THE AFL AND THE BLACK WORKER
One of the key obstacles confronting black workers was their exclusion from unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, and, during the 1920s and 1930s, blacks posted a long string of failures in their struggle to overcome the color bar. Most of these efforts took place at the AFL conventions and consisted of resolutions which would have required member unions to take the word “white” out of their constitutions and accept black workers as members. Should an affiliate refuse to comply, the resolutions called for the AFL Executive Council to revoke the union’s charter. Normally, these resolutions were summarily dismissed by the Council on the grounds that their adoption would commit the AFL to interference with the trade autonomy of its affiliates and the federation had no such power. Technically, at least, the AFL could expel any international which refused to comply with the by-laws prohibiting racial discrimination. A two-thirds vote was required, however, and even if the resolution had passed, it was unlikely that two-thirds of the internationals would vote for expulsion of an affiliate to enforce the principle of equal membership for blacks. In short, ten years after the Great Migration from the rural South to the urban North, black industrial workers were no more able to gain admission to AFL unions than when they were farmers.
This exclusion was a serious problem in industries where a significant number of blacks were employed; blacks were forced to quit or work as scabs. Matters came to a head in 1934 and 1935 when, under severe pressure, AFL President William Green appointed a committee of five to conduct hearings around the country on the “Negro Question.” The most impressive and complete presentation was made by John P. Davis, a young black Harvard graduate who served as secretary of the Joint Committee on National Recovery, a coalition of Negro organizations. He attributed the discrimination against blacks to the AFL leadership’s policy of allowing local unions to “determine standards of admittance.” He urged those same officials to (1) ban constitutional color bars; (2) prohibit separate Jim Crow locals; (3) abolish federal labor unions; (4) place a black on the Executive Council; (5) employ some Negro organizers and a few clerks in the headquarters office; and (6) launch a nationwide educational campaign to convince white unionists that blacks should be admitted to the union movement.
The AFL’s Committee of Five, chaired by the liberal John Brophy, presented its own three-point view: (1) all international unions should take up the issue of discrimination at their next convention in order to harmonize their constitution with that of the AFL on the question of race; (2) the AFL should issue no more charters to unions practicing discrimination; (3) the AFL should begin an educational campaign to instruct white unionists on the necessity of working class unity. An alternative report was submitted by George Harrison, president of the lily-white Railway Clerks, which recommended only the educational campaign. The Executive Council of the AFL immediately voted to present the Harrison report rather than that of the Committee of Five to the 1935 convention. John Brophy, a member of the interracial United Mine Workers, resigned, charging that the Executive Council saw the committee only as a “face-saving device for the American Federation of Labor, rather than an honest attempt to find a solution of the Negro problem in the American labor movement.”
The documents in Part IV reveal the recurrent struggle to open the AFL unions to blacks as well as the repeated rebuffs.