THE BROTHERHOOD OF SLEEPING CAR PORTERS AND OTHER BLACK UNIONS IN THE TRAIN SERVICE
At the 1928 AFL convention the white delegates were startled when a black union applied for an international charter. The application was presented by A. Philip Randolph, a dynamic black socialist who left a career in journalism to organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP). The union was launched in Harlem on August 25, 1925, to deal with a long list of grievances by the porters working for the Pullman Company.
When federal control of the railroads ended in 1920, the company introduced the Employee Representation Plan, basically a company union, to forestall any effort among the porters to organize. The company controlled the Plan as an extension of its personnel department, even financing and supervising the election of representatives. In 1925, three militant porters who desired an independent union, Ashley L. Totten, W. H. Des Verney, and Roy Lancaster, met with Randolph and asked him to become general organizer of the BSCP. Randolph agreed, and his magazine, The Messenger, served as the voice of the new organization.
It was not easy to win recruits for the BSCP. Blacks were disproportionately unemployed and large numbers of them were eager to become porters. Indeed, often it was the only job a black college graduate could find. Despite the stiff opposition of the company, however, many porters were convinced that they needed a union in order to amend the frequently outrageous working conditions.
Headed by Milton p. Webster, a Republican leader in the city and former Pullman porter who became first vice president of the union, the Brotherhood’s first organizing drive in Chicago met with a magnificent response. But most local black leaders were unenthusiastic, and chided the porters for being disrespectful to one of the few employers who hired members of the race. The Chicago Whip and the Chicago Defender, two leading black newspapers, advised porters to support the company union. To counter this anti-unionism the BSCP sponsored labor institutes and black labor conferences in the nation’s larger cities.
At first the company ignored the Brotherhood, but by the end of 1926, about half of the porters belonged to the union and the company launched a comprehensive crackdown on BSCP members. Under the severest pressure the Brotherhood’s courageous battles won the admiration of many liberal organizations, among them the Chicago Federation of Labor, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Urban League. The AFL’s president, William Green, granted financial aid and federal status to the fledgling union, and Randolph came to regard the BSCP as the “spearhead” for organizing blacks within the federation.
Even though the AFL supported the Brotherhood, it was not until October, 1935, that the federation granted an international charter to the BSCP. Even more ardent against recognition of the Brotherhood was the Pullman Company itself, which finally announced on August 25, 1937, that it was ready to accept the BSCP as bargaining agent for the porters and maids. The valiant struggle of the Brotherhood to achieve recognition, and the difficulties associated with that effort, are reflected in the documents reproduced in Part III.
Other black railroad employee unions fought similar battles. Because the “big four” railway brotherhoods barred blacks from membership, segregated black unions, such as the Railway Men’s International Benevolent Industrial Association, the National Order of Locomotive Firemen, and the Dining Car Cooks and Waiters Union, also came into their own during this era. Their story also is alluded to in the documents reproduced in Part III.