLC staged the largest mass meeting of black workers ever held in Harlem, numbering over 4,000. Out of the HLC grew the Negro Labor Committee, founded on July 20, 1935. An inter-racial executive committee, with Crosswaith as chairman, fought for black equality in the labor movement until the organization’s demise in 1965. However, the NLC’s successes were limited and exceptional.
But in the mid-thirties circumstances existed which had no precedent in the history of American labor. Fueled by the high level of unemployment resulting from the worst depression America had ever endured, a movement emerged out of the 1935 AFL convention to organize the unorganized in the mass production industries. This was the Committee for Industrial Organization, the CIO, founded on November 9, 1935. The National Labor Relations Act, giving workers the right to vote for the union of their choice along with other provisions, became federal law that year. CIO leaders, John L. Lewis chief among them, recognized that blacks could hold the balance of power between union and non-union whites in the steel, auto, rubber, and meat-packing industries, which would form the backbone of the new union movement. Also, it had long been clear that industrial unionism could not succeed unless all workers in the particular industry were organized. More importantly, blacks were concentrated in strategic geographic locations in some industries. For example, blacks composed nearly seventy per cent of the steel and iron employees in Alabama.
In retrospect, Afro-American workers stood at an important historical crossroads in 1935–1936. After a long and basically fruitless effort to enter the labor movement, they now had to determine whether it was in their interest to support the CIO. Although most traditional leaders, especially among the clergy, urged black workers to continue to place their trust in the employers, more progressive groups, such as the National Negro Congress and the NAACP, quickly came to the support of the CIO as the best available hope for improving the economic condition of Negro industrial workers. It took an act of faith when little faith could be justified by past experience.
Part VI documents the issues confronting blacks at this important juncture in the mid-thirties; their response is the subject of Volume VII in this series.