1. FREDERICK DOUGLASS ON THE LABOR QUESTION8
Not the least important among the subjects to which we invite your earnest attention is the condition of the laboring class at the South. Their cause is one with the laboring classes all over the world. The labor unions of the country should not throw away this colored element of strength. Everywhere there is dissatisfaction with the present relation of labor and capital and today no subject wears an aspect more threatening to civilization than the respective claims of capital and labor, landlords and tenants.
It is a great mistake for any class of laborers to isolate itself and thus weaken the bond of brotherhood between those on whom the burden and hardships of labor fall. The fortunate ones of the earth, who are abundant in land and money and know nothing of the anxious care and pinching poverty of the laboring classes, may be indifferent to the appeal for justice at this point, but the laboring classes cannot afford to be indifferent. What labor everywhere wants, what it ought to have and will some day demand and receive, is an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. As the laborer becomes more intelligent he will develop what capital already possesses, that is the power to organize and combine for its own protection. Experience demonstrates that there may be a wages of slavery only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other. . . .
Proceedings, National Convention of Colored Men at Louisville, Kentucky, September 24, 1883.
OUR RELATIONS TO LABOR ORGANIZATIONS, THE VIEWS OF A COLORED MEMBER AND EX-MEMBER OF THE OHIO LEGISLATURE. FROM THE DETROIT PLAIN DEALER.
For twenty-eight years it has been my fortune to be associated with the white mechanics of the United States. . . . A mechanic myself, the many indignities to which colored men were formerly subjected were a portion of my experience. While it is not my intention to appear as a critic, your article contains some charges against organized labor that do not wholly support the facts as they exist in Ohio and the city of Cleveland, Ohio. Farther than this I know no more, except such information as is gleamed from the public press in regard to the work, objects and aims of organized labor societies. A member myself of the Carpenters’ and Joiners’ Union of Cleveland, Ohio, these facts are perfectly in my knowledge. In this organization, which is subordinate to the National organization, there are several colored members, and no distinction has ever been shown in the election to offices, obtaining employment, sick and death benefits, etc., etc. There are in Cleveland many colored men who are mechanics; and with a very few exceptions they are members of the particular organization formed in the interest of the trade. Bricklayers, plasterers, blacksmiths, cigar makers, machinists, molders, etc., have as members in each of their unions colored men. In the Knights of Labor there are colored men also; and to my certain knowledge in one local assembly, organized a few years ago, a colored man was a charter member. For years I have been importuned to enter into the formation of an assembly to be composed exclusively of colored men, but have persistently refused, believing as I do in mixing and not in isolating and ostracising ourselves, there by fostering and perpetuating the prejudice as existing today.
At no time, since my residence in our “Forest City,” over sixteen years, do I recall one instance where white laborers have refused to work with the colored co-laborers. While I do not say that such instances have not occurred, if happening in labor organizations, certainly they would have come to my knowledge.
On the 26th day of January there convened in the city of Columbus the “State Trades and Labor Assembly of Ohio.” A delegate to that assembly was a colored man, Robert Gray, Esq., a resident of Akron, O., by occupation a bricklayer and a member of the union in that city. There was no doubt as to his genuineness, as his distinctive color precluded that. In a conversation with the gentleman I learned that he had occupied every station in the local organization, from the lowest to the highest, and that no distinction was or ever had been shown him on account of his color. In reading your article he unhesitatingly said that you certainly must have been misinformed, for no such prejudice had ever been shown during his connection with labor unions, and especially the Knights of Labor. That there were no such distinctions either taught or sanctioned by these organizations in any manner; that if they did exist it was of a local nature and totally at variance with the principles of labor unions.
I am aware that in certain localities where prejudice against the colored man has had unlimited sway the local atmosphere has become so polluted thereby that it is impossible to eradicate or overcome that prejudice, except by persistent efforts, a new and comprehensive knowledge of one’s particular trade, which demonstrates the ability of a master workman and demands admission to the ranks of labor.
Education enters largely into the consideration as to whether a person has reached the necessary point where his labor demands the remuneration and consideration that all labor should receive. In many branches of trade it is an utter impossbility to reach this point without a thorough knowledge of geometrical lines and their practical uses. Some do not require this, but all are benefitted by acquiring a knowledge of a common school education.
Therefore it becomes necessary for those who desire to enter upon mechanical pursuits, that the first requisite steps to be taken by them is that of education. All mechanics of any age admit this to be a settled fact. Your question, “can intelligence alone keep the body alive?” is pertinent, and we answer, No! But education without application is to be taken the same as application without education.
My experience has proven to me conclusively that our boys, or at least a majority of them, have no tendencies to enter into the mechanical pursuits. For years my whole efforts have been directed to educating the youth of my acquaintance to the fact that hard labor was largely on the decrease and a steady downward tendency; that in a few years a master workman, one who thoroughly understands his particular trade, would be able to command the highest remuneration for his labor. But I have often seen my efforts vanish in mid-air and to-day I know of but three colored boys who are apprentices in the city of Cleveland, and this in the face of a large population. One fault lies in the want of foresight, which can only be remedied by teaching the youth the many advantages to be obtained in after years, by an application to the acquirements necessary to enter the pursuit of mechanical trades.
In my immediate vicinity no trouble exists as to gaining admission into shops, factories and other branches of the trades a young man may desire to enter. If our youths prefer to enter into the profession in preference to the trades, we cannot shape their course otherwise but by teaching them the folly of it. Soon, we shall become a race of professional men in whose ranks there does not exist the prejudice that exists in the trades, as education always tends to the eradication of prejudice.
With you I firmly believe that this matter should be plainly and forcibly brought before our race, and to such valuable educators as the Plaindealer and others that could be named, we look for such teachings as will tend to benefit us in every manner. There is no influence that will be a greater lever to eradicate all prejudices that may exist than the influence of education, organization and agitation. But no separate organizations can effect what we desire to accomplish; for as we are a component part of this great government, we must have accorded to us such treatment as other citizens have, which can only be obtained by persistant agitation and intermingling. If one applies for admission either as a member of an organization or for an apprenticeship in a workshop, let him not be discouraged by one refusal, but continue, and his aim will eventually be accomplished. Much more could I say, but my advice is summed up in a few words; educate the children; teach them their duties as citizens; that they are inferior to no other race on the face of the globe; to always assert their manhood at all times and places; that all labor is honorable, and that it is far more preferable to be a mechanic than to occupy any menial position.
JERE A. BROWN
CONSIDERED ALMOST UTOPIAN.—You ask, “How can the hostile forces of labor be best combatted and overthrown? Now I cannot answer that question—it is too difficult for me. If I could answer it, I would hold the key that would unlock the secret of the future success and happiness of our proscribed people in the United States. For, once remove the barriers and obstacles in the way which prevent us from enjoying equal facilities in the way of serving an apprenticeship and working on the scaffold, side by side with white men, in all the various trades and avocations in life, and presto, we succeed to wealth, social station and all that they imply. There are thousands and thousands of ambitious young colored men with strong arms and willing hearts, who would jump at the opportunity of going into a work-shop or on a scaffold to learn a trade, could the feat be accomplished, in the ordinary way; and especially if they could be encouraged to believe that the time and labor given to learning a trade would not be in vain; that they would not be ostracised and compelled to wander from “pillar to post” in search of employment on account of their color. Did you ever think that the obstacles placed in our way by caste are more discouraging to the average boy or man than even adverse legislative enactment? There is no status which forbids a dry goods merchant, banker or other dealer in our city from employing colored persons, and yet, to see one in such a position is almost a phenomenon. In fact, the “tyrant custom” seems to have frozen us out so completely, that any thought of attaining to such positions, even by those of our young people who succeed in acquiring a first class education, is considered almost utopian.
What shall we do then to overcome this hostile, discouraging power? We must, at least, continue to aspire, prepare ourselves as best we can, so that when one of us does succeed in attaining any position, its duties will be faithfully and well performed. We must do everything we can to encourage those of our own household.
“Equity demandeth recompense
For high place—calumny and care:
For State—comfortless splendor eating on the heart of home;
For warrior fame—dangers and death,
For a name among the learned—a spirit over strained;
For honor of all kinds—the goal of ambition.
Upon every acquirement the tax of anxiety.”
JOHN P. GREEN9
New York Freeman, March 13, 1886.10
BOSTON, April 6.—The Knights of Labor, not as an organization but as individuals, have, at the workshops, manufactories and in all the trades, proscribed the black man. We have been asked by colored men, “Will the high officials give assurance that we shall not be subjected to a like policy in the future?” We are persuaded that they would. Let a committee of well-known gentlemen be appointed to wait on the master workmen and find out about it.
J. GORDON STREET
New York Freeman, April 10, 1886.
All the world, as far as this country is concerned, appears to have gone mad, after the Knights of Labor. The newspapers, and the politicians appear to be as much on the fence as they were forty years ago on the slavery question, doubting which side to take in the conflict impending. The Knights of Labor have sprung into power like a young giant. Only a few years ago and the wailings of the toilers of the land were poohpoohed by the press and unheeded by the politicians, while the lords of capital smiled in their sleeves at complaints and demands which seemed so utterly absurd as to warrant no serious reflection. In the last Presidential election the vote of the Labor party was such a very small thing as actually to have been lost in the great stack of votes polled by the two national parties. How will it be in the future? The power of the leaders of the labor unions as demonstrated during the past six months, puts an entirely new phase on this aspect of the matter. Labor has heretofore been powerless simply because it was a disorganized, leaderless mass. Now it is organized; now it has masterful leadership. At the nod of an authorized person thousands of men in every line of industry desert their posts of duty and simply paralyze the productive and carrying agencies of the country. Before this organized power capital, even the great body of the people, is as powerless as labor once was.
Political economists have for years snarled at the proposition that labor was the productive and capital the non-productive force in our sociology, and that when labor ceased to produce capital would wither into the elements out of which it was delved. But the events of the past few months have gone very far towards vindicating the tenability of the proposition. The political economist of the future will have largely to reconstruct this glaring heresy before he has a correct premise upon which to predicate his deductions and conclusions.
To become an invincible power the Knights of Labor have wisely concluded to enlist the support of all grades of labor, barring out no nationality except that of the Chinese. Hence colored men all over the Union, are rapidly becoming affiliated with the organization. For instance the colored waiters of New York have formed a strong assembly of the Knights of Labor, and meet Thursday every week at Garnet Hall, and some of the ablest speakers of the Central organization are present to instruct them in the requirements of the parent Union. In most other branches of labor colored men are affiliated with white organizations, not being strong enough to form a separate assembly. We predicted this result a year ago in the book we published under the title of “Black and White,” but we did not expect so speedy a consummation of the prediction then made.11
We do not hesitate to say we fear the conflict which must result from organized capital on the one hand and organized labor on the other. The gravity of such conflict is correctly estimated by those more directly interested pro and con. We believe in that absolute justice which it is so very difficult to secure in either the social or political relations of men. Tyranny, some one of its multiform variations, seems far more natural in the practice than equity. It therefore almost reduces itself to a choice between the tyrants we shall have, and of which of them is the safer. For centuries we have had the tyranny of capital, and an odious and unjust tyranny it has been, and if we are to have the tyranny of labor we shall after awhile be in position to judge which of them is the more odious, which the more conducive to the happiness of the greatest number and to the general progress of the race.
After all it is a matter of how far forth the masses shall share with the capitalistic oligarchs and sharks the interest of the fruits of labor—whether the fellow who develops the gold mine shall sleep on a board and eat pone cake and hog, while the fellow who claims to own the mine, but does not work it, shall sleep in a palace and fill his stomach with caramels and ice cream.
The revolution is upon us, and since we are largely of the laboring population it is very natural that we should take sides with the labor forces in their fight for a juster distribution of the results of labor. We cannot afford to stand off from or to antagonize the army under whose banners we labor in the common lot of toil. We do not make conditions. All we can do is to fall into line on the right or left, and which side it shall be will depend entirely upon whether we are a capitalist or a laborer.
New York Freeman, March 20, 1886.
Scarcely any leaders of public opinion watch the tendency of current events more closely, or discuss the probable effect upon the interest of their constituents more plainly than the colored editors of the country. The Negro press has got to be a firmly established fact; and as the number of newspapers edited by colored men increases, showing that the number of colored readers of newspapers is also increasing, its influence and power for good must grow as its intelligence, discretion and wisdom grows. It is not longer possible to reckon on any matter affecting the colored race without counting in the influence of the colored press. And it is likely to become more and more an important factor in the reckoning.
This fact finds indorsement in the discussions of two colored papers last week on the liveliest issues of the day. The Detroit Plaindealer, for example, which boasts of being “the only colored newspaper ever endorsed by a State convention,” debates the question whether colored laborers shall join or shall be permitted to join the Knights of Labor. The first step toward removing prejudice and the idea of the colored laborer’s inferiority is for him to make the common cause of the wage workers his own; “and in accomplishing this,” says the Plaindealer, “no better opportunity is to be had than by connecting himself with such labor organizations, as show a disposition to take him in, and who, perhaps influenced by self-interest, more than anything else, are willing in the general movement for the emancipation of the wage-worker to include him. It is therefore meet that all such overtures of friendship on their part should be met half way and a unit made for a common cause.”
Such overtures of friendship have already been made to the Afro-American, as the Plaindealer calls him, by the Knights of Labor of Detroit, “the first public attempt” the organization has made “to gather him into its ranks.” There has as yet been no Negro made a Knight of Labor, because on the part of the organization, “the same effort to enlist the white mechanic or tradesman in their order was not made to enlist the colored wage worker,” and, on the part of the colored men themselves, because this organization was looked upon as something kindred to trades union in objecting to him as a member of their organization, and, as he has known to his cost, both as to pocket and personal feeling, in refusing to work with him. Such experience has no tendency to make a man rush blind-folded into meeting insult and prejudice.
But the invitation having come, the Plaindealer advises its acceptance and recommends the colored men not to form new assemblies, but join the old ones. “Isolate themselves,” it says, “by forming separate assemblies, and they will foster and encourage the idea of inferiority and thus delay their emancipation as workmen. Unite with the older, reap the benefit of long organization, and the stride forward will be more rapid. There is in this movement of labor much that is to be commended. Its object is a glorious one. Its accomplishment is not far off, and the Afro-American should take a hand in the fight and be in at the finish.”
It does not greatly matter whether the harmonious assimilation of a considerable body of colored laborers by the Knights of Labor is practicable or possible to-day or not. The fact that an organ of Negro opinion, reaching with its influence a considerable body of Negro workers, can discuss this question with such intelligence and shrewd appreciation of its salient points as they pertain to the interest of its people, is the significant thing to be noted. A people which sustains an honest and intelligent press will not long lack the knowledge which is the basis of strength and independence. New York Age, April 10, 1886.
6. JOHN R. LYNCH ON THE COLOR LINE IN RANKS OF LABOR12
Mr. J. S. Woods, president of the Hod Carrier’s Union, told me that I was misinformed about the hod carriers taking part in the parade of May 1. Said he: “There were only four of our members in the procession out of 275, and they are the only four of our Union who belong to the Knights of Labor. The Knights of Labor sent a committee to wait upon our Union asking us to adopt their charter as our own. We inquired if they would concede the right of apprenticeship to our children and admit those of us who are mechanics to full membership in all of their different lodges, allow us to work upon the same scaffold together as their brother?”
Said he: “What reply do you think that committee gave us? The chairman of that committee told our Union that these questions would be an after consideration. Isn’t that proof that the Knights of Labor intend to use the colored man as a tool? Suppose our Union had accepted the proposition, without asking them for equal rights? We would have been duped into a second slavery. Further than that the Negroes are barred out of the machine shops, the factories, off of railroad engine and all other mechanical doors are closed against him controlled by the Knights of Labor.”
I asked Mr. Woods if the Hod Carriers’ Union was a secret organization? “No, sir,” was his answer, “but the Knights of Labor and trades unions are. I have no objections to any secret orders that do justice to all nationalities alike.”
He asked me if I had ever heard of a colored society being boisterous in the strikes of 1877 and 1878. The few colored men who took part were hunted down, arrested, tried, punished in the courts and kept out of employment by the same white working men who inaugurated the strikes. There were several colored unions that did not turn out May 1. Among them the Teamster’s Union, which number 200 and over; the Coachman’s Union, 160 strong; Hotel Waiters, Butlers and a number of others that would have added a thousand more to the procession.
The Trades Unions or the Knights of Labor cannot succeed as long as the color line exists. Mr. Wood said: “We are well aware of that and there is an agreement among all the colored Unions of this city to stand aloof from all white labor organizations that refuse to recognize us as their brother. These white organizations must concede all rights to the colored man themselves. When they do this then the Hod Carriers’ Union will unite with them.” . . . The colored laborers should not allow themselves to be placed in an antagonistic position towards the laboring classes of other races, unless the hostility and opposition of those classes make such a course on their part, a necessity.
We all know it to be a fact that labor organizations, in many parts of the country, among the whites, do not recognize the meritorious claims of colored people. Why? That race prejudice has something to do with it cannot be truthfully denied, but this, in my opinion, is not the principle reason. Less than a quarter of a century ago the colored people of this country had no political, social or industrial status. The laboring people of that race represented, at the time, contrary to their own wishes, it is true, opposition to free, intelligent and remunerative labor. This was one of the principal causes of the late civil war—the war between free and slave labor. The colored laborers were justly looked upon, at that time, and consequently unjustly looked upon in many localities now, as a degraded and servile class. It is the present duty of the colored people to do whatever is necessary to eradicate this erroneous impression. Let them impress the white laborers with the fact that while they are not disposed to antagonize their interests, and are determined not to do so, unless it becomes a necessity, yet they insist upon justice themselves—a right to an equal participation in the enjoyment of the fruits of honest and well paid labor.
I do not wish to be understood as endorsing all the means that are employed by some labor organizations to secure a recognition of the justice of their claims. Lawlessness should never be countenanced or encouraged. The laboring people of the country can, in my opinion, through organization and cooperation, secure for themselves the just rewards of labor without resorting to any methods that cannot be sanctioned by the most law abiding people of the community. . . . Colored men should not identify themselves with any organization that seeks the accomplishment of its purposes through a resort of lawlessness and violence. They should maintain their reputation of being a law-abiding and law-observing people, except so far as may be necessary for the protection of themselves and their families. They should discountenance, discourage and condemn lawlessness, violence, communism, socialism and anarchy. . . .
The laboring people in this country can secure all the rights to which they are justly entitled without violating law, and there is no better way to bring about this result than through organization. The legitimate object and purpose of labor organizations should be to call public attention to the condition and wants of the laboring people with a view to creating a sentiment that will enforce a recognition of their just and reasonable demands—to unite their efforts and labors in an intelligent direction for their mutual aid, protection and advancement. Such organizations, created and organized for such purposes, are entitled to and should receive the assistance and support of laboring colored people. It is understood, of course, that I refer to such organizations as do not discriminate on account of race or color in the admission of persons to membership. I hope it is not neccessary to advise the laboring colored people to strongly oppose and antagonize every organization that will exclude persons of color from the organization without regard to merit. . . . It is the duty of the colored people of the present generation to give their sons and daughters an industrial education and have them contend for recognition by, and admission into, reputable and intelligent labor organizations, and take their chances in the race of life upon terms of equality with the whites.
The A.M.E. Church Review, III (October 1886): 165–67.
From the Detroit Plaindealer.
THE REMEDY A POLITICAL ONE.—In discussing the labor problems and the Negro’s connection therewith we must first confess in the question of labor as with politics we rail against obstructionists in the way of our advancement, while the fault is largely our own; do we take instant hold of our advantages?
We are the unskilled labor of the country, and unskilled labor is a close ally to pauperism; pauperism is a communist, and it is into this condition that the customs, discriminations and injustices of the white race is forcing us. It has been the unwritten law of the land that color disqualifies a man for positions that involve master minds and trained hands, and it is as absurd as the principles of prejudice which debar the Negro from acquiring that sort of protection and education; it is tyrannous and barbaric, as well as injurious to the economies, political and moral.
In the South the Negro will first find a general sympathy for his legitimate advancement, and a personal interest in his prosperity and well being. The Negro question in the North is merely a theoretical one, which cannot be appreciated by those of the South where the same is practical. In the North the Negro is a sentiment, and illegitimate political agitation has been the bane of the race. In the South he is the most important part of the daily life and labor of the country; having interests in common with the white race and bound to it by many ties of friendship, obligation and consanguinity. The educated Southern people almost as a whole feel the heartiest desire for the moral and industrial elevation of the Negro, and are doing all they can to promote the same. They have studied carefully the moral of the census of 1880.
From the South and from one to the manor born came the first pleading of our case in equity; and a noble effort it was. It would have been accepted by the South had not Mr. Cable attempted the social status of the Negro. Here is the cause of where we are today, politically, educationally, our civil rights and our standing in regard to labor. 13
While the Republican party exulted in the achievement of the liberty of the slave, they turned a deaf ear to the half freed slave’s cry of right and justice, and hoping to woo eternal peace to the heart of the Nation allowed the helpless citizens born of throes of war to be led away into a thraldom all the more pitiable and unjust because seemingly sanctified with mercy and sanctioned with the approval of their natural guardian and protector.
That is the cause of our condition.
I believe that it is folly to try to effect the object of which you and I and all so much desire, outside of politics.
If the combination of labor and independentism will smash a Democratic machine in one State, a Republican ring in another, and make a Republican administration in Michigan give consolidated labor everything it asks and more, we should combine and utilize the same for our purpose. We by our votes make at least three congressmen, hold the balance of power in this State. Why not use it? And taking the whole country through what can we not do? We could force a recognition of all our wants. Let an organization patterned after the Knights of Labor be formed, and every colored man North and South join it and give it the full weight of his confidence and labor, and if this combination be true to each other force each of the great political parties to accede us our rights.
Although we may not at first come up to the highest standard as political and labor revolutionists, it will open the way for more advanced positions in the future, this may not be all we desire, but it is in the right direction, and if such a movement is supported by us solidly it will eventually lead us to all which we desire. As a means of enforcing recognition of us politically and industrially it is perhaps all that is necessary.
This principle is a nucleus about which we can all crystalize, it is no ubiquitous most, inefficient and helpless, but it is a dozing lion which can awaken to power and glory.
C. FABE MARTIN,
Dowgiac, Mich., March 1, 1886.
. . . The Detroit Plaindealer, . . . which boasts of being “the only colored newspaper ever endorsed by a State convention,” debates the question whether colored laborers shall join or shall be permitted to join the Knights of Labor. The first step toward removing prejudice and the idea of the colored laborer’s inferiority is for him to make the common cause of the wage workers his own, “and in accomplishing this,” says the Plaindealer, “no better opportunity is to be had than by connecting himself with such labor organizations, as show a dispostion to take him in, and who, perhaps influenced by self-interest, more than anything else, are willing in the general movement for the emancipation of the wage-worker to include him. It is therefore meet that all such overtures of friendship on their part should be met half way and a unit made for a common cause.”
Such overtures of friendship have already been made to the Afro-American, as the Plaindealer calls him, by the Knights of Labor of Detroit, “the first public attempt” the organization has made “to gather him into its ranks.” There has as yet been no Negro made a Knight of Labor, because on the part of the organization, “the same effort to enlist the white mechanic or “tradesman in their order was not made to enlist the colored wage worker,” and, on the part of the colored men themselves, because “this organization was looked upon as something kindred to trades union in objecting to him as a member of their organization, and, as he has known to his cost, both as to pocket and personal feeling, in refusing to work with him. Such experience has no tendency to make a man rush blind-folded into meeting insult and prejudice.”
But the invitation having come, the Plaindealer advises its acceptance; and recommends the colored men not to form new assemblies, but join the old ones. “Isolate themselves,” it says, “forming separate assemblies, and they will foster and encourage the idea of inferiority and thus delay their emancipation as workmen. Unite with the older, reap the benefit of long organization, and the stride forward will be more rapid. There is in this movement of labor much that is to be commended. Its object is a glorious one. Its accomplishment is not far off, and the Afro-American should take a hand in the fight and be in at the finish.”
New York Freeman, April 10, 1886.
. . . There is one striking feature, however, of these strikes. . . . It is the utter dependence of our colored union men upon the disposition of the whites. For instance, the hod carriers, who are for the most part colored, by reason of the dissatisfaction of the bricklayers, were forced, by their dependence, to join the strike, notwithstanding the wages they were receiving was quite satisfactory. As for colored bricklayers, plasterers, and the like, they have not taken any considerable part in the strikes. This grows out of the fact that they have not been invited. These colored bricklayers and plasterers, in order to insure the proper performance of their labor, must depend entirely upon colored hod carriers. But these hod carriers, by reason of their regulations and their dependence upon the whites, are forced to ignore the demands of colored mechanics, and the consequence is a corresponding disadvantage to the colored mechanic. Moreover, were the colored hod carriers less allied with the whites and were there a stronger attachment on their part to the colored journeymen and mechanic, should the whites strike for unreasonable demands, an opportunity would be offered to colored mechanics whereby they could monopolize the trade which would greatly benefit to both, mechanic and unskilled laborer. But as it is, the colored mechanic and colored common laborer must suffer together, notwithstanding the one is not entitled to the benefits, while from the other is withheld wages which he deems satisfactory. As we said before, our sympathies are with the working classes; but they are first of all with the colored laborer which is being discriminated against and crushed wherever it is possible and made dependent when it can be treated no worse.
Now the question which occurs to us is, cannot something be done which will unite all colored labor into one strong fraternity with the view to establishing an importance and a power which will either force the white Unions to open wide their doors, or enable sub-fraternities to stand independently of the white striker? The attitude of the colored laborer in this country is simply humiliating. Trained mechanics and willing workers are told that they cannot join a Union formed ostensibly for the purpose of protecting labor and for defending itself against the impositions and tyranny of capital. Would it not be wiser to stand aloof and attract attention and sympathy by filling up the breaks which these strikes occasion, rather than manifest undue sympathy for a movement which in practice operates against the interests of colored labor? The time has come when the colored laborer must look to himself for protection. It is unreasonable in the view of past history, to suppose that the whites will show any very great interest in our material welfare and unless we begin to form counter forces to those which the whites are forming against us, we will find ourselves gradually growing weaker and weaker until, having no power to defend, we will succumb and be forced to occupy those grades of labor which are unremunerative and which the whites decline to perform. When we consider our dependence upon our labor, we cannot fail to see the importance of striving to protect it, and of encouraging alliances which will tend to strengthen and develop it. Let us have a consolidated Colored Craftsmen’s Protective Union and see what by earnest effort wisdom and fraternal co-operation can be accomplished.
Strikes are good things for the whites because they are benefited; they will become beneficial to us only when we manifest a disposition to oppose discrimination and determine to protect ourselves.
The Washington Bee, May 8, 1886.
Knights of Labor. You are right in seeking to protect an elevated labor; but you are wrong if you forget that capital honestly obtained is labor; it is the stored up energy of labor. Don’t overlook your strongest argument. Here it is: according to the census of 1880 the wealth of this country increased the ten preceding years from $24,000,000,000 to $43,640,000,000. In the same time, the same census reveals the average wages of the laboring man per annum decreased from a little more than $400 to $300. That is, while the wealth increased some 80 per cent wages decreased one-fourth. There is something frightfully wrong in this. Machinery and the competitive system applied to wages are grinding the working man. We must look this fact in the face. In some way it can be righted and must be righted. There can be no permanent progress that does not lift society from the bottom. Free discussion, the force of reason, with patience, will right the wrong.
The Christian Recorder, April 29, 1886.
We have taken the position that the colored laborers of the United States cannot afford to antagonize white laborers when the latter are on strike for whatever cause. We regret to see so good a man as Mr. T. McCants Stewart go wrong on this question, as he does in a recent issue of a local contemporary, basing his article on the views advanced by us in our issue of May 1. Of course, Mr. Stewart has an American citizen’s right to go wrong on any question it please him to. But despite Mr. Stewart’s endorsement of the proposition advanced by the Enterprise that colored men should make themselves officious in taking the places of white strikers, we still pronounce the doctrine pernicious, the practice of which would intensify the antagonism between white and colored labor, so long a bone of contention, but which happily is fast giving way to a more just and reasonable state of things all over the country.
The best and most forcible endorsement of the position here taken is furnished by the action of the white workmen of Baltimore, as reported in the Baltimore Daily American, to which Mr. Isaac Myers of that city was so kind as to call our attention. We advise Mr. Stewart and the editor of the Enterprise to read the following item from the American:14
The workmen have a practical illustration of a boycott at the [illegible] Monday afternoon. Soon after the procession broke up in Scheutzen Park, a number of the colored men taking part in the festivities, went into the Mansion House to get some refreshments. This portion of the building property on the ground is never included in the privileges and when the thirsty workmen asked for drinks, the man in charge turned them down. Thereupon the colored men went out and made complaint of the treatment they had received. The committee in charge without delay placed a sub-committee at the door, and would not permit any one to patronize that bar or eating saloon. The means they took were effectual. Business at this end was literally cut off.
It must be borne in mind, to properly appreciate this manly action of the white workmen of Baltimore, that color prejudice is nowhere in the Union more firmly entrenched and rampant than in Baltimore. . . .
New York Freeman, May 22, 1886.
Does the colored laborer in the South receive less wages than a white laborer does for the same grade of labor? The Southern Leader says:
“We claim that, to a large extent, white mechanics are better paid than colored mechanics here for doing the same quality of work, either as carpenters or bricklayers, and that in a majority of cases, colored laborers and mechanics are given employment by white contractors and capitalists simply because they can be had at lower wages than can white laborers and mechanics. We claim that, in a majority of cases, white contractors and capitalists would not employ colored mechanics and laborers if they demanded the same wages paid to white mechanics and laborers. Now, if colored men join the Knights of Labor, they will be compelled to demand the same wages as the white Knights of Labor get, and that, through race prejudice, they will throw themselves out of employment.”
We think your logic is frothy. A Knight of Labor is a Knight of Labor, be he black or white. If the inequality in the relative wages paid black and white laborers is to be rectified it is to be accomplished by an understanding with white laborers and a union of forces to compel the equalization. The colored laborer stands on the same footing with the white laborer in point of interest, and to better secure their just rights the two must combine and work together. The colored laborer cannot antagonize the white laborer without jeopardizing his own interest. The proposition is as plain as the nose on your face.
New York Freeman, October 2, 1886.
The Morals of Labor
You often hear lawyers and doctors speak about the ethics of their professions. This means nothing more than those rules which should govern the lawyers and doctors in their relation to each other and to their clients and patients. Now, every occupation has its ethics. The workingmen are bound by moral obligations to have regard for the interests of one another; i.e. they are morally bound to give one another equal chance in the great race for bread. Then they must observe all the rules for the government of their relations to the employer. This is very important, as the good of society depends entirely upon the faithful observance of the laws of reciprocity. The Great Teacher has laid down one infallible rule which is ample for all the transactions of life, viz: “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” I would like for you to regard this divine injunction as your constitution, and then adopt the following by-laws:
1. Decide what you are going to follow for a living.
2. Select an occupation in keeping with your abilities and capabilities.
3. Thoroughly qualify yourself for that calling.
4. Always have a plain understanding with your employer as to wages and hours of work.
5. Carry out your part of the contract “though the heavens fall.”
6. Be at the place at the time appointed, do faithfully your work in good spirit, not grumblingly, and then your employer will meet you in a like spirit, and your life will be one of happiness.
7. Consider that for the time being you are the property of your employer, and faithfully obey his instructions and requests.
8. It is better—more honest—to give him an hour or two of labor than to cheat him by idling or work poorly performed.
9. Avoid intoxicants, especially while you are at work, for as your time belongs to your employer, you should strive to render faithful, intelligent, service, which cannot be done under the influence of liquor. Besides, you endanger your own life and the safety of the property you are paid to protect.
10. Be frank, and never under any circumstances deceive your employer. If you have done wrong, or made a mistake, own it like a man. He will respect you more for it.
11. Treat your employer’s property as you would your own; and if you are a careless man, treat it better.
12. Be polite and gentle to your fellow workmen and your employer, as coarse jests and ill temper are out of place even on the rock pile, as well as in the parlor. Remember the street scavenger can be a Chesterfield as well as the gentleman of fashion who graces the Richest drawing room.
“True politeness is to do and say
The noblest things in the kindest way.”
I shall next consider Labor, Capital and Wealth.
1. Labor has been defined.
2. Capital is that which is employed to produce wealth.
3. Wealth is accumulated capital at rest.
Society can no more be in a healthful state without the harmonious working of these three elements, governed by ethics, than the human body could without the united action of heart, arteries and veins influenced by the lungs. Let me go a step further and say that labor is capital, or labor and capital are one. Labor is power. That power produces wealth. That wealth in action is called capital, and thus the work of labor, capital and wealth goes on subduing the earth. Every individual with all the powers and capacities of his constitution sound, is a capitalist to the extent of the exercise of those powers. That which such exercise produces and he accumulates is wealth, and if he wish to employ it to produce other wealth, it becomes capital.
The peanut vendor is a capitalist to the extent of his investment in earth nuts, roaster, pans, baskets, etc. The little girl who peddles laces, or newspapers, or pins around the streets, is as much a capitalist to the extent of her investment as Mr. Vanderbilt or Mr. Gould. Mr. Gould and Mr. Vanderbilt have simply by the exercise of more economy, sagacity and energy accumulated more wealth than she. But the peanut vendor may become a greater capitalist as he accumulates more wealth and employs it. It is folly to go point the finger of prejudice and envy at the very rich people and cry: “These men oppress us; these capitalists are sharks; these wealth people have our earnings.” It is not only folly, but it is unjust. I see many of you with watches and chains, rings on your fingers, and pins on your breasts. These articles are wealth. They represent so much capital—labor or money—at rest. The man who owns the watch worth $8 and the one with the $100 watch, are men of wealth to the valuation of those useful articles. The poor laborer, who, by industry and frugality, after the exercise of his capital—his muscle—accumulates enough to buy an acre of land and erect a small cottage for his faithful wife and little ones, was in turn a laborer, capitalist, and is now a man of wealth to the value of that happy little home, where peace and virtue reign and upon which the blessings of God rest. Mr. Vanderbilt is a man of greater wealth than this man, but it is because he operated a larger capital. Sometimes a spirit of envy creeps in between these two capitalists and then both suffer—each in proportion to his wealth. This brings me to consider Agrarianism. 15
This form of ownership originated in bloody Rome. It was tried among the early Christians. Wherever it has been introduced failure and crime followed. The population of the United States and Territories is 50,155,783; the value of real estate and personal property is $16,902,993,443. Divide this according to agrarianism and each person would get $337, which by trade and speculation would soon again be in the hands of a few. And thus with each day we should have to re-collect and re-distribute. Out of such a system no good could possibly come. Nature everywhere teaches that differences and distinctions must exist. Why has she been more lavish with the peafowl than with the crow? Why has she bedecked the gold finch or the bird of paradise more gorgeously than the snow bird or the hawk? Why the lily more fragrant than the sun flower? Why the difference in the magnitude of the twinkling stars? Why the dissimilarity in the talents of men? Why are some men born idiots and others with the sparkling gems of genius shining in their souls? Why do some mountains possess millions of dollars of the precious or useful minerals and others only sandstone or lime rock? The answers are secrets locked up in the mystery of the Almighty. The man of talent, of push, of energy, frugality and sagacity can not help accumulating more of the results of labor than the individual of opposite qualities. Agrarianism is a foe to thrift and activity, and encourages idleness and stagnation. It would paralyze business and cause the wheels of industry to hang dry and still over the stream of progress.
Agrarianism is a hydra-headed monster. It has presented itself in many forms and at various times. To-day it breeds discontent among the common people which to-morrow bursts into rebellion and revolution. Lawlessness prevails, property is destroyed and bloody murder stalks boldly abroad. Is anything gained? No! as loud as heaven’s loudest artillery can sound it. All classes of capitalists are weakened, wealth is destroyed, and fond Hope, the bright anchor of the soul, sits dark and gloomy in the ashes of ruin.
Communism. Saint-Simonianism, nihilism, anarchy, socialism, Henry Georgeism, are all dangerous forms of that hideous monster, agrarianism. Every capitalist—every man of wealth—whether his muscle is his only stock in trade or not, or whether he counts his capital and wealth by dimes or by millions—should seize the bludgeon of reason and justice and strike the monster—the common foe to the progress and happiness of man—a deadly blow. It is true that laboring men have their grievances, but strikes are not the means by which these wrongs may be set right. The appeal to strikes is an appeal from reason to error, from justice to injustice, from order to disorder, from law to riot, from morality to immorality, from virtue to sin, from innocence to murder. The strike is a foe to the infant at the mother’s breast; it is an enemy to the happiness of home; it is the howling wolf at the door of the humble cottage; it is hostile to personal liberty; it is an enemy to religion, it is the embodiment of riot and murder striding through the land stamping out the life of the nation, crushing out the manhood of the citizens, setting a premium upon crime and outlawing virtue and honesty. I wish I had the power to represent it in its true light. A mass of grumbling, dissatisfied men who will not work, by desperation and lawlessness deterring others from honest toil. Business is paralyzed and millions of dollars sunk. But this is small compared to the suffering and misery and want in the homes of these frantic men. Could we but lift the curtain which hides their dark homes, a picture would be presented which would cause the blood to chill and sicken the soul. These men hang around the saloons and stifle the cries for bread from their homes by liquor and beer- a morsel of cheese or a cracker answering for food. But what about the wretched wife and starving child?16
But they do not stop there. The torch, pistol, the knife, the bomb and infernal machines are brought into play their deadly parts. Then the fire fiend with his angry tongue laps up wealth and happy homes, the knife and the pistol start streams of human gore down the gutters of the streets, and the hellish bomb brings massive edifices cracking, crumbling to the earth.
The fiend having sated himself in gore and ruin, surveys the field of desolation. What has been gained? Nothing. If permitted he returns to work with a weakened constitution, less respect of his family, kept under the watch of the law, without the confidence of his employer and with the curse of his own conscience. You ask: “If strikes are not the remedy, what is the remedy?” Have a clear understanding with your employer. Try to enter into his interests and feelings. Tell him plainly that you can not afford to work for him at present rates. If he can not or does not raise your wages, give him notice that you will quit at a certain time, and then do not interfere with the person engaged in your place. All parties will feel better, and your employer may soon be able to grant your request and recall you. You certainly have no right to interfere with others who are willing to work for him.
The colored laborer can neither afford to strike nor encourage strikes. He has felt the baneful effects of them. He has time and time again seen white labor organizations resort to this method of getting colored men out of employment. If it is right against the employer for higher wages, it is right against a fellow-workman on account of race or color. But it is not right at all. This is a country of law and order, and the negro’s salvation lies in his willing obedience to law—fairly and impartially administered.
I do not deny labor the right of organization for the advancement of its interests. This is legitimate and highly proper so long as the general interests of society are protected. There is perhaps, no country upon the globe which extends greater liberties and protection to labor than the United States of America. In Alabama and many other states of the union, the mechanic’s lien enables him to compel the employer to fulfill his obligations, but the employer has no remedy against the mechanic except in rare cases where bonds have been given by the contractor.
The cause of the laboring man has kept pace with the march of civilization and progress, until the order of government has been reversed and the laboring classes have become the rulers. However, they are threatened with great danger growing out of the slavery entailed by labor organizations. Few of them are for the real advancement of the interests of labor, but mere machines for the personal aggrandizement of the politicians who stand behind the scenes. The laborer, in attempting to avoid the imaginary Scylla of capital, may dash his life out against the terrible Charybdis of demogogy. Our laws all favor the laborer, and I make this assertion regardless of statements of those who see gain in keeping labor in a state of excitement. In Egypt, many hundreds years ago, the poorer class could not be anything else. They were not permitted, under heavy penalties, to change their occupations or locations. A hod carrier was doomed to that work during his natural life. Other countries more recently oppressed labor just as severely. I mention this in illustration of the depths from which labor has come. Today the laborer may not only change his location but may change his occupation, and ply a dozen if he choose to do so. An organization which has for its object the moral and intellectual advancement of its members, as well as their financial welfare, is not objectionable and should be encouraged. But where prejudice is aroused against other forms of labor (as capital, banking, etc., etc.,) they are lawless, dangerous, and should be shunned by every good laboring man. No organization outside of a benevolent institution should be secret, and I doubt the propriety of all secret societies. Secrecy is too often the cloak for evil and scheming. The dark clouds of secrecy have ever been the means of over-awing or misleading the lower classes. Permit me to introduce here the following extract from an address bearing upon this subject. It is so excellent that I will be pardoned for clipping at length and endorsing it in toto:
The twenty-fourth annual Grand International Convention of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers was held in Chicago on the 19th October, with delegates present from all parts of the Union. The Grand Chief Engineer, P. M. Arthur, with his usual rare good sense, said in the course of his annual address: “We are enemies only to wrong in its various devices and garbs, and can assuredly say that political schemes and aspirations have no place nor part in our association. A mighty army of men, representing 365 divisions, has gathered about a nucleus of 12 men who, 24 years ago assembled in the city of Detroit and started an organization destined to be more than they knew or dreamed. To-day we number 25,000 men, and while our numbers are great, we would not have you consider only the quantity, but the quality as well. To be a Brotherhood man, four things are requisite, namely: Sobriety, truth, justice, and morality. This is our motto, and upon this precept have we based our practice. Taking all things into consideration, our relations, both to ourselves and with various railroads, employing Brotherhood men, are amicable. When we consider the dissatisfaction which is everywhere manifest about us, our few troubles pale in insignificance. There have been times and incidents when the ‘strike’ was the only court of appeals for the workingman, and the evil lay in the abuse of them and not in the use of them. The methods used to bring about a successful termination of strikes, the abuse of property and even of persons, have brought the very name into disrepute, while the troubles of the laboring man are receiving mere cant, and sympathy for him is dying out. More and more clearly defined is the line becoming which divides the honest man, satisfied with a just remuneration which he has truly earned, until by his own effort he can rise to a higher position in life, and the loud-voiced ‘bomb thrower,’ who, scarcely able to speak the English language, seeks to win his own comfortable living from those who have worked for it, presuming upon the imagination and arousing false hopes in the hearts of those who are still more ignorant than himself. Among sensible men the day for all this is past. Let ‘mercy season justice, and justice be tempered with moderation.’ A wise arbitration looks to a long result rather than to immediate satisfaction, and accomplishes more than intimidation ever can hope to do.”17
“It is not my intention,” said Mr. Arthur, “to impose upon this convention any dogma upon the drink question; but I cannot refrain in honesty to my own convictions from deploring the sad havoc that intemperance is making in the ranks of our fellowmen. So great is this evil that no man or woman who is striving to improve his fellows can help taking it into account. It is, indeed, an important factor for evil in our midst. Not only from the physical and moral standpoint is it working mischief, but from the standpoint of labor. The man who has so little self-control that he cannot resist the temptation to degrade himself is always in danger of bringing disgrace upon his brethren. He has lost his self-respect and, to some extent, his independence, thus making an easier victim to the greed of a selfish employer. I would therefore urge upon you the necessity of abstaining from everything that will in the slightest degree impair your usefulness as citizens or your efficiency as locomotive engineers.”
THE NEGRO AND THE LABOR QUESTION
Competency is a prerequisite to all occupations. I have alluded to this above, but I desire to treat it more at length here, and especially in its relation to the Negro of the South.
In consequence of former conditions, incompetency has been the normal standard of both employer and employe. The conditions being changed, and new relations existing between these two classes in the South, the standard must be changed—must be” raised. I shall put aside sentimentalism, and view the subject in its true light.
What is the “Negro Labor Problem” of the future?
Simply the ability on the part of the Negro to remain in the market as a laborer, and the ability of the Southern white man to meet the labor complications of the future, which will be developed in the necessity for better skilled labor, and the desire of the white man to get this superior labor at the old prices.
Leaving competency and skill out of the question, it will be readily admitted that the Negro is the most desirable of all races as a laborer. He is kind, forgiving, and easily understood and managed. He is willing to work and at almost any price. This is shown in the fact that there is a larger per cent of breadwinners in the Southern States than any other section, except in the far West and East. But he is ignorant, improvident and unskilled; and it is to be regretted that his progress is slow in the cultivation of skill in the industries, but there are fruitful and encouraging signs in this direction.
There are two causes which tend to demand a higher standard of labor qualification in the South:
1. The more free intermixture of northern and southern people—thereby bringing the southern people in contact with the superior white labor of the North.
2. The immigration of northern people who have been accustomed to cultivated, free labor.
We do not pretend to hint that the Negro laborer will not improve, but will he do so sufficiently and rapidly enough to meet the heavy demand?
He must be able to compete with the skilled white labor, ready to crowd the South, or he must go to the rear. This is a stern fact, becoming more and more patent daily.
I am not speaking only of the Negro as a domestic servant, carpenter, brick-mason, and other occupations of the cities, but of him as a farmer. Sentimentality, which has had much to do with holding the Negro and white man together in their relation of employer and employee, is fast giving way to business principles which are to govern the future South. If my forty acres can be made to produce more by A’s method of farming than by B’s, A is a more scientific, skilled and desirable tenant, so B must stand aside. This is the “Negro problem” in its relation to labor, in a nut shell.
William H. Councill, The Negro Laborer: A Word to Him (Huntsville, Alabama, 1887), pp. 7–15.