FORMATION OF THE COLORED NATIONAL LABOR UNION AND THE BUREAU OF LABOR
Delegates to the Colored National Labor Union Convention gathered in an atmosphere of self–conscious drama and heightened expectations. Called to order by Isaac Myers on December 6, 1869, 214 delegates from eighteen states assembled in Union League Hall in Washington, D.C. The proceedings of the founding convention of the first national black union were published in pamphlet form and are reproduced as Doc. 1.
Thus, by 1869, black leaders, North and South, had reached the conclusion that equal employment opportunities and better pay could be achieved only through independent organization. What began in July as a local black workers’ union in Baltimore soon expanded into the Colored National Labor Convention in December. That so swift and massive a response by black workingmen could be elicited in such a short period of time underscores the magnitude of the perceived need for an organization to further their special concerns. For the first time Afro–Americans representing a wide variety of trades, occupations, and professions discussed the conditions of Negro labor in the United States and made recommendations for improvements. The Colored National Labor Union was organized as a confederation of autonomous local and state unions. Unlike the NLU, however, the black union would include all workers—industrial, agricultural, skilled craftsmen, and common laborers—men and women alike, not just skilled mechanics. The constitution of the CNLU outlining the structure and purposes of the permanent organization is reproduced as Doc. 2.
The delegates lost little time addressing themselves to the problems of black workers. A permanent National Bureau of Labor with offices in Washington, D.C., was established to furnish information and employment opportunities in various parts of the nation, to lobby for legislation insuring equality of employment opportunity, and to negotiate with “bankers and capitalists” for financial assistance in establishing cooperative business ventures among blacks (Doc. 3). Composed of the chief officers and the nine–man executive committee of the CNLU, the Bureau of Labor was direct in its declaration that the “question of the hour” was how the black worker could “best improve his condition.” Blacks were encouraged to organize at the state and local levels, cooperatively pooling their wealth, since “without organization, you stand in danger of being exterminated” (Doc. 4).
The National Labor Union was represented at the CNLU convention by its president, Richard F. Trevellick. The NLU had continued to advocate a uniform platform for the working classes represented in national politics by the Labor Reform Party (Doc. 6–7, 9–10). Apparently, the NLU leadership never understood that they expected blacks to sacrifice their own interests without offering them anything in return. Thus, Trevellick disappointed the black delegates when he called for labor unity on the one hand, while denying the propriety of interfering with local white workers who prevented blacks from working at their trades. Moreover, because it would have caused severe schisms in the black community, the NLU’s demand that the CNLU abandon the Republican Party meant certain destruction of the new organization. Trevellick apparently saw no such danger in his position on these two issues, yet for the black worker these were life or death issues.
After several intensively productive days, the CNLU convention adjourned on December 10, 1869. As the delegates disbursed, two representatives of the new organization met with President Ulysses S. Grant at the White House and received his assurance of sympathy and support (Doc. 5).