By Len Zinberg
Bob was a white man and he was pretty sore when he found out that the company had hired a colored helper, and he was boiling when he found out that the colored man was to work on his truck.
He thought: “They sure got a nerve taking on a black boy. And me of all the drivers getting him. They say that black boys are lazy, well this guy had better not pull any lazy stuff over my eyes. I’m no sucker.”
Bob had never even spoken to a colored man before; all he knew about the colored race was from the jokes that he had heard in the movies and read in the comics.
The colored man’s name was Joe and as he was sitting alongside the white man, he thought:
“Seems like I’m the only colored boy here. I bet these white men will give me the biggest and heaviest boxes to handle. Well, here’s one little brown boy that won’t take any truck. I want to do my share of the work, but he had better not mess with me!”
And Joe never had much to do with white men before. He had been told to leave white folks alone, not to trust any of them.
Both Work Hard
They didn’t say much the first day out. The truck was loaded to the top and they both had to work hard and fast. When they got back to the warehouse, they had to work three hours overtime and they were both tired and mad—mad because they were not getting any overtime pay.
When they had finally checked out and were walking toward the subway, Joe thought: “He split the work fairly. He’s as tired as I am. I think I’ll say good night to him. But I bet he’ll try to give me all the work tomorrow!”
Bob, the white man, said to himself: “That black boy is a good worker. I’ll say good night to him. Aw, why the hell should I talk to him?”
At the subway they just looked at each other, hesitated, and went their different ways.
The next day they put in another day of hard work and when they parted at the subway, they both shyly mumbled: “So long.”
Get Cut in Pay
On the third day there was a little sign over the time clock and the sign read that, due to business being bad, there would be a 10 per cent cut in all wages, beginning next week. The boss “hoped that the workers would be willing to do their share in keeping the business running.”
The other six men that worked on the trucks came over and stood next to Bob as they read the notice. Everybody was mad as the devil. Bob said: “What the ______. This is the second cut we’ve had in three months!”
Another fellow said: “At this rate we’ll be paying them for letting us work here.”
Joe said: “Seems kind of funny that they aren’t making any money. Here we been working overtime without pay. They must be busy. If this is their slack season, I’d sure hate to be working here when they’re busy!”
“We all know they’re busy,” Bob said. “They’re just taking advantage of us because we didn’t say anything when they gave us that other cut. I say we ought to strike and not only fight this cut, but demand that we get our full wages back again! After all, even our full wages weren’t much.”
As they began to make picket signs and form a committee to see the boss, Bob looked at Joe and thought: “They say that colored boys sometimes scab.” He looked fiercely at Joe and said: “You know, we all have to stick together, that’s the important thing.”
Black and White Picket
“Yeh, we all have to stand together,” Joe said, looking him squarely in the eyes. “It’s hard for a white man to find work, but it’s a damn sight harder for a colored man to get work. This strike has to be a success. Nobody had better scab!” And he flexed his mighty muscles.
“That’s right, we had better not catch anyone scabbing,” Bob said. “It’s a sure way to land in the hospital,” and he smacked his fist against the palm of his hand.
Joe and Bob went outside and did picket duty for an hour and then two other men walked the picket line.
When the boss heard about the strike, he said to his partner: “I told you they wouldn’t stand for another cut; now what are we going to do? If those trucks don’t move today, we stand to lose fifteen hundred bucks.”
The partner shook his fat head. “Don’t get excited. There are ways of breaking strikes. What’s the name of the colored man we hired a couple of days ago?”
“Well, if we can get one truck moving, that will take the fight out of the others. I got an idea that maybe we can get Joe to take out a truck. I’ll call him up here.”
Boss Offers Joe a Raise
When Joe heard that the boss wanted to see him, he looked at Bob and the other men and shrugged his shoulders, and finally said: “I guess I’ll see what he wants anyway.”
The others didn’t say anything, but their silence told him plenty.
When he came into the office, the boss offered him a cigar, and the partner said:
“Joe, you know it’s kind of hard for colored boys to get work. Now, the boys say we’ve treated them unfair, but you know that ain’t so. You know, too, even though I’m a white man, I got to say this: that those white boys don’t give you a square deal.
“See me, I’m a friend of the colored people. Why, some of my friends are colored people. What I’m driving at is this: we’ll give you a five-dollar raise in salary and a bonus of fifty dollars if you’ll take out one of the trucks. What do you say?”
Joe said slowly:
“Here’s what I say: I could use that extra money, but I’m no rat, see? Those boys treated me fairly. Both of our backs hurt just as much at the end of the day. You worked the white boys as hard as you did me. It doesn’t make any differenc if your muscles are black or white, it still makes you tired juggling cases all day.
“I’m not sure whether the white workers are my friends or not, but I know that you are not a friend of mine! Working me, and rest of us like horses.” Joe had more to say, but he knew that it was a waste of breath, and he suddenly turned and walked out of the office.
“Well,” the boss said to the partner, “that certainly was a smart idea you had. What now? We have to get those trucks moving by tonight.”
“Listen,” his partner said, opening the telephone book, “there are only eight of them. We’ll call up one of these strikebreaking detective agencies and they’ll send over a couple of guards who will beat those strikers. It will be worth the hundred bucks it will cost us.”
“And if that doen’t work?”
“Then we’ll settle the strike. But it will work. These strikebreakers are tough babies, mostly a bunch of thugs and ex-cons.”
Downstairs as Joe and Bob were eating their lunch, Joe told him what happened. “You sure told them off,” Bob said. “You know, I bet my wife wouldn’t like this idea of striking so much. We need the dough at home. But heck, we have to be men, too.”
“I got a wife and two kids,” Joe said.
“I’ve got one kid and one coming,” Bob said.
They both looked at each other in surprise. The white man thought: “Why, that poor guy is in the same fix as I am. I bet he has to walk the kid at night and argue with the landlord, just like me. Just like me.”
The black man thought:
“The poor devil. His wife will nag him about this. Lord, I bet he has a pile of bills waiting for him at home, too. And will I have to do some quick explaining to my wife!”
Bob said: “It looks like we’re right in the same boat. Here, you want some pork sandwiches? The wife gave me too many.”
“Pork?” Joe said, smiling, “Say, that’s like candy to me. Here, I got a lot of chocolate cake. You want some?”
“There’s nothing I like better than to wrap myself around some cake.”
Thugs to Break Strike
While they were eating and telling each other what good cooks their wives were, a flashy car drove up in front of the building and three hard-looking men got out. They were big men with noses that were slightly flat and ears that were out of shape. Joe put down his sandwich and said: “Looks like trouble is about to tap us on the shoulder.”
“Tap us! Trouble is going to slap us on the shoulder!” Bob said getting to his feet. Joe got up too and they watched one of the thugs walk over and bump into a picket and yell: “Why don’t you look where you’re walking, you _____!” Then he clipped the picket on the jaw and knocked him down.
Joe and Bob started toward the thug. The thug saw two men, a black man and a white man, running toward him. He saw two fists, a black one and a white one, come sailing through the air, and after that he saw nothing but the stars and the moon and the sun, all going around and around at a great speed. “You got a good punch, Joe,” Bob said.
“You’re no push-over,” Joe said, smiling. Bob pointed to where some of the other men were battling with the thugs. “Come on, pal, let’s go over and knock off a few more of these yeggs. It’s great for your appetite!”
Joe said: “Buddy, I’m on my way! I like my yeggs scrambled, how about you?”
They both laughed and then they shook hands. As they were running toward the fight, the white man said: “You know, you’re a square guy.”
“You’re kind of regular yourself,” the black man said.
Baltimore Afro-American, January 16, 1937.
By Beth McHenry
Bessemer, Ala., June 13.- While union officials talk over plans for a strike settlement with the mediation board of state and federal representatives, the 2,500 striking ore miners continue determined against any settlement with the Tennessee Company which will compromise their demands for continuance of the hourly wage rate and no layoffs.
The ore miners under the leadership of the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Union struck the T.C.I. (U.S. Steel) mines here June 1 when the company levied a new plan of work providing for tonnage rate wages, mass layoff, speed up and longer hours. The Tennessee Company officials called it an “incentive plan” to make the men work harder so that the company’s orders will increase and the men can earn more money. It provides for the layoff of 500 miners in the seven live mines which stretch chain fashion along the ridge of Red Mountain here.
Ambush shooting along the roads leading to Muscoda, Wenonah and Ishkooda mines has been identified by Newcomb Barco, federal mediator, as the work of private detective agencies and mercenary thugs, bent on creating an atmosphere of terror in order to sell their “protective” services to the company.
Richard Holt, Negro union miner is in a serious condition at the T.C.I. Fairfield Hospital. Holt was shot at Muscoda mine on the evening of the first day of the strike. Since the beginning of the strike eight persons have been shot along the mine ridge. Five of these were company deputies. The union men shot in self-defense when company thugs opened fire.
Pete Casey, Negro union miner, was severely beaten by company cops along the road leading to Wenonah mine on the night of June 3. Casey was stopped in the road by three men in a car who said they were police. Searching the miner, they located a union card in his pocket. They then jumped on him, kicking and beating him unmercifully.
Company thugs and provocateurs have penetrated the mine workers’ villages, attempting to destroy the strike by acts of violence. McDuff men have been seen in the neighborhood of the mines. The McDuff National Detective Agency was one of the most active forces in the breaking of the last ore strike back in the spring of 1934. McDuff, who was transferred from the police department to the private detective office by the Tennessee Coal Iron and Railroad Company and Republic Steel, took a prominent part in the preparation and carrying out of 23 bombing frameups against members of the Smelters Union.
The mines have been shut down since the first day of the strike. T.C.I officials have issued statements to the effect that the closing down was a move on the part of the company to protect its “loyal workers.” Because of the scarcity of loyal workers, union miners state that the company’s reason for shutting down is because there are not enough scabs in Bessemer to operate any part of the mines.
The strikebreaking program of the company, built up over a period of two years, fostered the setting up and growth of the “Brotherhood,” or company union.
Daily Worker, June 4, 1936.
High tribute to Norman Thomas as a champion of the cause of the Negro people was paid the Socialist candidate for President in a laudatory article in the current issue of the “Black Worker,” official organ of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The Brotherhood which recently received an international charter from the American Federation of Labor, is a militant union whose fight against the railroad magnates has attracted world-wide attention.1
The “Black Worker” said:
“As chairman of the Emergency Committee for Strikers Relief, Norman Thomas has played one of the most effective roles of any citizen in public life in helping the workers and their families in strikes. He has gone to the aid of distressed workers’ families in all parts of the country, in all types of industries, without ever asking the question as to what is their race, religion, nationality or politics.
“He can be found not only on the platform proclaiming the cause of the exploited and oppressed strikers but also on the picket line too, and, taking his turn before the courts for alleged infraction of the city ordinances because he refused to desert the strikers.
Socialist Call, September 19, 1936.
Chicago.—A. Philip Randolph, national president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and famous Negro unionist, has accepted the chairmanship of the Labor League for Thomas and Nelson.2
Randolph was one of the founders of the Brotherhood and led in the fight against the Pullman Company, one of the most ruthless corporations in the country. Under his leadership, the porters have raised their living standards.
Speaking of the Socialist candidate, Randolph said:
“As chairman of the Emergency Committee for Strikers’ Relief, Norman Thomas has played one of the most effective roles of any citizen in public life in helping the workers and their families in strikes. He has gone to the aid of distressed workers’ families in all parts of the country.
“There is unquestionably no white man in America who is more courageous and honest in championing the cause of the Negro people than Norman Thomas.”
Members of the national organizing committee of the Labor League include George Baldanzie, vice president of the United Textile Workers; George W. Bookuff, Amalgamated Assn. of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers; Eugene Cooney, president Local 1135 Int’l. Assn. of Machinists; Frank Crosswaith, Chairman Negro Labor Committee; Franz Daniel, Amalgamated Clothing Workers.
Jerome Davis, president American Federation of Teachers; Murray Gross, Int’l. Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, Howard A. Kester, Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union; Leo Krzycki, Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee; David Lasser, president Workers’ Alliance of America; John C. Lawson, president Quarry Workers’ International.
Edward Levinson, American Newspaper Guild; James W. Miller, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers; H. L. Mitchell, secretary, Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union; Alan Strachan, United Automobile Workers; and B. J. Widick, Editor, “Rubber Worker.”3
Headquarters for the Labor League, for Thomas and Nelson, are located in room 721, 549 Randolph St., Chicago, Ill.
Socialist Call, October 10, 1936.
Finds C. I. O. Free From Race Discrimination
From The Afro-American, Baltimore, Md.
Discussing the conflict between the American Federation of Labor and the Committee for Industrial Organization, Victor H. Daniel, former president of Cardinal Gibbons Institute, lauded the latter as the real opportunity for colored workers in the labor union movement.
Mr. Daniel, who was guest speaker before the International Union of Operating Engineers, spoke on “The Significance of the Conflict Between the American Federation of Labor and the Committee for Industrial Organization.”
“An impartial survey,” Mr. Daniel said, “will show that the American Federation of Labor has failed repeatedly to accord to colored labor the protection which its constitution promises. It is interesting to note that in 1886, when the American Federation of Labor was in its swaddling clothes, it was rather anxious for the support that it could get from colored labor.
“Here in Baltimore, a colored delegate from Buffalo to an American Federation of Labor convention was carried on the shoulders of white men around the hall in which the meeting was held after he had made a speech in which he prophesied that colored labor would support the infant organization.”
In pointing out the policy of the Committee for Industrial Organization, even in the South, Mr. Daniel stated that a district president of its largest local in Alabama is a colored man.
“It is particularly significant in this case,” he said, “because after all it is what stand any American institution is willing to take toward the colored citizen in the South that will have to serve as its badge of sincerity towards him.
“Out on the west coast, colored workers are fully integrated in all the unions under jurisdiction of the Committee for Industrial Organization. The same thing is true here in Baltimore.”
In describing the basic differences between the American Federation of Labor, headed by William Green, and the Committee for Industrial Organization, headed by John L. Lewis, Mr. Daniel stated that there were other vital reasons why we should be aligned with the Committee for Industrial Organization.4
“The Committee for Industrial Organization stands for the development of the various crafts into one big union—that is, along vertical lines and one union for industry. The American Federation of Labor stands, with but few exceptions, for organization by crafts—that is, along horizontal lines.”
“Both Messrs. Green and Lewis,” the speaker said, “rose from the mining ranks, and this fact is a splendid tribute to American democracy. But the difference between the leaders is that while Mr. Green stands for the old order which depends upon conciliatory tactics, Mr. Lewis stands for definite changes to the new order created by mechanization, technological improvements and mass production.
“He sees that this order means the passing of the skilled worker and wants to prepare the American workman for the titanic struggle that is upon him.
“Regardless of the outcome of the present conflict, I think that labor can learn a very definite lesson from it. Mr. Lewis and those standing with him are determined to work for superior advantages for the men and women who must labor for a living. Colored labor must do likewise.
“Colored labor should concern itself with the quality and quantity of preparation that young men and women are receiving in school. Further, it must seek and find the way to open new channels in the industrial field for them.”
United Mine Workers Journal, January 1, 1937.
President of Growing Union Assails Jim Crow In Letter to Roy Wilkins of N.A.A.C.P.—Spikes Ford-Inspired Rumors
By Ben Davis, Jr.5
Discrimination against Negro members in the United Automobile Workers Union, an affiliate of the C.I.O., will definitely not be tolerated, according to Homer Martin, general president of the union.
The statement was made in a letter addressed to Roy Wilkins, assistant secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The letter, made public here yesterday, was in answer to an inquiry of Wilkins in connection with rumors that separate Jim Crow locals of the union were being organized in the Ford auto plant and Negro workers had been omitted from the seniority rules at the Chrysler factory.
“The U.A.W.A. is very emphatic and pronounced in its attitude on the matter of color lines,” Martin declared.
“With direct reference to the two instances where the color line seems to have been raised in the U.A.W.A., let me say that in the Chrysler Corporation seniority applies to all employees regardless of race, color or creed, and the rumor that Ford Negro employees have been called together in separate groups seems to be entirely without foundation,” the letter continued.
Earlier, Wilkins explained to the Daily Worker that rumors of discrimination against Negro workers by the C.I.O. affiliate had been brought to him by a “prominent person” during his recent visit to Detroit.
He immediately directed a letter to Pres. Martin, later learning that the source of his information had been in the pay of the multi-millionaire Ford Company.
Almost simultaneously with this rumor reaching Wilkins, there appeared in the Chicago Defender, nationally circulated Negro newspaper, an article boosting Henry Ford as the “friend of the Negro people” and urging Negroes to “back Ford in his anti-labor war on the U.A.W.A. The article which appeared in the April 3, issue of the Defender was signed by V. Bertram Marion, and syndicated in about 110 Negro newspapers.
RAPPED BY LABOR GROUP
The Negro Labor Assembly of Harlem representing 40,000 organized Negro workers two weeks ago denounced the article as “an attempt to make strikebreakers and scabs of Negroes and to divide them from their white fellow workers.”
Martin’s letter spiking these groundless Ford-inspired rumors against the C.I.O. affiliate, went on to say further:
“There has not been a single instance where Negro workers have not been welcomed into the local unions and given full protection. In addition to that the Negro worker is always welcome into the membership meeting without being segregated. I have made many pronouncements on this matter clarifying the constitution which states ‘that the membership of the union is open to workers regardless of race, color, creed or political affiliation.’
FIGHT FOR NEGRO
“In one instance, at least one of our local unions threatened to go on strike when one Negro worker had his wage rate lowered. The management acceded to the threat of the local union and this Negro brother was restored to his former rate of pay.
“The U.A.W.A., along with the Committee for Industrial Organization is very anxious to collaborate in erasing in the minds of the workers of this country the prejudice arising from race distinction. Our program comprehends the elimination of prejudice as well as discrimination and proposes to protect the Negro workers with the full strentgh of our union.
“I hope this statement will clarify this situation as regards the U.A.W.A. and I shall be glad to look personally into any reported discrimination.
“With you, looking forward to a new day for all workers regardless of race, color or creed.”
Daily Worker, May 1, 1937.
7. INTERVIEW WITH HENRY JOHNSON, 19376
This version of the Works Progress Administration interview is from Stephen Brier (ed.), “Labor, Politics, and Race: A Black Worker’s Life,” 23 (Summer 1982):416–21. Reprinted with permission of Labor History and Stephen Brier.
CIO Union Unites All Workers in Demand for More Pay
By Alexander Wright
NORFOLK, Va. Aug. 19.—The Workers of the M.F.G. Co., members of the Veneer Box and Barrel Workers Union, CIO, began their strike as a sitdown, the first of its kind in this city, with complete solidarity between the Negro and white workers.
Now in its fifth day, the strike has kept the plant closed despite the arrest of 72 strikers.
The sitdown was started by the Negro workers but was soon joined by all the white workers in the plant. In the first attempt to break the solidarity of the workers the company called upon police who arrested 72, all Negroes. The white workers, however, refused to be driven back to work and walked out of the plant 100 per cent.
The arrest developed still greater solidarity among the workers. A Negro member of an A.F. of L. union gave a property bond to bail out the CIO members. A white business man put up the remainder of the needed bail. At the police court still more unity was displayed next morning when a Negro and white lawyer appeared to defend the strikers.
But the greatest example of unity was when the white workers followed the Negroes to court and back to the hall where 16 joined the union and took cards to canvass all the remaining white strikers for union membership.
The strike committee is composed of white and Negro workers. Mrs. Lena Jarvis, a Negro, is chairman of the strike committee. Although 80 per cent of the workers are men, she was elected unanimously.
The factory is one of the worst slave mills in Norfolk. It has been operating for over 40 years at wages as low as 15 to 20 cents an hour for skilled labor and at 20 and 22 and one half cents for machine operators. There are no toilets or washrooms, no safety devices and no regular hours. The workers are prepared to stay out for six months, they say, if their demands aren’t granted.
A unity meeting is scheduled for Monday in support of the strikers. There will be representatives of the Non-Partisan Voters League, Socialist Party, Communist Party and trade unions to form a citizens committee in support of the strikers.
There is a probability that the strike will spread to three other southern cities.
Daily Worker, August 20, 1937.
There has been a lot of loose talk about the “menace” of militant labor organization in the past year.
Significantly enough, much of the talk about this “menace” has come from those who stand to lose something from the increasing power of those who toil.
There are far too many Negroes mouthing the same jargon, which is obviously culled from the headlines and editorials of the reactionary daily newspapers.
The worker has no power, no security save that which he gains through organization. As an individual he is helpless against great aggregations of corporate wealth.
The most effective weapon these workers’ organizations have is the right to strike, hence the reactionary hue and cry for outlawing strikes and “regulating” labor unions.
It is admittedly annoying and inconvenient to employers and the general public when thousands of men stop work.
On the other hand, it has all along been much more annoying and inconvenient to the workers to have plants shut down or move away and leave workers to shift for themselves as best they can.
It is a simple matter to appraise the cost of a strike; it is not so easy to appraise the cost of a lockout, a factory closing or a factory flight to another part of the country.
Workers who lose their jobs through these lockouts, closings and flight have wives, children and dependents whose support is suddenly shut off. The general public has to support them on relief until they can find other work, if any.
Recently much has been made over the breaking of a few windows and the overturning of a few automobiles, and the losses in wages to striking workers, but very little has been said about the gains to the successfully striking workers in increased wages, decreased work periods, seniority rights, abrogation of the “right” of employers to fire (starve) workers without explanation, and the acquirement of new safeguards to health and human happiness.
Many middle-class Negroes have viewed the efforts to organize Negro labor with almost much alarm as the employers of Negro labor. Yet in steel, automobiles, coal mining and a dozen other industries where Negroes are largely employed, recent labor organization drives have increased the purchasing power of these Negroes by millions of dollars.
Hundreds of humble Negro workers are today organizers and officials of labor unions and sit on the committees which bargain with employers for a higher standard of living and more human conditions of work.
These Negroes have attained new dignity and importance, and their association as equals with white labor has advanced race relations farther than anything that has happened in recent years.
Yet there are those who would scare Negro labor into opposing labor organization with white labor and bolster their fears with loose talk.
There must come a larger realization on the part of Negro leaders and educated folk that a revolution is taking place in American life; that Labor is on the road to rule, and that the day of unrestricted individualism on the part of employers is ended.
To advise Negro labor avoid the responsibility and opportunity which is now in its grasp is little short of criminal.
Pittsburgh Courier, August 28, 1937.
By Ben Davis, Jr.
In the great organizational drives of the CIO is the dawn of a new hopeful day for the Negro worker.
Jim-Crowed, segregated, discriminated against and barred from countless labor unions by the reactionary leaders of the A.F. of L., the Negro worker has been made the worst victim of the anti-labor policies of the reactionary capitalists.
Precisely what the industrial barons, assisted by the labor-splitting William Green and his cohorts, did not wish is taking place: The CIO is bringing Negro workers into the organized labor movement on a basis of full equality with all other workers, regardless of race, creed or color.
Since 95 per cent of the Negro people are workers, any movement which raises labor’s standard of living, at the same time bursting the discriminatory chains which have long shackled Negro workers, strikes at the whole super-structure of political, social and economic inequality forced upon an entire race.
No one realizes this more clearly than the Negro’s bitterest enemies, who are in white heat against the CIO. A most efficient test of what is good for the Negro people is what these enemies don’t like.
Certainly, the reactionaries of the South—the would-be lynchers of the Scottsboro boys, the murderers of the croppers—fit like a glove into this category.7
Ku Klux Stooge Raves
Witness the ravings in Congress of Rep. E. E. Cox, Ku Klux Klan stooge from Georgia, who frothed at the mouth in the House last June 30, “warning John L. Lewis and his Communistic cohorts that carpet-bag expedition into the Southland under the red banner of Soviet Russia . . . would be tolerated.”8
This “southern gentleman’s” tirade was of course in protection of the wealthy textile magnates against the CIO’s Textile Workers Organizing Committee. But he truly revealed his hand when, waxing hot and, with his “southern chivalry” aflame, he exclaimed:
“CIO organizers were now in the South preaching social, political and economic equality to the Negro population.”
This, Mr. Cox, explained, would “corrupt our colored citizens.” In other words, any effort of the Negro people to avail themselves of their constitutional rights—or even of their right to organize into labor unions under the Wagner Act—is to “corrupt our colored citizens.”
Confession of Reactionary
No clearer confession of its own reaction has come from the Southern ruling class since the arch-reactionary Mr. Justice Van Devanter, in his swansong dissent from the Supreme Court, declared that Angelo Herndon’s “crime” was that he appealed to Southern Negroes “by picturing their condition as an unhappy one resulting from asserted wrongs on the part of white landlords and employers.”
The idea is not only to inflict worse lynch-oppression upon the Negro people but also to twist the United States constitution so that the Negro’s plight becomes legal and unshakably “American.” And shades of Hitler, Mussolini and Hearst, don’t let Negro and white workers be organized into the same unions on a footing of equality—for such labor organizers will be sent to hades—via rope and faggot—along with 5,000 Negroes lynched since the Civil War!
Such was the expressed opinion of Hiram W. Evans, Imperial Wizard (Buzzard) of the Ku Klux Klan, blood brother of Henry Ford’s Black Legion, who declared on July 11, in Atlanta, Ga.:
“The CIO is infested with Communists and the Klan will ride to wipe out Communism.”
Proud of Enemies
But all those who fight against the reactionaries drive toward freedom are today labeled as “Communists” including: workers who seek the right to organize and collectively bargain; Negroes who fight “too” militantly against lynching and discrimination; those who support an anti-fascist national Farmer-Labor Party. Even the middle-of-the-roader Roosevelt is today labeled a Communist by the fascist forces in the country.9
The CIO and the forces of progress in general can well be proud of such enemies as Congressman Cox, the Ku Klux Klan, as well as other such foes of democracy as the Henry Fords, the Memorial-Day-Massacre Girdlers, and the Hearsts. But the very hatred of the CIO by these breeders of murder, violence and hooded terrorist gangs, serves as an unerring weather-vane to the Negro people that their own best interests lies unmistakably on the other side of the fence. It lies side by side with the CIO and progressive movements growing in the country today, in defense and extension of the fundamental rights of labor—in defense and extension of the Negro’s constitutional right to a new and square deal in the economic life of the nation.10
Organization Into the CIO
The CIO is a non-political organization and its program does not expressly call for the “political, social and economic equality for the Negro people.” This is the province of a political organization and ONLY the Communist Party maintains and fights for such a program.
But the organization of Negro and white workers on an equal plane into the CIO is the rock-bottom basis of the whole struggle for the political and social and economic equality of the entire Negro people.
The CIO in its powerful organizational campaigns seeks the legal and American right of workers—wage and salary earners irrespective of race, sex, color or creed—to bargain collectively and to earn a decent living under human working conditions.
In the words of John L. Lewis, CIO chairman, made public on July 7:
“Labor now demands its rightful heritage. It holds in contempt those who would restrict human privileges. It demands the right to organize and bargain collectively. It demands legislative enactments, making realistic the principles of industrial democracy. . . . The CIO stands as a bulwark for democracy.
“Labor no longer signifies ‘the man with the hoe.’ It does signify the great masses of wage and salary earners—all those who toil for a livelihood—regardless of sex, race, color or previous condition of servitude. Labor to us extends from unskilled industrial and agricultural workers throughout the so-called white-collar groups, including technicians, teachers, professional men and women, newspaper employees and others.”
Aid Negro Working Man
With the objectives of the CIO to raise the living standards of the 33,000,000 American workers—including the rank and file of the A. F. of L.—such an aim must inevitably aid the Negro workers who are the most exploited and discriminated against of all workers.
More and more large sections of the white workers in the progressive labor movement are recognizing that they can better their own conditions only by unity with the Negro workers on a basis of full equality. Likewise, the Negro workers throughout the vicious system of oppression against them—which manifests itself fundamentally in job-organization—can be effectively fought only through the closest unity between Negro and white working people.
The CIO is the cornerstone of this growing progressive movement for unity and full equality between Negro and white workers. There are no principles which are more fundamental and deeper in the traditions of American democracy.
The fact that the CIO is called a “Communist” organization reveals the fascist character of the Girdlers, the Hearsts, the Herald Tribunes, and other such reactionary forces which are out to destroy everything progressive in American life.
To be labeled “Communist” is not a discredit to the CIO. Rather it is a credit to the Communist Party whose early pioneering in the American Labor movement for industrial unionism and for full equality of the Negro workers, paved the way for the great surge of progress which the CIO today represents.
Daily Worker, September 5, 1937.
DETROIT, Sept. 9.—Negro workers who constitute 70 per cent of the foundry workers, led by Luke M. Fennell, played an important part in the successful development of the Union at the Budd Wheel Company.
Since the coming of the U.A.W., the wages and conditions of all workers have improved considerably. After a victorious strike three months ago, the company agreed to discontinue the piece work system within 90 days. The piece work system always acted as a method of speed up. “Much of our work was lost because a great deal of our production was classified as scrap of which we received no pay,” said Mr. Fennel. Today all the workers enjoy seniority rights that enable them to be hired and laid off in accordance with their seniority. Throughout the shop steward system, all of the grievances of the workers are dealt with and adjusted. Follow me through this little problem in arithmetic and compare the wages before and after Union came 18 months ago:
Minimum wage per hour: 55₵, after: 75₵.
Maximum wage per hour: 75₵, after: $1.15.
Average wage per hour: 62₵, after: 90₵.
Average weekly wage, $25, after: $38.
This problem proves beyond all doubt that we have benefited tremendously from the Union.
Personnel Director, Mr. Heidt, was surprised and rather annoyed to see Mr. Fennell, a Negro, on the Negotiating Committee of the Union. Mr. Heidt stated that he did the poor Negro workers a favor by hiring them in his factory and now they are not satisfied.
Pittsburgh Courier, September 11, 1937.
A year ago the Committee for Industrial Organization began organizing the workers in the steel industry, something that had previously never been successfully accomplished.
CIO Leader John L. Lewis, now announces that 500,000 workers in steel have been organized by the Steel Workers Organizing Committee.
In every organized plant this has meant increased pay, shorter hours, seniority rights and industrial democracy, and of particular interest to us is the fact that these advantages have come to thousands of Negro steel workers from Birmingham to Pittsburgh and points between.
The unionization of all the big automobile companies by the CIO affiliated Automobile Workers Union has done the same thing for thousands of Negro workers who help produce the country’s automobiles.
In many other directions this new, virile labor organization, with its practical and sensible philosophy and policy of absolute democracy and no discrimination based on color, creed or nationality, has reached out and organized colored and white workers together.
It has set a healthful example to organized labor in America and done more than any single agency in the history of the country’s labor movement to eliminate the biracialism which has so slowed the emancipation of the workers from industrial feudalism.
In the complaints about violence which occurred here and there in a year of hectic organization, many of our people have lost sight of the fact that in this year hundreds of Negro workers have been privileged to rise to positions of leadership and help negotiate contracts for wages and hours with some of the mightiest corporations in America.
Perhaps never before have colored people played so important a part in shaping the course of basic affairs in the United States. They have previously worked, but had nothing to say about what they should get for that work or how they should work to get it. Thanks to the organizational drive in labor, all that has been changed, and Negroes are sitting down with white workers and employers negotiating and signing contracts involving millions of dollars.
The effect of this drive is already apparent on race relations in many parts of the country. It has been demonstrated to white labor that if it will meet Negro labor half way the loyalty of the latter can be always counted upon. Suspicion and race hatred have been allayed.
In the face of the success of the CIO, the A.F. of L. unions have in many instances abandoned their traditional attitude of indifference to Negro labor which frequently bordered on hostility, and are often as eager to eliminate every trace of color discrimination as the CIO organizations.
All this has been accomplished in a single short year, during which the strength of organized labor has doubled, millions of extra dollars have gone into pay envelopes and millions less hours have been worked to earn it.
Steel workers, automobile workers, mine workers, laundry workers, garment workers, electrical workers, ship workers, dock workers, chauffeurs, construction workers and numerous others, among all of which Negroes are numbered, have benefitted from the magic of organization.
The success of this drive vindicates the position taken by the “rebel” unions that broke from the traditional A.F. of L. policy and began the organization of industrial unions.
The wisdom of the Negro workers who joined this stand for better working conditions and industrial democracy is to be commended.
Pittsburgh Courier, September 18, 1937.
By A. J. Allen
The Crisis, 45 (March, 1938): 80.
New York Co-ordinating Committee for Employment to Launch Drive to End IRT Job System Tonight at St. Marks Church
Negro men with college degrees clean the toilets of the I.R.T. because it is the only job the I.R.T. will give them. They grow old on the job sweeping the platforms and running the elevators.13
Negro men with college degrees are never promoted to office positions. Some of them take exams in engineering; they pass but they never get jobs to drive the trains. The I.R.T. has decreed that driving trains is a white man’s job.
When the regular employee in the change booths goes to lunch the Negro porter very often takes his place. But it is always only temporary. Giving change in an I.R.T. subway station is a job denied to Negroes.
For years the Negro people have groaned under the lash of Negro discrimination by the I.R.T. Now they demand a hearing, and swift adjustment of the wrongs committed against them.
More than half a million Negroes in Harlem will make themselves heard by the management of the I.R.T. this week on the matter of job discrimination. Through the Greater New York Co-ordinating Committee for Employment they will demand of the I.R.T. that Negroes be given employment in all capacities without discrimination.
If the I.R.T. refuses to erase its policy of Negro discrimination picket lines will be thrown around its main offices and in front of all subway entrances in Harlem. In a release to the Daily Worker last night, the Committee for Employment said that Michael Quill, City Councilman and president of the Transport Workers’ Union, has pledged his union’s full support to the campaign for jobs for Negroes in the I.R.T. without discrimination.14
Mass Meeting Tonight
The Rev. A. Clayton Powell is chairman of the Committee for Employment which won an unprecedented victory over the Edison Gas and Electric Company two weeks ago, when the company agreed to give white collar jobs to Negroes.15
The Committee for Employment will hold a mass meeting tonight 8:00 P.M. at St. Marks Church, 139th Street and Edgecombe Avenue, to review its work in fighting Negro discrimination and to launch its campaign against the I.R.T.
Among the speakers at tonight’s meeting are included: Borough President Stanley M. Isaacs; City Councilman Michael Quill; Vito Marcantonio, president of the International Labor defense; Rev. Lloyd Imes; the Honorable Thomas Dyett, delegate at large to the State Constitutional Convention, and Walter White, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.16
Manhattan Borough President Stanley M. Isaacs is actively cooperating with the Committee for Employment and is now engaged in negotiations with the New York Telephone Co. in the interest of wiping out Negro discrimination by the company.
Supported By 294 Groups
The Committee for Employment is supported by 294 organizations, trade unions included, with a total membership of 155,000 persons, Negro and white. Other officials of the Committee are: A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Rev. Lloyd Imes, Mrs. Elizabeth Ross Haynes, social worker, and A. Johnson.
The New York Council of the National Negro Congress is a co-sponsor of the Committee for Employment.
As a means of financial income the Committee has sponsored a Grand Carnival and Barbecue Dinner to be held on May 30, Decoration Day, at Brandt’s Farm on the Sawmill River Road. The publicity Department of the Committee for Employment is at 2357 Seventh Avenue.
Daily Worker, May 16, 1938.
By John A. Davis
Recently the New Negro Alliance of Washington, D.C., won in the United States Supreme Court a victory of far-reaching importance to the maintenance of civil rights, to the broadening of democracy, to the enlightment of the economic and social system, and to the protection of all minorities, both racial and economic; it legally obtained for the Negro the right to picket those business establishments which refused to employ colored workers.17
The decision handed down by the court freed the Alliance to continue its use of “consumer pressure” to acquire employment for Negroes. But more than that, it paved the way for action of a similar nature by groups all over the country. As a result, by-where-you-can-work movements now are being planned or prosecuted in many cities throughout the country where the Negro population is large enough, and socially intelligent enough, to support them.
In its case against the Sanitary Grocery Store of Washington, the Alliance, through its chief counsel, Belford Vance Lawson, contended, and the Court agreed, that the picketing of stores largely supported by Negroes for the purpose of obtaining jobs for colored workers constituted a “labor dispute” within the meaning of the Norris-LaGuardia Act, and that under the Act the Federal courts cannot issue injunctions restraining peaceful picketing. In accepting this point of view, the Court pointed out that the Act defines a “labor dispute” as including any controversy concerning the terms or conditions of employment, regardless of whether or not the disputants stand in the proximate relation of employer and employee. It denied that the case was out of the scope of the Act because the dispute was racial, on the grounds that the Act does not concern itself with the background or motives of the dispute. It ruled that “race discrimination by an employer may reasonably be deemed more unfair and less excusable than discrimination against workers on grounds of union affiliation.”18
Since the case was a labor dispute within the meaning of the Act, and since the picketing was peaceful as required in the Act, the highest court ordered the District Court to reverse the decree by which it granted an injunction restraining the Alliance from picketing the Sanitary Grocery Company. In this decision it definitely denied the older philosophy expressed in the dissenting opinion of Mr. Justice McReynolds, which would prevent social legislation from abridging the absolute freedom of individual economic action for the sake of social justice. In doing so it signalized the economic broadening-down of democracy; it took a step toward loosening the rigid economic bindings of social fascism; and it contributed to the maintenance of civil rights so important to the social order if economic justice is to be achieved by any means.
The New Negro Alliance was organized in the summer of 1933, preceding similar organizations in Philadelphia, New York, Richmond, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. At the outset it was principally interested in such general problems as obtaining civil rights, setting up racial co-operatives, securing employment for Negroes in the District of Columbia government, and securing jobs in private industry through the use of consumer pressure.
This breadth of purpose resulted to a large extent from the irritation which the younger Negro felt from the general passivity and complete lack of militancy among the organizations already existing in Washington—most of them dominated by older and well-established Negroes. To the younger generation the citizens’ associations in Washington, which were the only advisory units recognized by the municipal government, seemed to be completely dormant. They were unattended by more than a few of the outstanding citizens, and suffered from addle-brained, timid leadership. The local N.A.A.C.P. at the time was a fashionable organization, completely dominated by the respectable, the well-off, and the stuffed-shirt residents of the city, and beyond this the general atmosphere of the entire Negro population appeared to be socially lethargic and completely smug. The public school teacher and the government employee—who together form the educated, the responsible, the well-to-do of Washington Negro society—had hardly been disturbed by the depression beyond the short-lived Economy Act.
To the task of bringing social consciousness to these groups and to the general Negro petty bourgeoisie, which was only gradually becoming aware of the dire economic plight of its clients, the Alliance dedicated itself. At first it attempted to be concerned with the whole problem of civil and social betterment, but as time went on it began to concentrate more and more upon the work of securing jobs for Negroes in businesses largely supported by Negro consumers.
In this work the Alliance was for a short while surprisingly successful. Before long it had many of Washington’s leading school teachers, administrators, lawyers, and doctors carrying picket signs, a thing previously unheard of in “respectable,” “family-conscious” Washington. Within the first half year of its operation the Alliance prosecuted a successful campaign against the local A. & P. Stores, the High Ice Cream Company, and several other establishments, securing jobs for Negro workers carrying an annual payroll of approximately $50,000.
Early in 1934 its program met a setback. A court injunction restraining it from picketing the Kaufman Department Store a business built and largely maintained upon Negro trade, was issued. Later in the spring a similar injunction kept it from further picketing the High Ice Cream Stores, and in the summer the Sanitary Grocery Company (a chain like the A. & P.) obtained a third injunction.
Legally deprived of its most effective weapon, the Alliance for a time was bogged down. But the group kept up its work and through heroic efforts maintained its morale and spirit through four long years of legal fights, until its battle finally was won.
The organization, however, was far from inactive during the four years it was restrained from using the picket. It sponsored a Civil Rights Bill for the District of Columbia which has been introduced into Congress, and it made some attempt at sponsoring co-operative enterprises. The methods of education and house-to-house canvass were used to initiate boycotts as a means of procuring jobs, and employers were made to see the advertising value of hiring Negroes.
For the Alliance, and for all minority groups, both racial and economic, the decision of the Supreme Court was a substantial victory. Already the organization has recommenced its work with renewed vigor, and the rapid strides that it made in 1933-34 are again possible. The Kaufman Department Store has recently hired Negro clerks and new drives are now being prosecuted against the Peoples Drug Store Company and the Sanitary Grocery Company.
The work of the Alliance is considered especially significant because of its level-headed and careful development of the theory of consumer pressure as a minority tactic. It has gone further in completely rationalizing this technique than any other similar Negro organization of recent years. Fortunately situated in Washington, the Alliance has had the advantage of being influenced by two important forces, each of which has clarified its aims and purposes so that in its activities it has been able to avoid the blundering of rabid chauvinism into which so many other buy-where-you-can-work movements have fallen.
The first of these forces was the Division of Social Sciences at Howard University, and especially its Professor Abram L. Harris. The second was the recent establishment of liberally-led and socially intelligent government employee labor unions, which have at last made it clear to the Washington Negro that the white race is not all rich or prejudiced, and that economic security is the problem of the white worker and petty bourgeoisie as well as that of the Negro.19
In setting up the program of the Alliance, the founders first of all took into careful consideration the many plans of action that the Negro race heretofore has followed in its approach to a solution of its problems. As a minority group, they felt that all of these to large degree had failed because they had missed a basic economic significance in the social position of the Negro in America.
There was, first of all, the Booker T. Washington approach, which sought to develop the Negro as a semi-skilled and skilled worker. The members of the Alliance felt that this program had come entirely too late historically, for even as Booker T. Washington and others had founded industrial schools to train the Negro, the American labor movement had been taking steps to exclude him from the craft and industrial occupations. The members of the Alliance granted that some kind of sound economic foundation for the newly-freed Negro had been necessary, and that the semi-skilled and unskilled occupations had offered the best opportunities for his economic advancement. But they maintained that such a program was, and still is, economically impossible. They saw unmistakable signs of the failure of the program in the increased emphasis on academic and professional training for Negroes, even in those institutions which were founded to carry out agricultural and industrial education.20
A second approach was that proposed by Dr. W. E. B. DuBois, which first gained popularity as a reaction to the less ambitious Booker T. Washington program, with its inherent limitation of the Negro to the lower type of social achievement. DuBois’s idea was the development of the “better Tenth” of the race. He insisted that the Negro should attempt to assimilate the best of the Western and American culture, and advocated the training of at least ten per cent of the race in things academic and professional. By such training, he averred, not only would the race receive through those trained the services necessary to its improvement, but at the same time white America would be afforded a demonstration of the ability of the Negro to assimilate and command even the finest of culture. This approach was at one time especially popular with the Negro petty bourgeoisie, just appearing in the Eastern seaboard cities, who were particularly interested in obtaining civil rights as their social standing improved.21
An off-shoot from this approach was the theory proposed by Dr. Alain Leroy Locke, who looked forward to a peculiar and special contribution to American culture by the Negro. By this approach the Negro not only would master Western civilization, but at the same time would produce his own negroid contribution for the great stream of American culture. Dr. Locke and the followers of his philosophy believed that racial prejudice soon would disappear before the altars of truth, art, and intellectual achievement.22
The members of the Alliance realized that the American Negro had long fulfilled the hopes and expectations of both these theories, for students and scholars of the Negro race not only had mastered their fields brilliantly but had contributed to their development. And yet, they realized, the white race still was not willing to accept the Negro, either as an American capable of mastering the entire civilization and culture, or as a significant contributor. Socially and economically, they knew, the Negro remained an oppressed minority.
Faced with these facts, the Alliance took the position that minority oppression is basically economic and that therefore there could hardly be a cultural remedy. It saw proof of its contention in the oppression of the Chinese people, who long before the coming of the Western powers to the Orient had a meaningful and rich culture. It decided that the essence of a minority position rests not so much upon the inability to produce culturally, but upon the capitalistic necessity of labor differentials, increased profit, and the rest that goes with economic exploitation, and it felt that it was no longer essentially desirable to stress the cultural differences of the Negro, nor his peculiar racial characteristics which are now hardly extant.
The third approach of Negro leaders to the economic problem had been the struggle for civil rights. Such a struggle, the Alliance felt, could never be successful by itself. It is an old principle that the law is only that which the people will respect as such. The fate of the 18th Amendment makes this quite clear in another field; and the fate of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, together with the Civil Rights laws, proves the truth of this statement for the Negro. Driven on by economic and social factors, the great majority of Americans can hardly be expected to honor the law, so far as the Negro is concerned, simply because it is the law.
However, the Alliance did not underestimate the importance of the civil rights approach as a minority tactic. In a manner of speaking, the law, if properly influenced by the idealism of the jurist and the scholar, will often lift the community above its determining factors. Temporarily at least, the idealistic scholar and jurist can build an idealogical super-structure in the law which can check-mate the anti-social forces of unbridled self-interest, profit-seeking, and racial exploitation. Much can be achieved through the civil rights approach also in pushing over old restrictions and taboos which may remain in the law long after the popular will has moved on to an enlightened position.
In fact, it was realized that the Alliance’s approach could not succeed in its application of consumer pressure without a corresponding civil rights struggle as a means of protection. The Alliance merely maintained that, alone, a fight for civil rights was far from complete as a minority tactic.
The civil rights struggle was also a part of the program of Dr. W. E. B. DuBois, as expressed through the N.A.A.C.P. But Dr. DuBois attacked the Alliance and similar movements because of his early distaste for anything that smacked of segregation. His contention was that such organizations accept segregation, and even hope to solidify it, by giving it an economic basis. In short, his position was that white America would more or less gladly give the Negro jobs in Negro-supported businesses in order to segregate him more adequately.
On this point the Alliance took the position that segretation in a city like Washington is a fact and that its disappearance at any early date is hardly probable because of the lethargy of the Negro, the prejudice of the white man, the law, the pressure of real estate values, and similar socioeconomic factors. Even in northern cities, where segregation theoretically does not exist, these social and economic factors bring it about. If segregation is to exist, then, the Alliance felt that it should not be coupled with racial exploitation—the best jobs even in the Negro areas going to members of other races.
Such a situation as that which exists in Philadelphia, for instance, excited the organization’s reformist zeal. In this city there is no segregation in the public school system—theoretically! No Negro teachers, however, are appointed above the graded schools, and in schools where as high as eighty per cent of the student body is Negro, the teachers are all white. To have Negro teachers over white children is hardly possible with the existing racial attitudes in Philadelphia. The Alliance felt it is better to have outright segregated schools, which already exist in fact, and to procure the resulting jobs, than to feebly struggle against tremendous odds for the appointment of Negro teachers over white students. Its opinion was backed by observation of the high type of intellectual and cultural achievement that segregated schools had made possible in Washington through the stimulus provided by the availability of excellent occupational opportunities. Is it not better to have Washington’s segregated schools than to continue to foster the lethargic attitude of Philadelphia’s young Negroes, who seldom even go to college since the occupational opportunities available to them are so limited? If grievous psychological factors develop from segregated schools, Washington’s high intellectual development shows it to be relatively a less important factor than the job opportunities afforded.
The next major approach to racial economic salvation was also Booker T. Washington’s. Dr. Washington, with characteristic feeling for the strenthening of the Negro’s economic basis, was a strong advocate of building Negro business. Present-day proponents of this school, largely incipient Negro business men hoping to become capitalists, point out that the race is made up for the most part of unskilled industrial workers, agricultural workers, laborers, and professional persons. To fill in the occupational scheme, they say, it is absolutely necessary to build Negro business to provide opportunities for Negro youth. They hasten to recite the rise of many foreign-born Americans from shoe-string peddlers to department-store owners.
With this shoe-string school of thought the Alliance could not agree. History showed that the Negro was hardly emerging from slavery when American business was coming of age in the form of the modern corporation. Thus the Negro missed, or rather never had, the opportunity to get in at the start, and now, try as he will, he is unable to build anything but small businesses. Even here he faces the competition of chain methods of distribution which he has not yet found a way to overcome.
Without capital, individually or collectively, and with no business tradition, the Alliance saw the Negro as almost totally incapable of competing with highly organized and capitalized American business. It appeared from the record that Negro business was entirely incapable of surviving except in the fields of insurance and undertaking, where white corporations did not care to compete; in the first instance because the mortality rate was too high and in the second because of social prejudice. In banking, it was recognized that the Negro had made some small success, but it still seemed that in the final analysis the business ended up in the larger white banks which the Negro banks had to use for clearing, deposit, credit, and other purposes. And so the Alliance decided that it would not concern itself with attempting to aid in the erection of a Negro capitalist class. It took the attitude that only through consumers’ co-operatives, which had proved capable of competing in the capitalistic system in the Scandinavian countries, Ireland, England, the West Coast of Africa, and the United States, could any business progress be made within the race.
On the positive side, the Alliance decided to concern itself with filling out the occupational structure of the race in accordance with the limiting conditions of the existing economic and social pattern. In surveying its field, it found that the Negro is occupationally all hands and feet, largely feet. He is generally either an unskilled industrial worker, a laborer, a farmer or agricultural worker, or a professional. Comparatively few Negroes are engaged in the skilled trades or hold business or clerical positions. According to the 1930 Census, 32.2 per cent of America’s native white men and 67.1 per cent of its native white women were employed in general clerical capacities, while only 8.5 per cent of the colored men and 3.5 per cent of the colored women were employed in this manner. The Alliance therefore decided that its primary aim must be to forcefully increase, by the use of consumer pressure, the number of Negroes employed in clerical capacities, business positions, and generally in the higher occupational levels.
As its chief weapon it decided upon the consumer’s boycott, undoubtedly the most powerful force which the Negro has yet discovered as a minority technique, believing that since the basis for minority persecution is chiefly economic, the remedy should likewise be economic. As outstanding world examples of the efficacy of the boycott it studied the Indian boycotts and the Chinese boycott against Japan. It believed that in its case retaliatory force would not be used as it was in China’s; the Negro and the Indian have the advantage of dealing with democratic countries while the Chinese face a fascist Japan which emerged from feudalism no earlier than the nineteenth century.
The Alliance saw special power in the boycott because of the nature of modern capitalism. Since the modern corporation is organized to carry on mass production on a marginal basis, it is especially vulnerable to consumer action, for in order to destroy profit it is merely necessary to destroy sales to a point where marginal profit disappears. Thus the basic aim of the organization became placement of Negroes in clerical positions in distribution units; but a secondary aim was semi-skilled, skilled, and professional placements in factories and other points of production.
In the four years that the Alliance has carried on its work, its ablest critic has been Dr. Abram Harris of Howard University. It was Dr. Harris who brought labor consciousness to the organization at a time when it was foolishly racial and chauvinistic. He pointed out that the result of such a movement as was at first visualized was inevitably and finally the antagonism of the white worker, with whom the Negro must sooner or later ally in the general evolution in America toward greater social justice. His criticsm appeared at a time when the CIO first loomed on the national horizon and liberal government employee trade unions first came to Washington.
From the outset, the Alliance never asked for outright displacements of white workers, but for employment of Negroes during the course of normal labor turnover. It soon began to become active in the new labor renaissance in governmental Washington, insisting that the Negro be organized with equal opportunity for all occupations. The CIO met the question squarely, guaranteeing that the Negro would get the same jobs as went to members of other races; although it could not, as a labor union, admit the wholesale displacement of its members. In short, it was wholly in accord with the gradual turnover idea. It organized the Negro clerical workers for whom the Alliance had secured jobs, as well as a large number of Negro government cafeteria employees. The Alliance became integrated into the general movement for social justice for all workers.
In his book, The Negro As Capitalist, Dr. Harris made several criticisms of buy-where-you-can-work movements. With some of these criticisms the Alliance has never agreed; with others it has felt that they do not apply in its case.23
Dr. Harris objected to such movements, first of all, because he felt that economic retaliation on the part of whites employing Negroes would mean the loss of more jobs than could be gained. The Alliance disagreed with his position, feeling that it was essentially a type of defeatism. One might just as well say that Socialist and worker movements for social justice should all cease at once, for their impending success inevitably results in fascism and the complete suppression of workers as in Germany, Italy, and Spain. But the fact that this not always the case is apparent in France, England, and the United States; it all depends upon the techniques employed and the complete historical, political, social, and economic situation.
The same danger of retaliation is true of all forms of tactics where ultimate power does not reside in the hands of the agitating group. The Negro can do nothing through buy-where-you-can-work movements without the sympathy of liberal elements and of labor. Rabid racialism must be avoided at all costs, and movements in Chicago and New York have been none too succesful in doing this.
Dr. Harris insisted, in the second place, that buy-where-you-can-work programs must result in the absolute displacement of white workers regardless of the use of the method of placing Negroes only when normal labor turnover affords an opportunity. The Alliance felt that in taking such a stand he assumed the complete poverty of capitalism as far as any future expansion is concerned, and that he intimated that there is little rotating employment resulting from shifts and types of production which would afford opportunity for the frictionless placement of Negroes. Through its program the Alliance has shown that, far from causing a general displacement of white workers and thereby alienating their support, the buy-where-you-can-work program can be carried out in close cooperation with even the most advanced elements of the labor movement.
Dr. Harris stated that buy-where-you-can-work programs are generally anti-Semitic because in their mere activism they strike at the neighborhood Jewish storekeeper. But the Alliance has always felt that it has been notably free of anti-Semitism. Certainly anti-Semitism has never been expressed in any of its publicity. Only one Jewish concern, the Kaufman Department Store, has ever been picketed, and then in the regular course of a city-wide campaign. Neighborhood Jewish stores which employ only members of the operator’s family have never been approached.
The Alliance approach resulted from a feeling that the great modern corporation structure was a huge collective instrument with which individual members of the race could not compete. This was true for two reasons, namely, lack of capital and lack of opportunity to partake of the drive to trustification which got under way even as the Negro emerged from savagery. Consciously or unconsciously this corporation economy has afforded none of the higher occupational opportunities for Negroes. Hence the Alliance felt that the only way occupations could be secured was by a collective consumer attack. The Alliance held that when any consumer movement attacked neighborhood family businesses, it in effect denied the principle of freedom of economic enterprise, on which the very survival of the Negro depends, and substantially took a position of demanding that all black dollars go into black hands. Such a consumer movement is in essence the same as that of German Fascism, which demands racial autarchy.
The Alliance felt that all consumer movements must admit the principle of fair individual economic enterprise or suffer disastrous retaliation, for the other position basically accepted two separate economies, one white and one black, which if adopted by other races would completely crush the Negro. The aim of the Alliance was to better integrate the Negro into the economy which exists and whose corporate nature has excluded him, not further to separate black and white economy. The Alliance took the position that if Harlem Negroes were disturbed about individual Jewish businesses, the only fair and safe approach would be to establish competing Negro businesses.
Traditionally only the most intimate and best relationships have existed between the Jewish neighborhood storekeeper and the Negro. The German persecution has given the Jew a new sympathy for the Negro and the Negro a new understanding of the Jewish situation. The philanthropy of the Jew in Negro education has made him undoubtedly one of the outstanding and most appreciated friends of the Negro. In view of these facts, however, it is important that all buy-where-you-can-work movements mark well the fear and criticism of Dr. Harris.
Social understanding saved the Alliance from anti-Semitism. Even when there was some talk of anti-Semitism at, as Dr. Harris put it, “that greatest institution for the higher education of Negroes,” the Alliance was forceful in its criticism of such an attitude. The organization, furthermore, never sought to apply any principle of racial employment to the higher education of the Negro. Such a principle would be unsound, both from considerations of endowment, excellence of faculty, and psychological balance in education. The Alliance is only concerned with insisting upon some kind of employment for the young products of the many Negro institutions of higher learning.
In general summary, Dr. Harris was apparently of the opinion that the buy-where-you-can-work movement must necessarily be in essence minority fascism. He felt that it applies a principle of racial economic self-sufficiency to a minority situation, exposes the race to the possibility of retaliation, and “becomes a spiritual ally of German Fascism.” In short, he believed that a minority could hope to gain little but further persecution when it attempted to close the free interplay of the economic system by a program which is in the slightest concerned with racial self-sufficiency, or rather, racial wellbeing.
This argument assumed that the economy is, or was, open to the Negro and that for the Negro, social fascism does not already exist. The Alliance felt that through the effective shutting off of all opportunities, social fascism did already exist for the Negro. What can be lost by way of economic opportunities when 70 per cent of the Negro population is on relief in some urban centers, and when the Negro is unfairly denied employment in the very businesses which are supported by his consumer power (or relief consumer power)? The Alliance believed that, characteristic of many capitalistic, democratic institutions, social fascism exists for the Negro; and it believed that to some extent through the exercise of the freedom, civil and economic rights guaranteed under a democratic system of government, this condition could be alleviated. It knew that labor unions had made headway against similar social fascist situations.
Comparisons are odious, and historical comparisons at present are at best highly problematical and subject to numerous qualifications. But the Alliance has always emphatically denied any essential similarity between its program and that of German Fascism, for while the latter is concerned with complete racial self-sufficiency, racial chauvinism and supremacy, the former is merely concerned with equal economic opportunities under a system which professes liberalism and enlightened economic individualism. To say that some buy-where-you-can-work groups appeal to racial chauvinism in their propaganda is beside the point. The Communist Party does the same thing in its appeal to the Negro in this country, yet it hardly looks forward to a racial chauvinistic state.
Buy-where-you-can-work movements rest, or rather should rest, entirely upon that concept of liberal democratic government which limits individual economic enterprise by principles of social justice and equal opportunity. If Dr. Harris means to imply that any deviation of a minority group in a liberal democratic system from the complete individualistic system must necessarily result in the opposite or completely collectivistic racial system, both on their part and the part of the majority race, and that there is no such thing as individualism modified by social justice, then he places himself close to the most reactionary of the theories of individualism. In fact, he finds himself in company with such conservative persons as Mr. Justice McReynolds and Mr. Justice Butler.
The former, in dissenting from the majority opinion in the recent case won by the Alliance in the United States Supreme Court, stated, “Under the tortured meaning now attributed to the words ‘labor dispute,’ no employer . . . who prefers helpers of one color or class can find adequate safeguard against intolerable violations of his freedom if members of some other class, religion, race, or color demand that he give them precedence. . . . The ultimate result of the view now approved to the very people whom the petitioners claim to represent, it may be, is prefigured by the grievous plight of minorities in the land where the law has become a mere political instrument.” The Alliance denies that such must be the case and believes there is a middle ground.
The Alliance, however, is not ungrateful to Dr. Harris for his criticism. It is especially thankful for his admonitions on the irrelevances of racialism, for his caution on the dangers of racial chauvinism, for his more basic analysis of the Negro’s underprivileged position as that of the worker, and for his clear demonstration that the Negro must look to the new labor movement for real and lasting economic and social advancement.
However, it stands firm in its belief that it is on the right track. It intends, now that its program has been sanctioned by the nation’s highest court, to carry on that program with redoubled vigor. It hopes that other groups in other cities will follow in its footsteps, profit through its victories and benefit by its mistakes. For only thus can a start be made in the tremendous task of securing for Negroes their rightful share of jobs in business and in industry.
Opportunity, 16 (August, 1938): 230–37.
NEW YORK CITY—Appointment of colored people to the national and local administrative boards which will be set up to administer the Federal wages and hours bill was urged upon Administrator Elmer F. Andrews, administrator of the law, by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In a letter addressed to Andrews, William Pickens, director of branches for the association, said:
“If these colored workers are to be included, for the sake of the entire program, some special attention will have to be given to the local administration of that law in the ex-slave states.”
Asserting that “wages and hours discrimination,” against colored workers will, in the final analysis, stop effective operation of the law, Pickens said that the only effective guarantee against discrimination is “that colored men should be members of the local committees which administer this law.”
“We should start,” he advised the administrator, “by setting them a good example; by putting Negroes in positions in the national administration of this law. Then we should require that local administration include Negro workers on the basis of their percentage of the whole number of workers.”24
United Mine Workers’ Journal, October 15, 1938.
By Alan Max
We have seen a sharp contrast between the decisions on labor unity, world peace and other questions as railroaded through the A.F. of L. convention by the ruling clique and the way these same matters were handled at the CIO convention.
On the vital issue of the Negro people, however, the position of the A.F. of L. convention was more progressive than it had ever been before. It gave the CIO a real mark to shoot at.
Not that Matthew Woll and John P. Frey, who tried to shut the door to labor unity and fired blast after blast against the New Deal, had a change of heart on the Negro question. The improved stand taken by the convention on several Negro questions, was due to the rapid awakening in recent years by the membership, to the resolutions and speeches of the delegates from the Hotel and Restaurant Workers and the Teachers Unions, and, above all, to the splendid floor fight waged by the outstanding Negro leader, A. Philip Randolph of the Sleeping Car Porters. These factors grudging recognition of the rights of the Negroes from the top leadership.25
Condemning Negro Bias
Previous A.F. of L. conventions had flatly rejected a demand for wiping out the color bar still existing in many international unions. This time, however, the convention went on record condemning this discrimination, although it took no practical steps to end it. The convention also asked the Executive Council to look into measures that might come up from time to time to end the Southern poll taxes, whereby many white workers and practically all Negroes in the South are disfranchised.26
The CIO convention not only matched the position of the A.F. of L., but went way beyond it. As Earl Browder declared at the recent meeting of the National Committee of the Communist Party, the “Pittsburgh gathering of the CIO, by its energetic actions and future plans for organizing the Negro workers on the basis of complete equality, finally closed the old and shameful chapter of labor’s indifference to this question.”27
It did this not only with the actual decisions adopted, but also by the entire spirit of the convention. This was evidence by the rising ovation given the speeches of the Negro delegates ‘like Henry Johnson, assistant national director of the Packinghouse Organizing Committee, and the way the delegates chose to act on the Negro questions, not by the formal “aye”, but by a rising vote.
At the outset, the convention set down its foot against any discrimination when it declared in its constitution that its firm aim was:
Regardless of Color
“To bring about the effective organization of the working men and women of America regardless of race, creed, color, or nationality and to unite them for common action into labor unions for their mutual aid and protection.”
It was in the following resolution, however, adopted with a rising ovation, that the CIO dedicated itself to an “uncompromising” struggle against Negro discrimination in every phase of life:
WHEREAS, Employers constantly seek to split one group of workers from another, and thus to deprive them of their full economic strength, by arousing prejudices based on race, creed, color or nationality, and one of the most frequent weapons used by employers to accomplish this end is to create false conflicts between Negro and white workers; now therefore be it
RESOLVED, That the CIO hereby pledges itself to uncompromising opposition to any form of discrimination, whether political or economic, based upon race, color, creed or nationality.
The convention discussed the Negro question mainly in connection with its decision to launch a broad organizing campaign in the South. The convention went on record to sponsor and support legislation to abolish the Southern poll taxes. It called for the enactment of legislation to remedy the frightful conditions described in the report on Economic Conditions in the South prepared by the President’s National Emergency Council. It sent greetings to the Southern Conference for Human Welfare which was to open a week later in Birmingham (and which turned out to be a breath-taking success in welding Southern whites and Negroes together for progress in the South!)
Paper Lauds Position
The unhesitating position taken by the CIO convention with regard to the Negro workers, had a tremendous and immediate effect among the Negro people. The Pittsburgh Courier, for example, one of the most influential Negro papers in the country, declared that “there has been no convention in the history of this nation which was more important to the broad mass of Negroes and which has taken more significant action in respect to that mass than that of the CIO.”
“One of the features of this convention,” the Courier continued, “was the manner in which it attacked the problem of the Negro as problems belonging in common to the working class. Its action was all the more significant when one notes that this attack was led by whites. Southern whites at that. It was not necessary to pack the convention with Negro delegates for the Negro to get a hearing. Nor was it necessary for the Negro delegates to restrict their activities to the special interests of their people. The Negro delegates were kept busy along the entire firing line. It was easy to perceive that Negro and white delegates were looking beyond race.”
The progressive position taken on the Negro question by the A.F. of L. convention and, more especially, by the CIO, shows how the workers in both organizations are making a clean break with the false prejudice that had been forced upon them in the past years. It gives new promise of greater unity in the future of all workers, Negro and white, working shoulder to shoulder for the welfare of all.
Daily Worker, December 9, 1938.
The Negro Champion
169 West 133rd Street
New York City
I read your paper and I notice that you ask for workers’ correspondence.
I will therefore relate something that happened to me in the dress makers’ strike we are now having.
I am seventeen years old and went to high school. When I left school I could not get anything to do, so a friend took me down to her factory and I got a job as an examiner on dresses.
The boss offered me $15 a week and promised to raise me when I got experienced. Of course I did not know how much they were paying examiners and as I was out of work and needed money badly I took the job. . . . Then one day some men came into the factory and told us to come down stairs and go to union headquarters. I didn’t know what it was all about but the presser told me to come along. When the boss saw that all the workers in the factory were walking out, he came to me and pulled my hat off of my head and told me that I had nothing to do with the others as they were all white and it was their affair. But I refused to listen to the boss and went along with the other workers. Most of them were union members and the others agreed to join the union. When they learned that I was getting only $15 a week they told me that I should be getting $26 a week instead. They began to make arrangements with the boss and he agreed to everything except to pay me $26 a week. So the workers all said that they would not go back to work unless he agreed to pay me. Then he began to find fault with my work, but the workers struck out and finally he was forced to agree to all our demands and we are now back in the shop working under union conditions and I am a member of the new Needle Trades Industrial Union.
Negro Champion, February 25, 1939.
By Swanson C. Shields
DETROIT, June 24—Kidnapped and flogged, clubbed on the picket line, threatened with “bodily violence” a score of times and victim of other antilabor uprisings . . .
That may read like a page from a fiction thriller but to Walter T. Hardin, outstanding Negro CIO leader in Michigan, it’s all in a day’s work.28
Despite the blackjacks, the horsehide whip and other foul weapons turned on Hardin by the union haters, the veteran Negro leader has not been silenced. Today he stands out as one of the gamest fighters for labor’s cause in Michigan, his name an inspiration to both his colored and white brothers.
His courage in refusing to be bullied by vigilante mobs symbolizes the driving spirit of the CIO in this state.
Always a staunch supporter of industrial unionism, Hardin early deserted Homer Martin when the latter started his “union busting” tactics. Hardin had been an appointee of Martin. One of the first steps of the new UAW-CIO president Fred Thomas, when he took office was to appoint Hardin General Negro Organizer.29
Wheeling into action his first day back on the firing line, Hardin launched a vigorous drive among the more than 15,000 Negro automobile workers in Michigan.
Martin’s decision to leave the CIO and re-enter the AFL spelled his defeat among the Negro workers, Hardin reports.
“The overwhelming majority of Negro unionists are solidly behind the CIO today, because the CIO has given a new spirit of racial equality to the colored race” he points out.
“The Negro was never given democratic rights in the AFL. Green, Wolf and their crowd discriminated against the Negroes so notoriously that Jim-Crowism became as widespread in the AFL as below the Dixie Line.”
Smiling, Hardin added:
“For Martin to invite the Negroes into the AFL is tantamount for Hoover or Girdler to ask the support of the CIO in 1940.”30
In Bondage At Ford
What about Ford?
“Negro Ford workers, like their white brothers, are crying for unionsm. They have been held in bondage by Ford terrorism for many years but today they are throwing away the yoke of Fordism and want to enjoy the protection offered by the CIO.”
Kidnapped In ’31
Hardin had his first baptism in anti-labor violence in 1931 when he was kidnapped, taken to a desolate park outside Pontiac, undressed and then brutally whipped and forced to stagger 10 miles back into the city without shoes or stockings—in freezing weather.
His crime: Fighting starvation among Pontiac’s unemployed.
Two In Asylum
Two other labor leaders, kidnapped and flogged along with Hardin were clubbed so viciously and their vital organs crushed so violently that they went insane shortly afterwards. Today they are inmates in a State asylum, a living testimonial of the industrial terror that once stalked Michigan.
But the highlight of this story is that the perpetrators of the bloody crime were never brought to justice. They were identified but a sympathetic judge gave them only words of praise. Among the vigilantes was the personnel director of a big auto plant here and the owner of a large foundry—both of them outspoken labor foes.
But Hardin’s greatest thrill came when he personally watched the two “industrial floggers” sign UAW-CIO contracts two years ago.
CIO News, June 26, 1939.
The Crisis, 47 (March, 1940): 81.
PHILADELPHIA, June 15—CIO Pres. John L. Lewis will address the 31st annual conference of the Natl. Association for Advancement of Colored People here on Tuesday, June 18.
The meeting, which is the national get-together of the organization, will be held at the Tindley Temple, Broad and Fitzwater Streets. Lewis is scheduled to speak at 8:30 P.M.
Other speakers will include Arthur B. Spingarn, head of the Association, a nationally-known liberal leader.
Pres. Lewis’ address will be the third in recent months that he has delivered to progressive pro-labor organizations. In February he spoke at the convention of the American Youth Congress, and a month later he appeared at the National Negro Congress meeting in Washington.
CIO News, June 17, 1940.
Following are excerpts from the speech delivered by CIO Pres. John L. Lewis to the 31st annual conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in Philadelphia on June 18:
I appreciate very deeply the honor of your invitation to appear before the Thirty-First Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Your Association has, since it was first conceived by public-spirited citizens in 1909, fought a courageous fight for the rights of American citizens. Fundamentally, labor’s fight is the same as yours—to obtain for American citizens those rights which are their heritage.
The problems of the Negro people are the problems of all American wage earners, but they are the problems in an aggravated form.
Unemployment, still the first bane of our land, rests with unequal heaviness upon the Negroes. When the census of unemployment was made in 1937, it showed that 15.7 per cent of the white working force was totally unemployed, while at the same time over 23 per cent of the Negro working force was totally out of work. We know that kind of a disproportion exists today.
The National Resources Committee has shown in cold facts what we already know, that the income of the Negro families falls far below the common level; for example, one of the studies showed that in Southern rural towns 91 per cent of the yearly incomes of Negroes was below one thousand dollars ($1,000), while only 45 per cent of the white population was under that level. In the large Northern cities 42 per cent of the Negro incomes was below one thousand dollars ($1,000), while only 18 per cent of the white incomes was below that figure. This income disproportion is reflected in the housing and medical care which the Negroes can get.
The needs of no group in the nation are greater than those of the Negro people.
Their incomes as a group are the lowest.
Their living conditions are the poorest.
Their unemployment is the highest.
The discrimination against them is the worst.
Most of the Negroes are wage earners and their salvation lies in the same measure as does that of labor as a whole.
Two great essential rights guarantee the advance of labor and of the Negro in a democracy. The first is the right to organize into unions as workers. The second is the right of political expression free and unhampered.
Equal economic opportunity will come to the Negro workers only when they are organized industrially, side by side with all other workers.
In the CIO all workers have equality of opportunity. There is no discrimination in wage rates between any of the workers. They have equal rights to all others within the organization, and they must be paid equal wages for doing equal work. The United Mine Workers brought that principle home to the thousands of Negro mine workers in the South, when in 1933 it established equal rights for white and Negro workers in the Southern mines.
Many Negroes are leaders of CIO unions and stand high up in the ranks of the leaders of organized labor. They lead not unions of Negroes alone, but unions of all workers, no matter what their color.
Equal economic opportunity for Negroes under organized labor is the first step toward their rightful place in the sun for the Negro people.
The right to vote establishes the rightful place of every group in our nation. That is why the Negroes as well as the millions of other Southern workers must be released from the shackles of the poll tax, so that they can exercise their franchise.
A Sound Program
The CIO’s program offers to Negroes, as well as to the other people of the nation the basis for a sound program.
1. The CIO is the instrument through which the fight of the workers for the right to bargain collectively is being carried on.
2. The CIO is fighting for the end of the poll tax which destroys the right to vote.
3. The CIO demands the passage of the anti-lynching bill.
4. The CIO calls for the end of unemployment, for adequate security and decent housing and free and equal education.
Clearly the CIO program, and that of the welfare of the Negro people, are to all intents and purposes, practically the same. The way to attain such a program is by common action, and that common action labor freely offers to those who would cooperate with it to the same ends.
In the United States, there are 11,259,000 unemployed.
This is substantially the same number as were unemployed on March 4th, 1933. It is unfortunate for the nation that nothing has been done in seven years to correct this situation. It is tragically unfortunate for those millions who have borne the brunt of the human suffering which these figures suggest.
Government figures recently released reveal that 19 million American families are compelled to subsist on a monthly income of $26.00. Government figures further reveal that under-consumption threatens the health and physical standards of the population. One half of all the people in the United States have incomes which enable them to spend for food requirements only ten cents per meal per person.
Those who love to fuminate against the menace of Fifth Columns and Trojan Horses should thus stop to consider that the most menacing condition in American national life is the inadequate diet and the empty stomachs of one-half of the population.
Increased national income and employment for all Americans is a fundamental and imperative problem, which the major political parties and the Government must face. It is truly tragic that the current Administration in power, after seven years of experimentation, has made no substantial contribution toward the abatement of this problem. It is equally tragic that the political party in power, and its spokesmen, have even now no suggestion to offer for national unemployment, except that possible involvement in a European war may relieve them from the responsibilities of unsolved domestic problems.
Involvement or intervention in the European war is repugnant to every healthy-minded American. The American electorate is anxious to demonstrate this fact in the political election of 1940. The major political party that permits war, or potential war profiteers, or professional politicians, with an aggressive military complex, to dominate or write its platform will find itself hopelessly beaten by the votes of an outraged electorate in November.
All of the labor and liberal organizations, with which I am identified stand unalterably for the adequate defense of the nation and its democratic institutions, and against involvement in the European war and against those who advocate such involvement.
A great depression came on the world in 1929. That depression arose fundamentally from the financial collapse of Europe, which was inevitable as the aftermath of the losses and inflations of the World War.
The economists all agree that recovery from that world-wide depression began in the United States and in every other democratic country in the spring of 1932. The other democratic countries in the world went straight on out of that depression from 1932. They had recovered employment for their people, most of them in the year 1934, and practically all of them by 1935.
The United States alone went backward after the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and under his policies it has stayed depressed in the United States ever since. We have never recovered our national income within ten billions per annum. And with our growth of population at the normal rate of progress, it should be 30 billions greater today than it now is. If it were 30 billions greater we would have no unemployment.
In Great Britain they not only recovered their pre-depression national income by 1935, but they marched ahead to 25% above it, while we sweated along 20% below.
Mr. Roosevelt made depression and unemployment a chronic fact in American life. It was a slogan of the 1932 presidential election that Herbert Hoover was responsible for that depression. As a simple matter of justice, let me say here and now that the workers of the United States realize that he had nothing whatever to do with it. It was laid on his doorstep when he came to the White House. It is only the self-seeking politicians that blame Mr. Hoover. The policies he pursued, in cooperation with other nations, had a powerful effect in the start at recovery in 1932. The New Deal did not fulfill their promises or complete their undertakings. It was their policies and their weaknesses which have kept this country in depression for seven more years.
It is time for all Americans to take stock of the problems which face them today. When the European war ends, and the populations of the warring countries return to the peacetime production of essential commodities, our own country will face terrific economic repercussions. It is time for the major political parties to appraise the situation and keep faith with the American people, by enunciating policies and selecting candidates equal to the task before them. Otherwise, every American will pay the price of our national failure—a price that may well be beyond their ability to pay.
CIO News, June 24, 1940.
By C. W. Fowler
One of the annual events at American Federation of Labor conventions just as regular as the re-election of Bill Green and other extinct volcanoes to the AFL leadership, is a pious resolution of discrimination against Negro workers. Annually the resolution is passed, with favorable comment, and annually ignored. AFL unions, having voted for the resolution, go home to continue what they have always practiced—with honorable exceptions—the rule of exclusion and Jim Crow against Negro workers.
It took the advent of the CIO to change this age-old custom just as it took the CIO to bring organization to the masses of industrial workers in the United States. There is no discrimination in CIO unions. The constitution of the CIO expressly forbids it, all CIO affiliates have consistently refused to practice it, just as an industrial union refused to discriminate against a worker because of skill or occupation, so it cannot discriminate against a worker because of race—and remain an industrial union.
The CIO doesn’t need any pious resolutions on discrimination to remind it of certain basic facts, ably stated in the introduction to “Black Workers and the News Unions,” a new study of Horace R. Cayton and George S. Mitchell.31 The CIO has been aware from the beginning, as the authors say, that:
PROFITS IN PREJUDICE
“The employer class has found racial prejudice a profitable thing, for since the Negro has not been drawn into a working class organization, he has been available for the exercise of the ‘divide and rule’ policy in connection with labor disputes. During a strike, the employer could import from another region Negroes who felt no solidarity with his employes and who were well beyond the control of the local public opinion which supported the strikers.
“Another advantage for the employers was the adoption of a lower wage scale which the Negro accepted because of the difficulty in obtaining other employment. As a rule a prerequisite to employment was that Negroes would not demand the wage and working conditions granted the white workers.”
This advantage is something, as the authors point out, that anti-union employers have never hesitated to use, as long as the labor movement allowed them to. Negro workers were brought in to break strikes in the north as early as 1875, when they first came into the steel industry. Thirty thousand of them were imported as strikebreakers in 1919, as before in the great Homestead walkout of 1890.
The same technique was used in other basic industries. In the packing industry, now organized like steel by the CIO, Negroes were imported to break the back of organizing effort after the first world war and in sporadic outbursts before. The employers succeeded then, to the point of provoking disastrous race riots.
They are not succeeding now, as the overwhelming success of the CIO Packinghouse Workers union shows. Here again, as in other CIO organizing drives. Negro workers take their full place in the membership and in the leadership of the new industrial union. The packing industry has a high percentage of Negro workers, and the percentage of Negro leaders, from the Assistant National Director to local officials, is equally high.
This is the way the CIO organizes industrial workers, not, as Cayton and Mitchell point out, in the way the AFL and some other organizations have attempted to organize, by discrimination and Jim Crow.
CIO News, December 4, 1940.
24. NEGROES SHOULD JOIN THE CIO, SAYS PAUL ROBESON32
I know about the situation at Ford’s and I’ll be glad to tell you what I think about it. Most Negroes think of me as a football player and song star. They do not know that before I could get through college, I worked as a bricklayer, on an ice wagon and as a waiter in a restaurant.
My first contact with the labor movement came while I was living in England, because of the problems affecting Negroes. The British Labour Party was intensely interested in problems affecting the Negro workers.
I gained the favor of the labor movement and decided I must do something about the problem of the Negro, their special problem and those that face all workers, white and colored. I came to certain conclusions while watching the movement there.
I am against separate unions for Negro workers. All should belong to the same organization. I am glad that is the policy that has been accepted by the CIO.
Coming back to this country, it seemed to me that the simple right to organize into a Union was a common fact and should be accepted. I was amazed that such a right should be questioned here in the U.S. It is astounding that a man like Ford and a large industry like Ford Motor Company have been able to operate in a democracy and not have to deal with the movement. . . .
The Negro problem cannot be solved by a few of us getting to be doctors and lawyers. The best way my race can win justice is by sticking together in progressive labor unions. It would be unpardonable for Negro workers to fail to join the CIO. I don’t see how that can be argued. Insofar as the AFL is concerned, A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a Negro, had difficulty getting the floor at the AFL Convention just to present the demands of Negro workers for full rights.
There is no reason in the world why Negroes should not join the CIO. If they fail to do so, they classify themselves as scab labor Negroes and cannot be a part of the American Democracy except through labor unions. A democracy cannot exist without labor unions.
In the United States today there is a terrific effort going on to take away the all too few rights of labor. If that happens, the Negroes, who have the fewest rights, will suffer most.
Remarks during campaign to organize Ford Motor Company—Ford Facts, December 20, 1940, CIO News, December 23, 1940.
The CIO’s Stand
The objects of the organization are:
“To bring about the effective organization of the working men and women of America regardless of race, creed, color or nationality, and to unite them for common action into labor unions for their mutual aid and protection.”
From the Constitution of the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
WHEREAS, The history of organized labor in the United States is replete with instances in which reactionary employing interests have sought to divide the workers by playing on the prejudices and special interests of whites against Negroes, or the reverse; and
One of the great contributions which the CIO has made to the strength of organized labor in the United States has been to break down the barriers which have existed in the past between Negro and white workers in labor organizations; now, therefore, be it
RESOLVED, That the CIO reaffirms the position which it has consistently maintained from the beginning in opposition to any and all forms of discrimination between one worker and another based upon considerations of race, creed color, or nationality, and pledges itself to work with vigor toward the elimination of outworn prejudices of this kind wherever they may be found in American life; and
That the CIO condemns the policies of many employers of discriminating in their hiring and other employment conditions against Negroes, which constitutes a direct attack against our nation’s policy to build democracy in our fight against Hitlerism.
Resolution of the fourth convention of the CIO held in Detroit, Mich., November, 1941.
The CIO and the Negro Worker
The CIO is an organization of all American workers united as its constitution and its leaders declare, “regardless of race, creed, color or nationality” for the purpose of improving the living and working standards of all Americans and for the purpose of maintaining and expanding democracy and freedom.
Today the CIO stands with every other American and with liberty-loving people everywhere against the murderous attack of Hitler, Japan and their Axis puppets; determined to defend the right of all people to live and to work out their own destiny in freedom.
The CIO has always recognized that all people—“regardless of race, creed, color or nationality”—must stand together to defeat common enemies and achieve common aims. Hatred and disunity between peoples is the greatest weapon Hitler has found in his bloody march to conquest, just as it has always been the greatest weapon of the exploiter and the anti-labor politician.
The resistance of the nations fighting Hitler and the Axis depends on how well they stand together fighting as one. The resistance of our own people to Hitler and his Japanese allies depends on how well we stand together in our own country—Negro and white, Jew and Gentile, native and foreigner born.
The CIO was founded in 1935 on the strength of a principle—the principle that all workers deserve equal consideration, the principle that all workers must unite on common terms to get it.
The principle is not only democratic, it is also a matter of common sense. For many generations anti-labor employers were able to keep American workers apart on racial and religious prejudices. As a result, they were able to exploit them much more easily, on the well-known policy of divide and misrule.
The men who founded the CIO in 1935 knew this, and they determined to build an organization that would rob the exploiters of the weapon of disunity. The unions they headed were industrial unions, where every worker had an equal voice, where every worker got equal consideration.
They had a long history of rejecting all forms of discrimination in their own ranks, where Negro workers were active side by side with their white fellow-members.
What is more, they were strong unions, because they were not split up into tiny groups that fought with each other rather than fighting for their common interest.
The new organization, the CIO, determined to keep out every form of discrimination that had held the labor movement back before. It had to keep out racial discrimination just as it had to keep out craft discrimination. The modern labor movement realized from experience that you could no more exclude workers because of the color of their skin than you could exclude them because of differences in their occupations—if you wanted a strong labor movement.
How well this principle has worked is seen in the fact that there were fewer than 125,000 Negroes in the labor movement before the CIO. Today, after six years, there are more than 500,000—most of them in the CIO.
The CIO is the strongest force in American labor today because its unions have consistently refused to let racial or religious or nationalist disunity weaken them. That is one basic reason why the CIO has organized more than five million American workers, why it has won billions of dollars in wage raises, why it has been able to serve the people of America more than any other organization in the nation.
And it is a basic reason why the CIO today is a great force for victory, why the five million men and women of the CIO are able to give so much to their nation and to our allies in the war for freedom from fascist slavery.
The men and women of the CIO are at work today in the arsenal of democracy, turning out the tanks and guns, planes and ships the United Nations need to crush Hitlerism. They are the soldiers of production, the people who stand beside the machines that are digging Hitler’s grave.
The CIO is organized in the basic industries of America, in coal and steel, in machine building, in aircraft, in shipbuilding, in electrical industry, in oil, in aluminum, in copper and other vital metals, in textiles, in packing, in the maritime trades, in the thousand and one industries working to arm our nation and the nations with us.
In every one of these unions, Negro workers take their place as members with the same democratic rights, with the same voice as all other members.
The Steel Workers Organizing Committee has contracts covering more than 600,000 workers. Negro workers in the SWOC have equal voice with all others. The United Automobile Workers of America has contracts covering over 700,000 workers. Negro members have equal voice in the UAW-CIO with all members. In all these unions, Negro members can and do take official positions, are elected to places of leadership by their fellow members.
A Negro trade union leader, Mr. Willard S. Townsend, president of the United Transport Service Employes, CIO, is a member of the top CIO Executive Board which is the highest CIO policy making body between conventions. Other Negro union leaders are members of important CIO committees.33
All of the unions of the CIO have won benefits for their members. The CIO has raised and maintained the standard of living for many millions beyond its own membership.
Between 1940 and 1941, the CIO added one and a quarter billion dollars to the annual payroll of America workers. This has meant more food, more clothing, more shelter for millions of the American people. It has meant a better chance for the kids, an easier job for the wife who has to stretch the paycheck to meet the cost of living. And just as important, it means better health and higher morale for American workers—health and morale, we desperately need to defeat Hitler and Japan.
The CIO policy of higher wages does not stop with gains already won. Today rising living costs make wage increases more than ever necessary. The CIO is pressing its drive for wage increases in every industry where workers are organized in CIO unions.
In every case, the CIO makes sure that Negro workers receive the same benefits. In every union, the Negro worker and his family have the same chance to win a better life that the white worker has.
In every union auxiliary Negro women and white women unite for this same end.
This has reached not only the basic mass-production industries. The CIO has organized thousands of Negro and white workers in agriculture, bringing hope to the most savagely exploited people in our country. It has organized thousands of Negro and white workers in the packing industry, where Negro workers have been special victims of exploitation. It has organized Negro along with white workers in the government, in the white collar and professional fields, in transport, in maritime, in construction—everywhere the CIO has gone.
The CIO has brought new hope to the underpaid and sweated workers of the South. Many thousands of Southern workers, Negro and white alike, have come under the protection of the CIO. Today the CIO is carrying on a major drive to bring economic freedom and social decency to millions more.
The CIO fights for the right of Southern workers to live and to work for a better way of life just as it has fought and won for millions of workers in other parts of the country.
This is not done out of goodness of heart alone. The CIO is not a charity organization. The CIO has organized Negro and white workers alike because that is the only way strong, industrial labor unions can be built. For a union to practice discrimination is to hand over half its strength to the employer, who uses it to weaken and divide the workers.
For the same reason, the CIO leads in uniting all the people for the defeat of Hitler, of Japan and the junior partner in murder, fascist Italy. Unity of all the people of America for victory is not just idealism. It is hard common sense, for all of us will be slaves if the Axis wins, and all of us are needed to keep our country free.
What the CIO Stands For
The CIO stands for a better life for all workers, for higher wages, for security, for the right to live and the right to work as free men and women. To this end, the CIO has organized powerful industrial unions where men and women unite to achieve common ends. The CIO intends to keep these unions of the people strong, to defend them against attack from any source.
For this reason, the CIO carries on vigorous campaigns for social laws that will help the people better their lives. It fights to keep the good laws we have, to make them stronger, and to win new ones where they are needed.
The CIO has fought for five years to defend the Wagner Act, because it helps protect the right to organize and bargain collectively. The CIO fights to defend the wage-hour act, because it helps protect the workers from the sweatshop. The CIO fights to improve social security, to get more aid for the unemployed, to guard the workers against sickness and old age. The CIO fights for more housing for workers, for a national health program, for fair taxation, for price control to prevent the disaster of inflation.
The CIO has carried on a long campaign to end the poll tax that robs millions of workers and farmers, Negro and white alike, of the basic right of all Americans. The CIO fights constantly for effective measures against lynching, this worst of all stains on America. The CIO fights constantly against discrimination on the job, to bring the skill and strength of millions of Negro and other workers to the aid of the victory program.
These campaigns will be fought by the CIO until every issue is won. The CIO does not lie back on its record. It keeps on fighting, and will keep on fighting, until democracy is secure, until every American has the rights guaranteed by our Constitution and our Declaration of Independence.
Today the CIO is in the lead in the battle for production that must be won to save our nation. Through the Industry Council Plan of President Philip Murray, through the various detailed plans offered by the CIO unions, the CIO has charted the blueprints for out-producing the Axis. These plans are freely offered to the nation. They would let loose the productive forces that our country needs to keep us free.34
Basic to all these plans is the full participation of the men and women of labor in the victory program. Full participation means that all workers, Negro and white, of any creed or origin, must be brought into the national war effort. None can be left out, because we can afford to lose the strength and skill of none.
This is why the CIO fights discrimination against Negro workers on arms production jobs. Excluding 10 million people, or any part of them, from our arms factories is an aid to Hitler. It robs the nation of production soldiers just when we need them most.
The Fair Employment Practices Committee set up by the government was created as a result of CIO’s campaign against discrimination and of CIO demands for all-out production. President Philip Murray of the CIO is a leading member of this committee. The unions of the CIO cooperate with it in reporting cases of discrimination. They want not only to see justice done to the Negro workers, they want also to see that our nation gets every ounce of production for the war.
The Negro people of America have made great contributions to the nation’s wealth and strength. Their sweat and toil have been freely spent for hundreds of years. Today, the CIO wants to bring the strength and patriotism of the Negro people to bear on the greatest task of all our history—the task of wiping out the modern form of slavery created by Hitler.
A People’s Movement
The CIO is a people’s movement, for security, for jobs, for civil rights and freedom. It speaks for all the working men and women of America, Negro and white. It does not ask questions of race or color or creed or origin. The CIO fights to bring the benefits of industrial organization to all working people. The CIO does this job in the only way it can be done—by organizing all the workers, excluding none, discriminating against none.
The CIO is the strongest force for progress in America today. The CIO leads in the victory program, because the CIO unites all the people in the war for freedom.
Hitler makes slaves of all the people he conquers, beginning with minority groups. The CIO has freed millions of workers from economic bondage—including those from minority groups.
The CIO, as President Philip Murray said, “is in this war for the sole purpose of winning it.” Winning the war calls for the highest national unity. It calls for the united effort of every man and woman in America, Negro and white, Gentile and Jew, native and foreign born.
The CIO is organizing for freedom over tyranny in every form in which it is expressed. The CIO organizes for victory over fascism and exploitation.
Negro workers, join the CIO union in your industry. The CIO welcomes you. It gives you strength to win justice and fair play. The CIO unites you with your fellow workers of all races and all creeds in the common struggle for freedom, for democracy, for a better life.
Be It Resolved, That in the present national and world crisis, the CIO, in the interests of victory over our Axis foes, renews its pledge to carry on the fight for the preservation of civil rights, calls upon the Department of Justice and State governments to prosecute to the fullest extent those responsible for lynchings, calls upon Congress to enact legislation making lynching a Federal offense, and calls upon all agencies of our Federal and State government to join in crushing any and all anti-democractic efforts to deny our basic human and civil rights.
Whereas, Discrimination against workers because of race, religion or country of origin is an evil characteristic of our fascist enemies. We of the democracies are fighting fascism at home and abroad by welding all races, all religions and all peoples into a united body of warriors for democracy. Any discriminatory practices within our own ranks, against Negroes or other groups, directly aids the enemy by creating division, dissension and confusion. Such discrimination practiced in employment policies hampers production by depriving the nation of the use of available skills and manpower.
Be It Resolved, That the CIO now reiterates its firm opposition to any form of racial or religious discrimination and renews its pledge, as a war-time duty, to carry on the fight for protection in law and in fact of the rights of every racial and religious group to participate fully in our social, political and industrial life.
Resolution of the 5th convention of the CIO, held in Boston, Mass., November, 1942.
Pamphlet published by the CIO (Washington, D.C., 1942), 11 pp.
By Ben Davis, Jr.
The nation-wide drive to organize steel workers into the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers, has set a precedent in rallying support from all sections of the Negro people.
This is not a coincidence. For years Negro workers supported by white progressives have beat upon the doors of the reactionary American Federation of Labor executive council, clamoring for admission into the organized trade union movement on a basis of equality with all other workers. The council in turn has contemptuously sought to perpetuate conditions of jim-crowism and discrimination in the labor movement of which only the capitalist open-shoppers could be proud.
Of the more than 100,000 Negro workers in the organized labor movement, the overwhelming majority are without doubt active sympathizers with the C.I.O. drive.
At the Tampa A.F. of L. convention the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, headed by A. Philip Randolph, outstanding Negro leader, was among the progressive unions which voted against the suspension of the C.I.O. unions and opposed the splitting policies of the Green-Woll-Hutcheson clique. This and countless other examples prove that the Negro workers are among the most progressive and valuable members of the organized labor movement.35
Following the lead of the Negro workers and the progressive movement as a whole, other stratas of the Negro population have endorsed the C.I.O. drive.
The ball started rolling when the historic National Negro Congress representing indirectly a million Negroes, last year endorsed the C.I.O. in a sweeping resolution.
Since that time branches of the Congress throughout the country have been active arousing popular support among the Negro people for the steel drive. John P. Davis, young national executive-secretary of the Congress, has just ended a transcontinental tour after which he reported that the Congress resolution was being “brought to life in Baltimore, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and other urban centers.” Davis spoke to hundreds of Negro and white steel workers.
Role of Negro Press
Councils of the National Negro Congress in a dozen cities have become the center of activities for Negroes of widely different political views to mobilize support for the steel campaign.
The National Negro Bar Association, and the National Negro Medical Association, two of the most influential organizations among the Negro people, went on record in support of the C.I.O. early last summer. Scarcely a dissenting voice has been heard from among the 300 odd Negro newspapers which, almost unanimously, have urged their readers to rally behind the C.I.O.
Leading among the Negro newspapers which have endorsed the drive are the New York Amsterdam News, the Baltimore Afro-American, the Crisis, official organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Mandate Against Oppression
Prominent Negroes who have endorsed the drive are: Lester Granger, Workers Bureau of the National Urban League, William N. Jones, Baltimore Afro-American; the Rev. A. Clayton Powell, Jr., pastor of Abyssinia Baptist Church; and others from every corner of America.36
After all, besides being pinched by national oppression themselves, Negro leaders are bound to hear the militant rumblings among the Negro masses.
The large support to the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, headed by Phillip Murray, vice-president of the C.I.O., is a mandate from the Negro people for the breaking down of the discriminatory policies long-enforced by the A.F. of L. craft union dynasty.
Step to Strong Unity
Ninety-nine per cent of the Negro population are workers who have been hamstrung, jim-crowed, segregated and denied the right to decent wages and trade union conditions because such A.F. of L. officials as Green, Frey, Wharton, would rather protect the reactionary employers than the Negro and white workers.37
The triumph of the C.I.O. steel drive means a powerful step toward a strong united trade union movement purged of countless color-bars against Negro workers. Thus the fight for the full equality of Negro workers in the trade unions is the fight of the whole labor movement. It means breaking the back of the steel and auto trust drives to make scabs of Negro workers—a policy fostered by reactionary members of the A.F. of L. council.
Foster on Drive
Forward and significant strides have been made by the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in uniting Negro and white workers on a firm footing of equality.
The possibilities of further extending this healthy trend have been outlined excellently by William Z. Foster, great leader of the magnificent 1919 steel strike. In his recent pamphlet, “Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry,” page 17, Foster wrote:
“It is absolutely essential that the large number of Negroes in the steel industry be organized. For this, special Negro organizers are imperative. Special demands for Negroes must be formulated and widely popularized. Prominent Negro speakers, including those of the National Negro Congress, should be brought into the steel districts to address meetings.
“When necessary, special meetings of Negro steel workers should be called. The Negroes should become members of the regular local Amalgamated Association unions with full rights. Close attention should be paid to bringing them into responsible official posts in the unions and in the organizing crew. There should also be immediately developed an active campaign against the prevalent jim-crow practices in the steel towns and steel industry. Local organizations of Negroes should be enlisted in support of the campaign.”38
These words serve as a beacon light not only for organizing thousands of Negro steel workers with full and equal trade union rights, but also for making the steel drive one of the biggest triumphs in the history of the American labor movement.
Daily Worker, January 9, 1937.
John P. Davis, James W. Ford and Howard Davis39 Speak at Conference in Pittsburgh—Negro Congress Pledges Its Support
By Adam Lapin
PITTSBURGH, Pa., Jan. 10—Far flung plans to speed the organization of Negro steel workers were mapped here on Saturday by a conference of Negro civic and fraternal leaders together with Negro organizers on the staff of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee.
The group of Negro leaders unanimously resolved to call a broad national conference with representation from every conceivable Negro organization for the purpose of putting the entire Negro community behind a last minute spurt to complete the S.W.O.C. drive.
Tentative plans are that the conference will be held around Feb. 22, Lincoln’s birthday, in Pittsburgh.
To Call 100,000
Saturday’s meeting was attended by 16 Negro leaders, many of whom had come from long distances and was convened by a number of Negro S.W.O.C. organizers.
Active in the work of the meeting were John P. Davis, secretary of the National Negro Congress, Howard Davis, of the Workers Alliance of Pittsburgh, William E. Hill, industrial secretary of the Pittsburgh Urban League, James W. Ford, outstanding Negro Communist leader, Sam Peterson, negro I.W.O. organizer, J. Washington of the American Woodmen and other community and fraternal leaders.
Negro S.W.O.C. organizers and volunteers who were active in calling the meeting, and placed their problems before it included Ben Careathers, A. W. McPhearson, Henry Johnson, of Chicago, B. D. Amis of the Philadelphia Negro congress and volunteer S.W.O.C. organizer, Joseph Howard, Birmingham organizer and Henry Jackson, C.I.O. youth organizer.40
The meeting decided to prepare a pamphlet urging the Negro steel workers to join the union, and to issue 100,000 calls to the proposed conference. A special committee was set up to carry on the work of the meeting and to discuss further plans with Philip Murray, S.W.O.C. chairman.
To the consternation of the business executives, Murray declared according to Hill, that the S.W.O.C. was organizing Negro and white workers into the same lodges in Birmingham, was experiencing no trouble, and intended to pursue this policy nationally.
Others who cited the support they had received from S.W.O.C. organizers in making special efforts to reach Negro workers were Amis of Philadelphia, Johnson of Chicago, and Davis of the Negro Congress.
Fraternal Groups Aid
Organized support from fraternal organizations, churches, ministers and other Negro groups was considered essential to winning the support of the masses of Negro workers in the outstanding steel centers.
Johnson made the main report to the meeting. He stated that one out of every five steel workers were Negroes. He cited various forms of discrimination including lower wage rates and consistent refusal to promote Negro workers in proportion to their ability and skill.
As a result, he pointed out, Negro workers are not only more poorly paid than the average white workers, but are also engaged in the most hazardous and undesirable types of work.
This discrimination is an “ace in the hole for the steel bosses,” Johnson said, stating that Negro workers were made glowing promises of advancement during strikes in an effort to enlist them as scabs.
Citing his own experiences in the Chicago area, Johnson showed that all barriers between Negro and white workers were broken down as soon as masses of Negro workers were recruited as active members of the Union.
He proposed the convening of a national conference to speed the mass recruiting of Negro workers.
Negro Congress To Aid
John P. Davis brought the conference the full support of the National Negro Congress and assured the leaders present that the Negro congress would support all of their plans.
He said that the local councils of the Congress were giving their fullest support to the steel drive and estimated that approximately 200,000 leaflets were issued and distributed by the Congress to Negro steel workers.
One of the points emphasized by organizers active in the field was the need for a more effective and larger apparatus with which to help organize the Negro workers.
This point was stressed by Howard, the Birmingham organizer, who felt that the work in that strategic steel area was being handicapped by a lack of a sufficient number of trained organizers.
In many places, organizers said, they are overcoming this deficiency by organizing volunteer crews of Negro organizers.
Ford Urges Speed
Ford placed great stress on the need for speeding up the tempo of the drive among Negro workers.
He said that the steel drive was important to the entire Negro people, and that its success would immeasurably aid the organization of Negro workers in other industries.
He cited the writings of William Z. Foster, leader of the great 1919 steel strike, as explaining the importance of the Negro workers in any successful effort to unionize steel.
The committee set up to continue the work of the meeting consisted of Ben Careathers, A. W. McPhearson, Henry Johnson, John P. Davis, William E Hill, B. D. Amis and Joseph Howard.
Daily Worker, January 11, 1937.
Pittsburgh Federal Metals Plant Forced to Concede Union Recognition, Pay Increases for All Hands and Other Gains After Mill Organizes
PITTSBURGH, Pa., Jan. 18—“Before we put our heads together we had nothing, is that right?”
A deep, rumbling “that’s right” came from the throats of 150 triumphant Negro and white workers of the Federal Metals plant gathered in the crowded Butler Street headquarters of the S.W.O.C. on Saturday.
“You didn’t want to be pushed around, is that right?”
“You didn’t want a company union, did you?”
This time it was a sharp, angry “no” that answered the question of President Mike Gorham of newly formed Lodge 1154 of the Amalgamated Assn. of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers.
The tough, lithe president of the lodge was explaining to the membership the concessions that had been wrung from Manager A. S. Simon after he had tried to fool the union men and then lock them out from the plant for three days.
Gorham read off the gains made by the union one by one, and asked for the opinions of the men which came in a mass chorus of approval.
Then the union members voted on the agreement, unanimously resolving to return to work under vastly improved conditions.
Federal Metals is just a small smelting and refining plant in Pittsburgh employing some 250 workers, almost half of them Negroes. But weakness here might have retarded the union drive in the great steel mills of the city.
Negro, White Solidarity
And the strength shown by the union, on the other hand, has its significance far out of proportion to the size of the plant.
Not only did the workers force the management to abandon the lockout, but they demonstrated in practice that solidarity of Negro and white which will be of such decisive importance to the steel workers.
Negro and white were packed close together in the union headquarters. Before the meeting began they were chatting together, talking over problems of strategy, their arms around each other.
Walter Clark, a Negro, was chairman of the meeting and is one of the Lodge leaders. He is affectionately called Clarkey.
John Detchman, S.W.O.C. organizer, told the Daily Worker in glowing terms of the fine union spirit and discipline displayed by the Negro workers.
When 200 of the 250 workers in the plant had been organized, a committee was sent to the management asking for a union agreement. Mr. Simon seemed to agree readily to all of the demands. He promised to recognize a shop committee.
The next morning 19 workers were fired, including some of the members of the committee.
That evening the workers were discussing strike action. But when they arrived at the plant the next morning, they found that they were locked out.
Simon was trying to outsmart the union and break the spirit of the men.
A lack of materials was the reason given for the lockout, although men inside the mill had seen enough material for several days’ work.
However the strategem failed. The men did not come pleading for mercy. They stuck together, and indicated that they could keep the plant shut down indefinitely.
The next time a committee met with Mr. Simon he was willing to listen to reason. He not only gave up the lockout but agreed to the following conditions:
1. Recognition of a union committee.
2. Seniority rights.
3. Increases of 12 per cent and in some cases 12-1/2 per cent for all men instead of the originally offered 10 per cent.
4. Time and a half for overtime.
5. Full pay for the three days they were locked out.
6. A work week beginning on Monday instead of on Sunday as in the past.
Daily Worker, January 12, 1937.
Campaign Is Hailed by Press as Major Issue for Negro People
PITTSBURGH, PA., Jan. 28—Added support for the Negro conference of Negro organizations in Pittsburgh in February to rally support for the steel drive was announced here today.
Among the Negro leaders who have declared their full support of the conference are William N. Jones, an editor of the Baltimore Afro-American, Lester Granger, secretary of the Workers Councils of the Urban League, Wayne L. Hopkins, secretary of the Armstrong Association, and Edward Lewis, Baltimore Urban League leader.41
Negro S.W.O.C. organizers working for the conference commented on the fact that leading Negro newspapers have taken a favorable position on the steel drive and the C.I.O.
They cited the editorial remarks of the Cleveland Eagle to the effect that present C.I.O. efforts to organize Negro and white workers together in a powerful steel union “may develop into the most important event in Negro history since Lincoln’s Emancipation Declaration.”
Many outstanding Negro leaders and organizations have already declared their support of the conference which will have the aim of rallying the entire Negro community behind the steel drive in an effort to speed up recruiting of the Negro workers in the steel industry.
Daily Worker, January 29, 1937.
Delegates from Many Groups Map Campaign to Bring Organization Drive to People—Workers and Professionals United
By Adam Lapin
PITTSBURGH, Pa., Feb. 7—Negro America made an historic decision here on Saturday which will not only hasten the great drive to unionize steel, but may leave its imprint on the future development of the labor movement in the United States.
Distinguished representatives of the Negro church, business men, leading professionals, delegates from women’s clubs joined together at the Elk’s Rest with Negro men of steel, horny-handed, plain-spoken workers, in a solemn resolve to unionize the Negro steel workers as a decisive step toward the economic emancipation of their people.
The significance of the conference was clearly indicated in a stirring impassioned keynote address by Philip Murray, chairman of the Steel Workers Committee.
“There is no industry where there is greater discrimination against the Negro than in steel,” he charged.
He described the great union drives now sweeping the country as spelling economic freedom for the Negro people, and pledged in the name of the 15 international unions and the more than 1,500,000 workers in the Committee for Industrial Organization complete equality for the Negro worker in the shop and in the union hall.
As Murray came to the end of his appeal to build the steel union, spellbound attention turned to applause, to stamping of feet and finally to a rising vote of thanks.
Present at this gathering of 165 delegates representing 100,000 Negroes in every walk of life were many of the outstanding leaders of the Negro people in the United States.
There were present and active in the proceedings, A. Philip Randolph, leading Negro trade unionist and president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; T. Arnold Hill, National Industrial Secretary of the Urban League; James W. Ford, the distinguished Negro Communist, and John P. Davis, secretary of the National Negro Congress.
There were present such outstanding church leaders as Bishop W. J. Walls of Chicago, Dr. J. C. Austin, pastor of the Pilgrim Baptist Church in the same city, and Rev. T. J. King of Pittsburgh.42
Workers In Spotlight
There were present doctors, lawyers, business men, and women’s leaders such as Mrs. Nanny Reed, president of the Illinois Association of Women’s Clubs.
But dominating the entire conference, occupying the center of attention at all times were Negro steel workers who had come from the mills of Youngstown, Gary, South Chicago and Pittsburgh, as well as Negro S.W.O.C. organizers such as Henry Johnson of Chicago and Ben Careathers of Pittsburgh.
It was an important and frequently repeated fact that many of the steel workers present are presidents and officers of lodges of the Amalgamated Association, that many of them had been elected by a predominantly white membership, and that the expenses of many of them had been paid for by white workers.
This gathering, one of the most representative of Negro leaders that had ever been held, had a profound unity of purpose: unionization of the Negro steel workers.
Concrete Steps Taken
It was pointed out both by A. Philip Randolph and T. Arnold Hill that this would be but one step toward the unionization of the entire Negro working class, as well as toward making the Negro people an integral part of the American labor movement.
The resolutions adopted by the conference were noteworthy for their specific nature for their very definite recommendations for immediate action to speed the steel among Negro workers.
Among the steps decided on were:
To set up a continuation committee to carry on the work of the conference.
To set up committees in every community to help the steel drive.
To bring back the message of the conference throughout the country and everywhere to urge workers to join the union.
To arrange mass meetings for this purpose.
To have special Sundays arranged in the churches where workers will be urged to join the union.
To set up women’s auxiliaries.
To issue the resolutions of the conference in pamphlet form for wide distribution.
Prepared in less than a month, the conference had been called by a group of Negro leaders and S.W.O.C. organizers who met in Pittsburgh at a preliminary meeting a few weeks ago.
It was fitting for the conference to be opened by Ben Careathers, S.W.O.C. organizer who had called the first meeting together and was in charge of preparations in Pittsburgh.
The chairman, William Hill, of the Pittsburgh Urban League, was also one of the small group of initiators. Elected as vice-president was Mrs. Nanny Reed, and as secretary, Maude White, Cleveland Negro Congress leader.
Chairman of the resolutions committee was Dr. Charles Wesley Burton, head of the Negro Congress in Chicago.
Following the election of officers and a brief opening service, Philip Murray delivered what was in many respects the outstanding address of the conference.
“I regard your conference,” he said, “as perhaps the most important conference of its kind that has been held since the beginning of this campaign to organize steel.”
“Many of these craft unions,” Murray declared, “deny a colored worker the right to belong to their organization.”
“The Committee for Industrial Organization is committed to the formation of a different type of organization, which will bring in every worker in that industry which shall see that there shall be no discrimination regardless of race, color or creed.”
Citing the record of the United Mine Workers which had resolutely refused to yield to the demands of Southern coal operators for lower wages for Negro workers, he said, “We relegated to the scrap heap these Southern traditions.”
He promised full equality to the Negro workers in the new steel union which had already, he said, reached a membership of almost 168,000.
Robert L. Vann pledged the full support of the Pittsburgh Courier to the steel drive and declared that it would expose in its pages those Negroes who betrayed the best interests of their people by supporting the bosses.43
T. Arnold Hill praised the CIO unions for their excellent record in guaranteeing equality of Negroes.44
He emphasized that the drive to unionize Negro steel workers must be “an opening wedge” in a drive to unionize the Negro workers of the nation and declared: “I think I can speak for the National Urban League and say that it is 100 per cent for unionization.”
Ovation For Ford
After relating the experiences of the Pullman porters in building their union and, in the process, destroying a powerful company union, A. Philip Randolph said:
“It is my hope that you here will go out and engage in the business of contacting the steel worker himself. I hope that this conference is a turning point in the history of our group.”
A tremendous ovation was given to James W. Ford, who called for unity within the ranks of labor and urged that the fight for equal rights for Negroes not be abandoned within the American Federation of Labor.
Declaring that “hope of our people rests on the steel workers,” he pledged to the conference the full support of the Communist Party.
Not only was cooperation to the unionization drive promised by the leading preachers who addressed the conference, but they urged that they be considered as participants in the work ahead, and not merely as spectators.
“I wish to be regarded as one of you,” Dr. Austin declared, stating that the Negroes must now unite their ranks in the great fight ahead for economic freedom.
“If there are honest and necessary battles to be fought, we want to fight too,” said Rev. T. J. King.
Bishop Walls said that the workers themselves should demand that their ministers should support them.
Daily Worker, February 8, 1937.
By Ben Careathers
(Negro S.W.O.C. Organizer)
At the National Conference of Negro Organizations, held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Feb. 6, 1937, there were present 186 delegates representing 110 organizations with a total membership of over 100,000 Negro people, who pledged their full support to the organizing of the tens of thousands of Negro steel workers together with their white brothers into a strong industrial union.
A complete cross-section of the Negro population was represented at the Conference. Many outstanding individuals from every steel locality in the country were present; bishops, ministers, lawyers, doctors, publishers, civic and social leaders. There were present outstanding trade union leaders. A very prominent feature of the Conference was the presence of a number of steel workers from various lodges of the Amalgamated Association.
Philip Murray, Chairman of the Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee, who made the keynote address, received a large ovation when he stated that “the Committee for Industrial Organization, now campaigning in the mass production industries, is dedicated to the proposition that there shall be no discrimination under any circumstances, regardless of creed, color or nationalities, in its unions.”
Addressed by Many Leaders
The Conference was addressed by many of these outstanding individuals and steel workers themselves.
The following resolutions, part, were adopted. One pointed out that “approximately 90,000 Negroes were employed in the steel industries and that the steel magnates have always practiced a deliberate policy of discrimination against them and went on record condemning this policy of discrimination as well as recognizing that the efforts of the Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee is in the best interests of the Negro steel workers. Another resolution proposed the carrying out of the following program:
1. The immediate setting up of committees in every Negro community to help the organizers.
2. Organization of mass meetings in all cities to hear reports of the Conference.
3. The use of pulpits, press and radio to urge all Negro steel workers to join the union.
4. A selected Sunday to be set aside for talks in all churches in support of the steel union drive.
5. Special activities to recruit young Negroes into the union.
Organizers in the field are already reporting achievements in organizing Negro steel workers as a result of the Conference.
Daily Worker, February 28, 1937.
PITTSBURGH, Pa.—Negro workers are “doomed to economic degradation unless they seek the protection of a great industrial union,” Philip Murray, chairman of the Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee, told 300 negro delegates attending a national conference here.
The conference was called to align negro fraternal organizations behind John L. Lewis’ drive to unionize the steel industry.
Murray said that a study of wages in the steel industry revealed cases of colored workers being paid from fifteen to twenty-five cents an hour less for the same kind of work the whites perform.
United Mine Workers Journal, May 15, 1937.
At the Combustion Engineering Company in Chattanooga, the company refused to negotiate with the SWOC. Petition was filed with the regional Labor Board demanding an election. Intervening petitions were filed by several A.F. of L. organizations, including the Molders, Boiler Makers and Machinists. A hearing was held in Chattanooga in August, 1937. No decision has been made as yet by the National Labor Relations Board.
We are also demanding an election to be held at the Pullman-Standard Car Manufacturing Company, Bessemer, Alabama. A number of charges have been filed against various companies charging violation of the National Labor Relations Act.
We encountered many obstacles, some peculiar to the South. The same opposition to unionism that was found elsewhere was very evident in our section. Some workers, because of bitter past experience, questioned our ability to organize. Others felt that by opposing the organization their chances for personal advancement would be increased. A number of cities passed ordinances prohibiting mixed meetings (white and black meeting together). Some meetings were broken up by the so-called law enforcement officers and general misleading propaganda was used to discourage white workers meeting with Negro workers.
State laws were used against us in many instances, especially the old antiquated anti-picketing law. We refrained from calling strikes but in many of the foundries and fabricating plants strikes were forced upon our membership.
Many subterfuges were used by the employers, some insisting on the employes putting up a bond to guarantee the enforcement of the contract, others refusing to meet and bargain colectively, and still others insisting on making verbal contacts and refusing to put contracts in writing. In these various local strike situations, as a rule, we handled them by voluntary contributions from the CIO local organizations, thanks to the membership of the United Mine Workers of America local unions who usually contributed liberally. . . .
Federal Anti-Lynching Legislation
Whereas, Labor has an important stake in the maintenance of law and order and in the use of firm measures by the government to prevent self-appointed groups from taking the law into their own hands for any purpose whatsoever; and
Whereas, In many instances over a period of years, at localities scattered throughout the United States, such self-appointed groups have assumed the power of the government and even now continue to do so, displacing the established local authorities, frequently with the tacit approval of the latter, thus making it apparent that the highest governmental authority must have power to step in to prevent the practice of lynching where local authorities fail; now, therefore, be it
Resolved, That this convention endorses the principles of Federal Anti-Lynching legislation designed to protect all persons whatever their creed, class, or race, and in whatsoever locality, against the indifference of local public officials to lawless mob action and against the connivance of such officials in such action and providing penalties of a nature to completely eradicate the shameful scourge of lynching from our national life.45
Resolution No. 450, submitted by Lodge 1024, deals with the same subject.
The committee recommends the adoption of Resolution R-20.
The recommendation of the committee was unanimously adopted.
Unity of Negro and White Workers
Whereas, The employers constantly strive to deprive the workers of their full economic strength and seek all means to split one group of workers from another, and the most frequent weapon used by the employers to accomplish this end is to create false conflicts between Negro and white workers; and
Whereas, The workers of this country will obtain their powerful labor organizations only when they have united within such labor organizations all workers regardless of their race, creed, color or nationality; and
Whereas, The Negro workers, because of the fact that we have not as yet brought them into powerful labor organizations throughout the country, have, not received any economic or political justice nor enjoyed the benefit of any constitutional or civil liberties in this country, as indicated in the most flagrant and outstanding miscarriage of justice perpetrated in the convictions of the Scottsboro boys, which cases were twice reversed by the Supreme Court of the United States and, on the third occasion, the Supreme Court refused to grant a hearing or review for such cases; now, therefore, be it
Resolved, That this convention specifically condemn the actions of the courts in connection with the Scottsboro cases and urge the Governor of the State of Alabama to issue a pardon to the convicted defendants; and be it further
Resolved, That this convention wholeheartedly and completely endorse the policy of organizing into powerful industrial labor organizations in this country all workers regardless of race, creed, color or nationality.
Your committee recommends the adoption of this resolution.
A motion was made and seconded to adopt the committee’s report.
The subject matter of the resolution was discussed by Delegates Lowrey, Lodge 1109, and Favorito Lodge, 187, after which the motion to adopt the committee’s report was carried.
First Wage and Policy Convention of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, Pittsburgh, December 14–16, 1937, pp. 61, 110–11, 118.
Content removed at rightsholder’s request.
The Crisis, 44 (July, 1937): 209.
By George S. Schuyler46
YOUNGSTOWN, O., July 22—Race feeling, already tense, is likely to grow more bitter in Johnstown, Youngstown, Warren, Canton and Massillon, where the CIO is battling against the Republic Steel Co., the Bethlehem Steel Co., the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co., and subsidiary plants.
In these centers Negro labor, a vital factor in the basic and fabricating plants, has turned a deaf ear to the entreaties of embattled white labor and elected to remain loyal to the companies.
Here, striking white workers, mostly of alien extraction, have watched with growing bitterness their black fellow workers flaunting appeals of CIO organizers and either staying in struck plants or trooping back at the first opportunity to make big money. They have warned that they will not forget that black labor deserted them in the crisis. Jeering of white pickets, clashes at mill gates, and flaunting of new “scab cars” by suddenly enriched black workers augurs ill for future race relations in these communities.
Discrimination and segregation which have followed migrating Southern black labor to these centers in increasing volume during the past two decades will surely grow as a result of the tense situation, and remain to plague all Negroes long after the issues involved in the strike have been settled.
I found Johnstown, Pa., with a bad case of jitters. There had been beatings and bombings, and clashes between white and Negro workers. Mounted constabulary patrolled the ominously quiet streets, special officers guarded the reservoirs, and mill yards bristled with company police.
Johnstown’s 2,800 Negroes were justifiably nervous. Out of 400 Negroes employed in the Bethlehem Company’s Cambria plant, only a half dozen had joined the white workers on strike. Unionists declared that many Negroes recently from the South had been imported as strikebreakers or induced by the company through their relatives to come up and work in the struck plant.
At the big mass meeting addressed by Governor Earle on July 4, there were only 400 Negroes present as against 20,000 white workers. And those 400 Negroes were militant members of the United Mine Workers Union from out of town. They were shocked and puzzled by the failure of their black fellow workers in the steel mills to attend.
Their amazement was not without foundation, Johnstown, to say the least, is unrepossessing. The mean, tawdry, dun-colored rookeries in which the workers are forced to dwell are in marked contrast to the vivid green of the steep hills that hem in the town. For eight miles along the tortuous Conemaugh Valley, the rusty mills sprawl like some puffing, Mesazoic monster stuffed with the blood and bones and hopes of men, women and children.
The company supplies mean, weather-beaten houses at $8 a month. When the men are not working they are permitted to remain in these rookeries and supplied with wood, coal, and food, but they must pay fancy prices later, deducted from their pay envelopes. Both the Cambria plant and the Lorain Steel Co., have the familiar pension plans and sick relief, and other such forms of welfare but the condition of the workers is far from being one to inspire such loyalty as they have shown.
Many of the Negro workers have been employed in the mills from 12 to 15 years. They have systematically been given the most miserable and exhausting jobs with smallest pay and no promotion, the last to be hired and the first to be fired.
Why, then have not the Negroes joined the white strikers? Manifestly, they are “in the middle.” The Slavs and others of alien extraction who are the backbone of the strike have never helped the local Negroes in their struggle for equal citizenship rights. Nor have they ever insisted the Negroes be given a wider variety of employment in the mills. Their attitude has been almost identical with that of the American whites, and Negroes recall that twice the Ku Klux elements have sought to banish them from the community.
Race relations were showing a marked improvement just prior to the strike, thanks to the leadership of such men as Rev. E. E. Swanston. The first Negro policeman in the town’s history was appointed last month. About 20 eating places now serve Negroes where 10 years ago they would have been refused. Two colored playground attendants have been appointed and at one time there were 15 WPA Negro teachers. Many of the classes started with mixed attendance. Last January, a local forum held a symposium on the “Nature of Race Hatred” in which Rev. Swanston, a Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest, discussed the question before more than 1,000 people. The same Rev. Swanston serves along with the Mayor, Chief of Police and 22 other prominent white citizens as one of the Committee of Governors of the Civic Welfare Citizens Council where he speaks for the Negro group.
The workers of foreign extraction who are the backbone of the CIO strike, do not therefore, have as much claim on the Negroes’ allegiance as the white American middle class backed by the mill bosses. And since the latter have enlisted the aid of the merchants, clerks, lawyers and professional folk who make up this middle class in a poorly disguised vigilance committee with the power of the police behind them, the Negroes largely feel that they are pursuing the wisest course. If the strike succeeded, they felt that the company would never again employ Negroes, and there is no other employment to be had in this one-industry town. If the strike failed, however, they would be more solid with the powerful steel company and be given better jobs.
The Union Viewpoint!
The viewpoint of the Negro unionist was given by Houston Underwood, a striking wheel roller who has worked for Bethlehem Steel Company since 1919. He is a member of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee and a local organizer. Negroes are opposed to him because of his union activities. A well-educated man with a fine gift of expression, he strikes one as the finest type of labor unionist.
“The CIO is more sympathetic to Negro labor than any previous union that has sought to organize the mills,” he said. “It has guaranteed no color discrimination and has so far lived up to that guarantee. I have been treated splendidly by all classes of white workers during this strike, despite the bitter feeling against my people who have stayed with the company. I have done organizing work among both white and colored, but have had little success with my people.
“Just before the strike I was third-term employee representative for the wheel plant where there are only six Negroes in a total of 300 workers. Two years ago I was representative of the Franklin Open Hearth where there were 897 men, 13 being colored. I am the only colored man to serve here as employee representative.
“I feel that my interests lie with the working class. Only by identifying ourselves with our white fellow workers in crises of employment in the mills when the strikes are over.”
Mr. Underwood ran for Director of the Poor for Cambria on the Democratic ticket in 1935. He received 928 votes to 1,000 votes for the winner.
Many whites have gone back to the mills along with the Negroes, although not in so great proportion. This fact will be overlooked by the striking workers, doubtless, and only the fact that the Negroes remained solidly with the steel company in this struggle will be long remembered.
What that will mean to the Negro’s future in Johnstown, only time will tell.
“Timid and Distrustful!”
The picture is not greatly different in Youngstown, Ohio, where Negroes are 10 per cent of the 179,000 population. Here the mills were closed for a month by the strike and the more than 5,000 Negroes employed by the Youngstown Sheet and Tube, the Republic and the Carnegie mills were thrown out with the rest.
At the union headquarters opposite the Republic plant considerable bitterness was expressed by labor officials against the Negroes.
“About 2 per cent of the colored workers have joined up with us,” said Joe Gallegher, a white organizer. “They have more to gain by unionization than by scabbing. Solidarity with the white workers will eliminate discrimination against the colored workers. But they don’t seem to understand that. They have flocked back to the mills. When the gates were first opened few went back. One morning 80 men returned to work and 50 of them were colored. Now the proportion of white and black returning is about the same, but the Negroes going back started the stampede.
A Mr. Lynch, another official, spoke up. “They distrust us and they are timid,” he charged. “We have had four Negro organizers here but they have been able to make no headway. The companies sent men around telling Negroes they would have a better break after the strike if they remained loyal, so they remained loyal.”
“We had Ernest Rice McKinney here as organizer,” continued Gallegher, the white organizer, who boasted of 15 years experience in the steel mills. “He is a man of great intelligence and unusual ability. We also had Curly Jackson, another colored organizer, in the Republic plant. Neither could prevail upon their people to join with us in this effort.”
Said Lynch again, “We asked the colored workers to prove to the white workers that they could be trusted, and they were the first to go back. We tried to organize colored meetings but that was a flop. Nobody came out.”
Organizer Gallegher pointed out that the Negroes had always been given the lowest-paid and most exhausting work in the mills, none had been made foreman, and while the highest paid Negroes were employed by the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co., only a few attained an annual wage in excess of $2,000 yearly. The Negroes are naive enough to believe that the companies are going to ultimately oust the foreigners and give their jobs to colored men.
Shortcomings Of The CIO
Attorney William Howard, president of the Youngstown Branch of the N.A.A.C.P., a former steel worker, declared that few Negroes had been active as pickets but that the city had put on 30 Negro special police out of the 125 appointed. The sheriff, however, had appointed no Negroes as deputies.
Attorney Howard pointed out that in the 1921 steel strike the scabbing of Negroes had tended to prejudice the whites against them when conditions in the mills again became normal. Whereas the Negro workers had been given good jobs during that strike, as soon as it was settled, the old conditions soon prevailed with Negroes holding only the lowest paid jobs.
It is significant that there is no ill-feeling among white strikers against the Negroes who have gone out with them. I noticed them eating together at strike headquarters and generally fraternizing. It is quite likely that the adherence of these colored workers somewhat tempers the ill-feeling engendered by the defection of the majority of the Negroes.
Attorney Howard criticized the CIO for not enlisting the aid of him and other leading Negroes in staging meetings. The union officials, he held, had not used the services of Negroes who were familiar with, understood and had the confidence of the colored steel workers. Had this been done, he asserts, the Negro workers would have attended the strike meetings and joined the union in larger numbers. In their ignorance, the CIO officials placed dependence in any Negro who declared his loyalty to the union, and many such Negroes were wholly incompetent to do the job expected of them.
Indicative of the attitude of the ordinary Negro steel worker, was the viewpoint of a young Negro high school graduate, whom I met on a street corner near the union headquarters. This young man, a fellow in his early twenties who boasted a knowledge of economics, was violently opposed to the CIO. He declared that John L. Lewis, head of the drive, had no right to collect a fee of $1 a month from the workers. The Negroes, he held, did not need the unions, were getting along all right, and that furthermore, the steel companies were not making as much money as had been reported. He expressed the opinion that most of the steel workers would be poor, anyway, regardless of the union.
Another Negro, Bill Houston, who works in the Sharon (Pa.) Steel mills, said that when the vote for union affiliation was taken in the mill, 1,700 voted for the union, while 700, mostly Negroes, voted against it.
In Youngstown, there is the contradiction of most Negro steel workers being violently opposed to unionization while the Negro truckdrivers and building service employees enthusiastically support it. Truckdrivers Union No. 377, of which a Negro, Samuel Palm, is business agent, pulled a sympathetic strike with the CIO, although the union is affiliated with the A.F. of L.
A Negro, Carl B. Howard, is president of the carmen’s local at the Erie roundhouse, while another Negro, A. C. King, is secretary-treasurer of bus repairmen’s union. The president of the building service employees local No. 109 is William Johnson, who has done much to make Negroes union-conscious in the community. His secretary is a white girl. There are many Negro shop stewards.
Garbage men who were getting from $4 to $7 a week are now reported to be getting $25 weekly.
Hotel men have gained an 8-hour day and vacation of one week with pay as a result of unionization, while bellhops have been jumped from $18 to $22.50 a week.
Negro workers in one hotel sought to get a jim-crow union and the white workers vigorously opposed such a move, declaring it unnecessary.
Youngstown’s Negro community shows considerable progress. There are nine physicians and three dentists; five undertakers, nine lawyers, one of them being a city prosecutor. There are eight Negro policemen and one Negro policewoman, 14 letter carriers and one lively newspaper, “The Review.”
A Negro steel worker in Warren, Ohio, where the Republic Steel Co. employs upwards of 400 Negro workers, said of the CIO: “It’s a Bolshevik movement. whether the CIO wins or not, the colored man is at the same place.”
The Warren plant was the only one of the Republic group that never stopped operating. Of the 400 Negro workers, only about six joined the union. The others never left their jobs but stayed in, many earning from $300 to $500 during the first 30 days of the strike. Of the 6,000 workers normally employed, around 2,500 stayed in. Some of the Negro workers even crawled through the swamps to work in the mills.
Warren is a town of 45,000 population with a Negro total of 3,000. There are no Negro organizers, but one came from the United Mine Workers. He made little headway among the Negro workers.
Before the Wagner Act was adopted, there was an employee representation plan but no Negro representatives. Negroes are barred from the hot mills.
The white population consists largely of Irish-Americans, Welsh, Slavs and Italians. In all there are some 20 nationalities and those of alien extraction have been the backbone of the strike.
Fifty per cent of the life of Warren depends upon the steel mills. As a consequence, the storekeeping middle-class and professional people were violently opposed to the strike. Perhaps with the backing of the steel bosses, a John Q. Public League of vigilants has crystallized into a CIO opposition, and it has been freely stated that if the National Guard had not come into the city, the vigilants were to be deputized by the sheriff and sent against the strikers with rifles.
The Negro point of view in Warren is a reflection of the views expressed by this League and by the local press. The Negro ministers are solidly opposed to the CIO and 90 per cent of the Negroes of the town are against it.
John M. Ragland, executive secretary of the Warren Urban League, expressed the view that the initial violence of the CIO drive turned the public against it. A dozen Negroes, including two colored women, were beaten up by the strikers. The company police, who are quite numerous, also did more than their share of beating of strikers and pickets.
Times had been getting better at the time the strike was called. More than 30 per cent of the people own their homes, pay had been raised and the salaries of Negro steel workers had averaged around $1,500 the previous year. Some few received as high as $2,000 and $2,500. It was natural that they should oppose any cessation of work.
The CIO men, according to one Negro worker interviewed, “Threatened Negro workers telling them that if they didn’t join now they would be sorry later. They also stood around calling the Negroes ‘Black Bastards’ because they refused to desert the mills.”
On the other hand, Negro workers drawing temporarily high pay have purchased expensive automobiles (for which they often have no garages) and jested openly about owning “scab cars.” At the same time the whites have become impoverished and many forced to move from their homes. This has done much to increase the race prejudice.
Feeling Is Running High
Dan B. Gutelius, Director of Public Service, who has charge of the police, told me that he had experienced difficulty in maintaining law and order because he had but 32 officers. “I am trying to maintain law and order,” he declared; “trying to preserve peace and safety. I don’t believe conditions as they exist should be . . . It all might develop into a racial situation. Feeling is running high not only between Negroes and whites but between Americans and foreign born. I have tried as near as possible to preserve peace and do everything to prevent rioting.”
Warren is definitely a jim-crow town. There is jim-crow in the theatres, restaurants, luncheonettes and swimming pools. There is only one Negro policeman. One colored steel striker, named Watkins, has been indicted with 11 whites on a charge of bombing. Director Gutelius complained that while several Negroes had been beaten by white strikers, they invariably failed to report these outrages.
To the casual observer it seems evident that race relations in Warren will become more strained as a result of the Negro worker’s attitude. In the meantime, however, the Negroes are making big money and having a “ball.”
Negroes Aid Bosses In Canton
In Canton, the picture is much the same. With the exception of a half dozen, all Negroes stayed in the mills. In many instances they forced their way into the mills with guns. A Negro organizer from Pennsylvania, who stayed around town four weeks was unable to make any headway.
A CIO meeting was called near the Negro section on July 9. Nobody came except four Negro steel workers.
Prior to the strike the mills hired from 35 to 40 Negroes daily including many young colored collegians. Wages were raised to $6 a day and since then there have been other raises. The workers are getting time and a half for overtime, something that has never happened before. Following the example of the Republic Steel Co., the Timken Roller Bearing Co., increased Negro employment from 10 to 400.
Some Negroes came to town seeking work declaring that down South they had been working for 35 cents a day. They were hired.
Loyal colored workers who spurned unionization have been making from $14 to $28 a day. One Negro made $1,000 for 36 days work.
As the whites left the mills the Negroes moved in. Many of the whites stayed in because they feared to come out. Numbers of these men were attacked physically by the strikers but singularly enough few of the Negroes were beaten. This may have been due to the fact that Negroes were ready to fight. Many of them carried guns back and forth to work after the company got permits from the city for them to do so. Nevertheless, there has been some violence visited upon Negro workers. One man was stripped of his clothes by the whites and the garments burned. The white strikers have threatened to “make it hot” for the Negroes when the troops are removed.
The 2,000 Negro steel workers contend that they don’t want any checkoff for union dues and that adherence to the union will get them no better jobs.
But during the emergency they HAVE got better jobs. They are working in mills which never before hired colored workers. For the first time they are running machines, having been instructed eight weeks before the strike.
Negro truckdrivers refused to join the CIO union and the building service union made a drive only in those hotels employing solid white staffs.
The Town Is Booming
Negro Canton has not seen such prosperity in a long time. From the looks of the miserable housing one might conclude that prosperity is greatly needed. Most of the big money, however, is going for new automobiles. The workers continue to live like cattle.
From Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit and Chicago, pimps, gamblers and “Stables” of loose women have descended upon the town to garner the pickings. At “The Jam Session,” a greasy Greek joint on Cherry street, where a three-piece orchestra nightly “goes to town,” rough steel workers and fancy girls in gay prints guzzle liquor and do the “Suzy Q.”
At Johnny Parks’ Commodore, an interracial gathering place, every night “the cats are leaping” and “Pitching a fog,” while orchestra and “scat men” make whoopee for the crowd.
A few miles away at Masillon, Ohio, where the Union Drawn Steel and Central Steel Companies employ over 200 Negroes, not more than 10 joined the union. Some of these went on to the picket line with the whites but the overwhelming majority remained loyal to the bosses.
“They didn’t see where the CIO would benefit them” said one worker, “because they wouldn’t get any better jobs.”
They are making from $10 to $12 a shift working on the pickler, but the work is terrible on their health. This is the worst place in the mill. The fumes get into their lungs and many have died. The company will not hire whites for such a job. The acid vapor even eats out the roof. . . . Negroes also work on the bar shears and are making now from $135 to $140 every two weeks.
Most of the money is being spent for new cars which usually have no garage and sit in the back yards surrounded by high weeds. There are few home owners.
The customs of the old South prevail in Massillon. Many of the Negroes are migrants from Dixie. When they first started coming 20 years ago, Massillon was a good place for Negroes. But the newcomers were rough and belligerent. Today they are barred from all good hotels and restaurants. Even the mill restaurant segregates Negroes to one or two tables. There is not even a saloon where they can get a drink. The Negroes are so backward that for a period of a year there was not even a Negro barber shop in the town.
Race feeling has become more intense as a result of the Negroes remaining at work. While there have been no race clashes, white strikers have not refrained from calling Negroes “Black Bastards,” and other names.
Such is the picture in these small steel cities. Surprisingly enough the attitude of the majority of Negro steel workers in Chicago, Gary and Cleveland is much different. There the solidarity of white and black labor has advanced race relations at least 10 years.
Pittsburgh Courier, July 24, 1937.
By George S. Schuyler
CLEVELAND, OHIO, July 29—The enthusiasm with which the black steel workers in the Great Lakes area have aligned themselves with their white fellow workers in the great drive to organize the steel industry belies the oft-repeated charge that Negroes are not susceptible to unionization appeals and are inclined to strike-breaking activities.
The depressing picture, from the labor viewpoint, presented by Negro steel workers in Johnstown, Warren, Canton and Massillon who elected to remain almost 100 per cent loyal to the companies, is offset to marked degree by the unanimity with which they have joined the union drive in Chicago, Gary and Cleveland, where there are some 15,000 employed in basic steel and 35,000 in fabricating plants.
In Pittsburgh where the steel companies signed with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee without a struggle, I visited the spacious offices of the SWOC on the 36th floor of the Grant Building and interviewed Secretary-Treasurer McDonald. He informed me that there are 15 full-time Negro organizers throughout the country on the payroll.47
“We find,” he said, “that the colored men join the union pretty much as the white boys do. Many of our lodges have colored officers. I cannot praise too highly the loyalty of the Negro workers to the union and their solidarity with the white workers in this struggle.”
A visit to the great Pittsburgh offices which resemble those of some great corporation reveals that this is a different kind of union drive from that to which America is accustomed. The drive is being headed by educated men, many of them college graduates, who understand well the part race prejudice and color discrimination has played in retarding the organization of Negro workers in the past and who do not intend that this sort of thing shall creep into this latest effort.
Great Meeting of Negro Organizers
It was in Pittsburgh where a great conference of Negro steel organizers and leaders was held just prior to the launching of the organization drive. Outstanding Negroes in all walks of life, including the editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, Mr. Robert L. Vann, attended the conference which discussed ways and means of getting Negro workers aligned with this new effort to increase the influence and dignity of Negro labor by encouraging solidarity with white labor. Among those who took a prominent part in the conference were the officers of the Pittsburgh Urban League.
Mr. Moss, the executive secretary of the Pittsburgh Urban League, informed me that “While he cannot make any blanket statement about the reaction of the Negroes to the drive, I can say that the Pittsburgh workers have played a prominent part in the drive. This is the more remarkable because the Negroes’ past experience with the A.F. of L. has not been a happy one. More education, of course, is needed. Collective bargaining is still much of a theory to Negroes. To sell it to them is hard work. One thing that has helped in Pittsburgh has been the fact that this is a union town and that the Negroes have been treated fairly through the years by the United Mine Workers of America which is playing so prominent a part in this steel drive. There has been a marked extension of unions such as this one which have always been fair to Negroes and those unions are now more militant than ever.”
Mr. Moss pointed out that the most interesting development in Pennsylvania has been the McGinnis Labor Law, the strongest ever written to protect labor. It was framed to conform to the national Wagner labor act. Representative Homer Brown and other interested persons worked out an amendment which was adopted after some dickering and which outlawed any discrimination because of color. Under this measure unions which discriminate against Negroes are outlawed.
“The awakening of labor as a whole to its plight,” Mr. Moss believes, “cannot help but aid the Negro.”
Nevertheless many of the A.F. of L. unions still bar Negroes. In the strike of the Teamsters’ Union, for example, Negroes are losing jobs because of inability to join the union, according to Mr. Moss.
From the Urban League official, I learned that 40,000 of the 83,000 Negroes in the county are on relief. The percentage has jumped from 18 per cent of the total at the height of the depression to 28 per cent at present, with some 4,000 Negro families on direct relief.
There is a feeling among some informed persons that the CIO is growing too fast and is not prepared to take advantage fully of its great opportunity. Some criticism was expressed because there were not four or five Negro organizers of the CIO in the county. White organizers, some held, are not capable of winning over the Negro workers like Negro organizers. This was also the opinion expressed by many persons in Johnstown, Warren, Canton, Youngstown and Massillon where the CIO has failed to win the Negro workers.
Meantime, while the great Jones & Laughlin Steel Company, which hires nearly 8,000 workers, has signed with the S.W.O.C. it is using insidious methods designed to undermine the union. It is making contributions to certain Negro churches and using the ministers of these churches as employment agents, it is charged. These preachers give a note to a prospective worker whereupon the applicant is hired. They try not to give any notes to CIO Negroes if they can help it.
Of more than passing interest was the viewpoint of one Pittsburgh Negro steel worker employed by the Jones & Laughlin Company whom I interviewed on Wylie avenue. He said there were 380 Negroes employed in the particular mill in which he is employed. The company foremen, he charged, were prejudiced against Negroes and restricted them to menial tasks wherever possible. Wages of pushermen and door jack men had recently been raised by the company. Nevertheless he felt that there was no chance of advancement in the mill for Negroes. Most of them favor the union to which they all now belong but many are getting shaky because they have paid their union dues and don’t know whether or not the present contract with the union will be renewed. He asserted that there was a colored union organizer in the field and a Negro representative on the union executive committee, but then added: “I don’t think much of the union myself. I’ve never seen a union mean anything to a Negro yet.”
This is a viewpoint that the union is trying desperately to combat.
Militant Chicago Steel Workers
In the Chicago area most of the organizational activity centered around the Republic Steel Company in South Chicago plant, the East Chicago plant of the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company and the Inland Steel Company’s plant at Indiana Harbor. There and in Gary where the steel mills precipitately signed with the S.W.O.C. the Negroes are nearly 100 per cent with the CIO.
According to Henry Johnson, the giant deep-voiced college-trained Negro, who is the ace CIO organizer of the area, the Negroes have shown up wonderfully well. He asserted that 85 per cent of the Negroes came out of the Republic’s plant while all of them left the Youngstown Steel’s plant, and very few went back.
In Gary where there are 8,000 Negroes employed in the big steel mills, nearly 7,000 are dues-paying members, while at Indiana Harbor there are 5,000 dues-paying members.
Negroes are extremely active in the Inland’s plant and serving on all committees. In Gary Negroes predominate on the union’s executive board. The general council has a white president and a Negro secretary. This, it is asserted, is making for marked improvement in race relations. At the Youngstown’s plant, there are three or four Negro officers directing union affairs along with their white fellow officers.
At Gary, Stanley Cotton, a Negro, is vice president of the tin mill Lodge No. 1066. Walter Mackrell, a Negro, is inside guard for the union, while a white worker is outside guard. Theodore Vaughn, a Negro, is a union secretary, although formerly employee representative under the old company union plan. He joined the S.W.O.C. and became an ace organizer. He vigorously fought the yellow dog contract and his was the only mill that repudiated it. He represented his mill at the Pittsburgh conference with the company to ratify the contract with the union.
These men were the first volunteer organizers and the first to organize their departments and to hold departmental meetings.
In Gary there have been six cases of seniority for Negroes and four of them were won. These men went from semi-skilled to skilled work under the provisions of the contract signed by the mill with the union and passed upon by the union grievance committee of whites and Negroes.
In the Youngstown plant the case of a Negro electrician was similarly taken up by the grievance committee for seniority rating. The fight was won and the Negro got his rating, but then turned around and deserted to the company.
Companies Used Anti-Negro Propaganda
It is charged that the companies have used anti-Negro propaganda extensively in an effort to hamper the union drive. They pointed out to white men that the seniority provision would put black men over white men. Singularly enough this propaganda did not succeed.
Despite the supposed or pretended love of the companies for the Negro workers, it is noticeable that they continue the discrimination against them in the more skilled work of the mills. Many have no Negro rollers or electricians, first helpers or second helpers, although there are Negroes eminently qualified for these positions. Seniority provisions, according to union officials, will ultimately knock out this discrimination against colored men.
Another example of company appreciation of the loyalty of misguided workers is offered by the Republic’s South Chicago plant where the Memorial Day massacre took place. The skilled workers were the first to walk out. Many of the unskilled workers, thinking to improve their position, stayed in. When they discovered that there was to be little improvement, they turned to sabotage and ruined much steel. This was accomplished by spitting on the hot steel and making defects known as birds eyes which causes the steel to be rejected.
During the strike this plant is alleged to have taken a day’s wages out of each two weeks pay for police protection for the men who worked.
I visited the plant and found it continuously picketed by about a dozen striking workers at the gate. Among them were two Negro workers. Despite the boasts of the company that operation is normal, informed union men claimed that less than 400 of the normal 2,400 workers are working.
On the day of the massacre when 10 workers including a Negro, Lee Tisdale, were murdered by the Chicago police, two Negro and one white picket stayed on the line continuously for 36 hours. With from 700 to 1,000 policemen about, this required courage of a high order. Of the 400 Negroes normally employed in the plant, more than 300 are on strike.
Negroes Strong in Small Plants
While the general public has heard mostly about the larger steel companies, there are in this area scores of small companies, usually fabricating concerns. From George McCray, young Negro CIO educational director, and from the aforementioned Henry Johnson, I learned something of the part played by Negroes in organizing these mills.
At the Valley Mould and Iron Corporation plant, there are a dozen Negroes doing skilled work out of a total of 250 workers. Joe Cook, a Negro is president of the union, and is not only the elected, but the moral and spiritual leader. This union, Local No. 1029, has two Negro officers.
Some idea of the attitude of the white unionists out here may be gleaned from the following incident. The Ku Klux Klan threatened to run Cook out of town. Immediately the union came and escorted him to the picket line. Not only that but they made the bartender in a saloon serve him although no Negro had ever been served there before.
The vice president of the Tin Mill Lodge at the Youngstown plant is Jesse Reese. In the eyes of Negro and white workers he is the hero of the strike. At one time he stayed for 72 hours on the picket line. He is extremely popular.
Sometimes Negroes constitute from 75 to 80 per cent of the workers in the small mills. Organizers have found these mills easier to organize than the big ones. As a result of unionization the wage scale for women in these mills has jumped from 14₵ and 24₵ an hour to 35₵, while that for men has gone from 50₵ to $1.10 per hour. The women’s maximum pay is now 47₵ an hour.
The Wilson & Bennett Company, manufacturers of can containers, has a total of 1,100 workers, of whom 700 are Negroes. In the spring these people organized themselves and went on a sitdown strike because their wages only ranged from $13 to $22 a week. It was the only successful sit down strike in the area.
The workers hung out a sign “Go Get the CIO.” The organizers saw the sign but could not go to organize them because the plant was surrounded by police.
A Negro woman organizer, undaunted, slipped through the police lines, scaled a 15-foot fence, got inside the plant and signed up everybody. This woman was Miss Eleanor Rye. Other ace Negro organizers, although voluntary, were the Misses Fanny Brown and Ola Bell Francis.
The president of the union now is George Sanford, a Negro. So also, are the financial secretary and the treasurer members.
At the American Car and Foundry Company there are 200 Negroes and about 600 whites. The entire group went on a sitdown strike and very shortly the company signed a contract with the union.
CIO Fortunate In Organizers
The CIO has been fortunate in getting the Negro organizers it has, and this accounts in no small measure for the success of its drive in this area. Many of them are former Socialists or Communists and possess some idealism. Many are identified with the National Negro Congress or the Garvey movement.
One of the most successful Negro organizers is Leonidas McDonald, formerly a member of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.
He and Henry Johnson have been followed alike by black and white workers. They didn’t just go to the numerous suburban communities and talk to the workers, but actually lived in the communities, visiting each family in turn.
They explained the function of the shop stewards of whom many are Negroes. They told them this was a great chance to fight segregation and lynching, that mobs were recruited from the white masses; that the new union’s policy of no discrimination would better race relations.
In one Negro-hating community Henry Johnson was threatened by the prejudiced whites who were intent on running him out. Nevertheless he remained with a bodyguard of four Italian workers.
It is generally felt that the CIO needs more competent Negro organizers and a better educational set-up among colored people. It seems to be in sad need of a training school like Brookwood College at Katanah, N.Y., where educated young men and women could be schooled in labor philosophy and tactics. Considering this shortcoming the accomplishments of the union in this area is the more surprising.48
A. L. Foster, executive secretary of the Chicago Urban League, confessed that he was “pleasantly surprised to see the way Negroes have become a very definite part of the labor movement. Previously they were opposed to the unions because of the bad record of the A.F. of L. in ducking the race issue. Negroes should take full advantage of the present labor disturbance to further their economic interests.
Mr. Nicholas Fontecchio, field organizer for the S.W.O.C., in the Great Lakes area, declared that “I am very favorably impressed with the loyalty of the Negro workers. They’re all right.”
Negro Leaders Cooperated
Perhaps some of the success of the drive in this area should be attributed to the advanced position taken by the intelligent Negro leaders. In most places the Negro middle class seems to know nothing and care less about these momentous labor questions. Here in this area they faced the issue. Mr. Foster believes that the Chicago Council of Negro Organizations had paved the way for a more enlightened sentiment.
Henry Johnson of the CIO spoke enthusiastically of the cooperation of enlightened Negro ministers like Bishop Walls and Rev. Nicholson of the C.M.E. connection and the N.A.A.C.P. who invited several CIO organizers to hold programs and place exhibits in his church.
Strangely enough, of the Negro newspapers in the area only the Chicago Bee is not employer conscious, according to the Negro union officials and organizers.
Steel has not been the only union activity in Chicago that has involved Negroes.
The Red Caps have organized an international union of which a Negro is president. At the Northwestern station alone it is said that 30 per cent of these workers are college graduates. If these men’s schooling has meant anything at all, they should form the nucleus of a more enlightened corps of Negro organizers for Labor.
The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, noted for its fairness to Negro labor, has a colored girl, Miss Redmond, as organizer. She is heading the drive to organize five shops brought to Chicago’s South Side to exploit the cheap labor supply. A strike is now on at the factory of Sopkins & Co., where 400 colored girls make dresses. The union is now picketing the Urban League offices because it declares that the industrial secretary has been or is a tool of Sopkins and has played a prominent part in misleading the Negro workers. Whether or not this is true, the pickets continue their march in front of the Urban League offices.
The Household Employes union has 150 Negro women and is said to be growing rapidly under the leadership of its president, Miss Neva Ryan, a colored woman.
The president of the Upholsters’ Union local is a colored woman, Miss Katherine Williams, who organized and led the 115 colored girls who comprise the union. It is affiliated with the A.F. of L. There are also unions of Negro barbers and beauticians.
Some 8,000 black and white workers are organized in the Meat Packers union where Negroes assume a prominent role. In the meat industry Negro workers even applied to the union offices for cards before the organizers ever reached them. Negroes are in both the A.F. of L. Amalgamated Association of Meat Cutters and Butcher Workers who are the more skilled and in the new Packing House Workers Industrial Union, a CIO adjunct.
While conditions are by no means utopian in the Chicago-Gary area and while there is certainly much room for improvement in the relations between the unions and the Negro workers, so much progress has been and is being made that it cannot help but favorably influence race relations, to say nothing of improving the economic status of the Negroes.
Cleveland Steel Workers Solidly Union
In Cleveland Negro steel workers have joined the strike almost 100 per cent. George M. Washington, Industrial Secretary of the Negro Welfare Association said, “The percentage that did not join the strike is so small as to be negligible.”
There are about 4,000 Negroes in the various steel mills. The National Malleable & Steel Casting Company has 47 per cent Negro workers. The others work for the Otis Steel Company, the Upson Nut, Corrigan-McKinney, Truscon and the Youngstown Steel and Tube. The National Malleable and the Otis companies have signed with the union.
The National Malleable conducts jim crow social activities and has contrived to keep 400 of its 600 Negro employes in debt through salary advances.
“Outsiders have been used to reopen these plants,” said one educated Negro informant. “The union men are standing fast. I attended a meeting of 600 Negro strikers who pledged themselves not to go back. Only seven of them have gone back.”
Negro pickets are in the line and in considerable numbers although I found the National Guard limiting picketing. There has been a Negro organizer, James Hart, in town since November.
Negroes are fully participating in the administration of the steel union locals, and there is at least one Negro on each committee.
At the time when newspapers throughout the country were saying the struck Republic Steel plants in Cleveland were in full operation, these plants were practically idle as a visit to them convinced me. At the big Corrigan & McKinney plant (Republic) there were less than 250 workers, an insufficient number to operate such a mill. Out of the 400 original Negro workers, only about 20 were working. None of the struck plants sounded as if they were doing much work. All around them at intervals of 200 or 300 feet were little camps of pickets. Among whom I saw considerable number of Negroes.
According to William Donald, chairman of the CIO Relief Committee, Negro pickets are the best for loyalty and steadfastness. He expressed the belief that “the relief offices of the city are discriminating against the strikers.” He charged that some strikers had been refused relief orders.
The union relief offices were a beehive. Food was stacked high and there was much activity in the big kitchen. At the counters and tables white and black workers were sitting together eating and conversing, a perfect picture of labor solidarity and social equality.
Mr. Conners, head of the Negro Welfare Association, was not as enthusiastic as some Cleveland Negroes about the new labor drive. “The attitude of the labor unions has been such that suspicion has been created,” he said. “Negroes think these new unions are the same old white men who have been keeping them down. They are getting better jobs in the steel mills than ever before.” He scored the A.F. of L. craft unions for discriminating against Negroes and criticized Negro leadership for not helping the Negroes consolidate the gains they have made because of loyalty to the corporations.
Negroes, according to Mr. Conners, have a natural sympathy with the employers because they regard them as better than the white workers who never contribute to Negro schools or churches. He felt that Negroes should proceed with caution because the steel companies, after all, have always given colored men SOME jobs.
I visited General Organizer Max J. Damisch in the S.W.O.C. suite of offices in downtown Cleveland. He was most affable and a very likeable man of middle age, somewhat corpulent, with keen but kindly eyes and a shock of pure white hair. He is an official of the United Mine Workers.
Of the Negro worker he held “It is hard to get him into the union but once in there is no better unionist in America. I understand his hesitancy very well because I have worked with Negro labor all my life. The Negro worker has been terribly discriminated against. He has been made to do the dirty work which paid little while the good work he couldn’t get.
“Color discrimination should not be. It is a curse to the Negro and to the labor movement. I have every confidence that the Negro worker is as good as any other, and better than some. He is very loyal to his union.”
Mr. Damisch expressed satisfaction with the response of Negro steel workers in Cleveland to the steel organizing drive.
Informed Negroes know that the local background is chiefly responsible for the difference between the response of Cleveland Negro steel workers and those in Youngstown, Warren, Canton and Massillon. Cleveland has always been a strong union town with a great liberal tradition. Its newspapers are not openly company organs, as in smaller cities, because there are numerous industries and businesses. It has also been a Socialist and Communist stronghold, and some of the best organizers have seemingly come from the radical ranks.
A Visit to Buffalo
A visit to Buffalo, a notorious open shop city completed my survey of the Great Lakes steel area. There seems to be very little union activity there affecting its 13,563 Negroes. The two steel mills, Bethlehem and Republic, are located in Lackawanna, an ugly suburban collection of rookeries which is as wide open to all forms of vice as an Alaskan gold rush town.
About 10 per cent of the 3,500 employes of Republic are Negroes. Bethlehem’s plant, which has signed with the union, has 1,200 Negroes out of 4,000 employes. The president of one of the steel locals at Lackawanna is a Negro. There is said to be a fairly good Negro job distribution in the two plants.
An example of how these corporations exploit their workers was Bethlehem’s refusal to accept relief rentals for its houses. Then when the men were taken back to work with returning prosperity, Bethlehem took these vast accumulations of back rent out of their pay. In addition they have boosted the rents of their unsightly rookeries by about 15 per cent.
The CIO sent a Negro organizer into the area but he was lazy and dishonest, and they soon caught up with him and fired him.
Like many of the smaller cities, Negro Buffalo suffers from a lack of enlightened Negro leadership. Here as elsewhere too many supposedly educated Negroes are callous and indifferent where they are not plainly ignorant of the immense issues involved. As a rule these people know practically nothing of the momentous occurrences affecting the Negro workers on whose backs they live, and what they do know is gleaned largely from the newspapers which, as in the smaller cities, are anti-union. To talk to some of these Negroes about strikes and labor issues is like talking to an official of the Merchants and Manufacturers Association.
Pittsburgh Courier, July 31, 1937.
By George S. Schuyler
Negro labor in the notoriously non-union States of Virginia and Maryland are surprising doubting Thomases by flocking into the labor unions. These exploited workers, considered sub-human by the white and Negro upper classes that live parasitically off their labor, have astonished everyone by their response to the new labor drive.
With the exception of Newport News, which is owned and dominated by the Newport News Shipbuilding Company, the picture is a favorable one from the viewpoint of organized labor.
Norfolk has always boasted of strong unions of longshoremen led by the militant George W. Millner, brown and bulky Vice President of the International Longshoremen’s Union.
I interviewed the forceful Mr. Millner in the large two-story brick building owned by Local 1248 of the ILA and found him bubbling over with enthusiasm and optimism.
There are approximately 8,000 Negroes working on and around the docks in Norfolk. Of this number 5,000 are unionized and 90 per cent of them are colored men. At this time of the year work is a little slow. It is mostly casual and dependent upon the amount of cargo available.
White Unions Under Negro
The number of longshoremen’s locals has jumped during the current labor drive fron nine to twenty. Since June 1 the membership has increased 100 per cent. Five of these locals under Millner’s leadership are white. All the others are composed of Negroes and headed by Negroes. The entire area for a radius of 35 miles is controlled by this Negro vice president of this important A.F. of L. union.
“My idea,” he told me, “is to organize the whole darn town.”
“We’ve been trying for a year, he continued, “to get through recognition for all the men in the various industries in this town. We have just got through an agreement with the City, Tidewater, Southgate, and other terminals.”
Increased Wage Scale
“We found men working for 25 and 30 cents an hour, with no overtime, and working Sundays and holidays. They worked from 7 o’clock in the morning until 9 or 10 o’clock at night. We got through a wage scale of 40 cents an hour straight time and 60 cents an hour for overtime with a 9-hour day. We got a guarantee of four hours work at 40 cents an hour for day work and 60 cents an hour for night work.
“At the same time we put thru an agreement covering checkers who were getting $14 a week. These men are mostly high school boys who also act as foremen. They are now getting a $25 weekly minimum wage throughout, based on a 9-hour day, with a week’s vacation with pay and reasonable sick leave with pay if able to produce a doctor’s certificate proving that illness occurred in line of duty. These men never received overtime before.”
Co-operating With CIO
This A.F. of L. group is not bothering its head about jurisdiction. It is felt that the important thing is to get the men organized in some kind of union to enable them to bargain collectively.
When the CIO through the newly organized National Maritime Union, sent its organizers into the field, Millner says he immediately had a conference with them and promised to cooperate with them. The CIO group is now trying to organize the teamsters but many of the teamsters have joined A.F. of L. groups.
“In this drive,” Millner asserted, we are taking in the marine freight handlers, the railroad freight handlers, the coastwise longshoremen, the lumber handler, the salt handlers and the veneer plant workers.” A large number of these workers are skilled men.
Organization of proceeding space in two plants of box and shook makers totaling 600, and Burlap and Bagging Company which employs 1,000 workers on night and day shifts, the 300 workers in the junk yards, the large number of employes of the fertilizer plant, the 200 fruit and banana handlers and the 1,000 freight handlers.
Has Made Agreements
Agreements have been made with the Old Bay Line, the Chesapeake Steamship line, the Baltimore, Norfolk and Carolina Line and the Thomas E. Cole Lumber Company. Negotiations are now in progress with the veneer plants, with two non-union stevedore companies employing 400 men, and with the Standard Fruit and S. S. Co. Organizers have also been asked to address the large number of men, women and children employed in the Richmond Cedar Works. It should be emphasized that the larger proportion of these workers are Negroes and they are eagerly yielding to organization.
Plans are afoot to organize the 300 workers in the dock builders and pile drivers group, the 500 men in the fertilizer plants and the 500 more in coal and lumber yards and sand and gravel industry.
No efforts have yet been made to contact the large number of workers employed by Du Pont at his Hopewell plant.
In Richmond a new organization of coastwise longshoremen has been set up and their pay boosted to 40 and 60 cents an hour.
A drive is in progress among the caulkers in the shipyards, the structural iron workers, the bakery employes and the teamsters.
The Sage of Junius Vines
Illustrative of the new kind of leadership being developed by Negroes in the labor movement, is Junius Vines, a former chauffeur for the manager of the Tidewater Terminal.
Because of his union activities Vines lost his job. He promptly became a volunteer organizer and has built an organization of 700 members. “He went out and got everybody,” said one enthusiastic laborite. “He got the teamsters together and away from the CIO.”
Not satisfied with organizing Negroes, Vines started signing up the white locomotive engineers and electricians, the carpenters and the blacksmiths at the Army Base, which is now 100 per cent organized, according to the A.F. of L. officials.
In addition to Millner and Vines, other Negroes prominent in the Norfolk labor drive are W. G. Anderson, business representative of the local I.L.A., Hugh Brown, W. J. Hundley and David Austin.
Some Negro officials were bitter in their criticism of the Brotherhood of Railroad Freight Handlers, Clerks and Teamsters, which still continues the old policy of discrimination against Negro workers. They have no outlet for expression and no voice in administration although they pay dues like the rest. They assert that it is this sort of thing which gives the A.F. of L. a bad reputation among Negroes and hamper efforts to organize them.
The Finkelstein Factory
Another dark spot in the Norfolk labor front is the Finkelstein clothing factory, one of the plants from the North which moved South to escape decent wage standards. Many colored men and women are employed there. An effort was made a year ago to organize these workers but the effort failed. Some of the workers lost their jobs as a result of this effort.
A tobacco factory employing colored women in considerable numbers at low wages has also been able to stave off organization.
The colored cleaners and dyers have a small organization which is said not to have made much headway, and colored draymen and expressmen with a similar organization complain that they are being replaced with whites.
In view of the local feeling against whites and Negroes being in the same organizations of any kind, the success so far attending the labor drive, which would be considered modest elsewhere, is remarkable in Norfolk.
I heard considerable criticism of the so-called leading Negroes because of their alleged indifference to the struggles of the black workers. “They don’t give a damn about how the workers make it,” said one unionist. “All our support comes from what they call the riffraff, the Negro who has little or no education but a whole lot of loyalty and common sense.”
The story is told about one Negro physician who had been secured to handle compensation cases arising from injuries sustained by workers in the ships and on the docks. This man refused to serve the workers when called, complaining that they were “filthy dirty,” as if a workingman sweating in the bowels of a ship or hustling cotton bales along the dock was supposed to be clean.
It is indeed striking to a stranger to find the “respectable” Negroes so blandly uninformed about the conditions and problems of the Negro workers upon whom they must always depend for their living.
Newport News Jittery
The recent invasion of Newport News by the CIO has got the town jittery with almost everybody afraid to even talk about labor conditions there. The town depends absolutely upon the shipbuilding company which seems to dominate public opinion. The newspapers, the chamber of commerce, the railroads and the shipyards are united in a solid phalanx against organization of the thousands of black and white workers employed in this basic industry.
There are some 3,000 Negro workers in the shipyards. Most of them ARE only laborers, skilled work being restricted to whites with a few exceptions. The Negroes that have skilled work are used by the company as bellwethers to keep the bulk of underpaid black workers from unionization.
The union drive has just started and has made but little headway. Whether or not it will be successful is problematical.
More success has attended the efforts to organize the large number of Negro women employed in the city’s laundries. But here too, the result has been little better than negligible.
Tobacco Workers Triumph
One of the most unusual stories in the saga of black labor is the speed and completeness with which a handful of militant young college-trained Negroes organized the workers in Richmond’s tobacco factories.
Among these militants are Attorneys J. T. Hewin, Jr. and J. Byron Hopkins, Jr., Charles B. Case, Leslie Smith, Rev. C. C. Queen, Milton Richmond, Wiley A. Hall, Urban League secretary and Columbus Austin, CIO organizer.
Their efforts are largely the outcome of the Southern Negro Youth Congress held in Richmond in February of this year. They have had the co-operation of Dr. Tinsley, Local N.A.A.C.P. head and Editor Norrell of the Richmond Planet who continues in the footsteps of the late lamented John Mitchell.49
During the recent drive among the tobacco workers, of whom most are colored, nearly 4,000 have been organized. Most of these Negro workers are stemmers or doing semi-skilled and unskilled work. There have been three strikes and all of them have been won. One strike lasted a month. The two others lasted only a week. Each factory has been organized into a local affiliated with the CIO.
It is said to take ten years to learn how to stem tobacco efficiently. The average is from 15 to 17 pounds a day but expert workers sometimes stem 30 or more pounds. The best stemmer in the city is a Negro woman, totally blind, who has 25 years of experience.
Before the union drive, women working 48 and 58 hours a week received about $5 for their labor. The wages have now been boosted 50 to 100 per cent. The organizers estimate that the increases won total of $200,000 annually.
The men in the tobacco industry were getting 25 cents an hour before unionization. They are now getting 35 and 40 cents an hour.
Didn’t Wait for the CIO
These young Negroes did not wait for the CIO to come along before they began organizing the tobacco workers. They knew the plight of the laborers and went about doing the only thing that could help them better their living conditions.
With the exception of Rev. Queen, no Richmond Negro preacher offered his church for organization meetings. They all seemed to be indifferent, although they get their money from these same tobacco workers. Mr. Hall of the Urban League also permitted use of his premises for meetings of the embattled workers.
This group of militants was also aware of the plight of the Negro fishermen and so promptly began organizing them under the auspices of the Fishery Workers’ Organizing Committee, CIO.
There are 2,300 Negro fishermen in the Reedville-Kilmarnock area. Nearly 2,000 of them have been organized since the drive began. Most of them have been getting less than $1 a day for years. Among those unusually active in the organization were Chas. B. Case, a Negro insurance man, and Milton Richmond, director of the Negro Forum Council.
The Fishing companies are not taking unionization lying down. They have refused to recognize the union. They are staging a house-to-house canvass in an effort to discourage unionization. But the workers are sticking by their guns. The CIO is citing the companies under the Wagner Labor Law for their coercion.
Driving On Other Fronts, Too
The labor drive is not stopping at the tobacco and fishing workers. At present the laundry workers are being organized by a CIO group. The A.F. of L. was working among them but the workers felt that they were not getting results so they turned to the new outfit.
It is significant that the white and black employes of the Manchester Board and Paper Company, which is one of three factories of its kind, are co-operating 100 per cent. The Negro organizers say there has been no difficulty in getting the two groups to work together in the unions they have organized.
Teamsters of the city are being organized by the A.F. of L., with white workers in one local and Negro workers in another. Most of the teamsters are colored.
Plans are afoot by the CIO to organize hotel employes, janitors, domestic workers, and Negro office workers.
Negro Railroad Firemen
The A.F. of L. groups here come in for the usual criticism leveled against them elsewhere. It is asserted that they hold separate meetings for each racial group in a union while the CIO holds mixed meetings. CIO men declare that the A.F. of L. never got busy organizing Negro workers until the CIO came along and launched its activities.
In Richmond there is an organization of Negro railroad firemen and also one of coal passers. It is said that the local Negro longshoremen, about 112 in number, are drifting toward the CIO Maritime Union, but I was unable to confirm this. They are said to have recently won an increase of 7 cents an hour.
Mr. Wiley A. Hall, the executive secretary of the Richmond Urban League feels that “this drive is the most significant thing that has happened to Negroes since Emancipation. The welfare of the workers depends upon labor organization.”
Dr. Tinsley, president of the N.A.A.C.P., declared that “Negroes can eat and pay rent a little better because of the recent labor union activity.”
Won Spurs On Picket Line
CIO men spoke proudly of how the Negroes had won their spurs on the picket line during the tobacco strike. Some of them remained on the picket line for 24 hours in their zeal to win a living wage agreement.
There were two unions in the tobacco industry in Richmond, the old A.F. of L. Tobacco Workers’ of America and the new CIO Tobacco Stemmers and Laborers Union. Most of the Negro workers, being semi-skilled or unskilled, belong to the latter organization.
A campaign has been on for some time to get more Negroes to qualify for the franchise in Richmond. That such a step is urgently needed is evidenced by the fact that of the 3,304 city employes, only 281 are Negroes and 273 of them are school teachers. Street cleaners, garbage men and other public servants are all whites. This condition is attributed to the fact that only 1,600 dark Richmonders can vote and less than 1,000 do.
The young militants who successfully engineered the tobacco workers strike have high hopes that the new spirit manifested by Negro labor here will find expression along political and social as well as economic lines.
Baltimore Sixty Percent Organized
For one year Arthur Murphy, militant and earnest young Negro organizer for the Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee has been laboring among the 6,000 black steel workers who labor for the Bethlehem Steel Company at its Sparrows Point, Md. plant in the Baltimore suburbs.
“We have no complaint to make about the progress of our work,” he said, pointing out that more than 4,000 of the 6,500 black workers have joined the new steel union, while 13,000 of the 19,000 white workers were aligned with the S.W.O.C.
It would indeed seem that the S.W.O.C. has no need to worry about its progress in Baltimore, but a great deal to feel proud about, considering the fact that Baltimore is a notorious jim-crow non-union town.
There is one general steel lodge. In this Negroes serve on all committees along with the whites, and also on the executive committee.
A Negro, Bedford Livingstone, is third vice president and another Negro, Clarence Stewart, is assistant secretary.
There are also some Negroes serving on the trustee board of the local.
It is traditional at this plant that Negroes do only the hardest and most laborous work, and they are terrorized by the foremen, especially since the recent union activities. Many have been fired because of their work for organization but the union has rallied behind them and got them back on the job.
Get New Opportunities
Before the coming of the union, Negroes working in the tin mills worked only on the opening floor, in the bar yard and the grease house. Since the union came in with its insistence on equal rights, one Negro has been put in the hot mill. Negotiations are now in progress for the working of Negroes on the furnaces and in the hot mills where the pay is from $10 to $15 a day.
In the pipe mill Negroes were doing only the heaviest and least paid work before the union came on the scene. The highly paid work on the testing and grinding machines was barred to them. The union has succeeded not only in getting some Negroes on those machines but on threading machines as well.
In order to wreck the union, the company, it is said, has spread the rumor that if the CIO is successful the whites will lose their jobs to the Negroes. Unmindful of this propaganda the white workers have continued to join the union.
The real test of strength will come in a very short time when the election is held to determine who will represent the toilers in the Sparrows Point plant. The S.W.O.C. is making a strenuous effort to organize the plant 100 per cent with a good prospect of doing so, acording to its organizers.
Negroes Strike 100 Percent
Not content with organizing the Bethlehem Steel Co. plant, the CIO has turned its attention also to copper works, sugar refineries, molding plants, etc.
At the plant of the Standard Sanitary Company, there are 260 Negro workers out of a total group of 672. There was a strike under CIO auspices which lasted ten days. Every single Negro worker joined the strike, and won an agreement with the company. The local is known as Columbus Lodge No. 1492, and although Negroes constitute less than half the number of employes in the plant, they have half the officers in the union. The strike was pulled a month ago.
At the plant of the Wisekettle Co., which makes bathtubs and oil stoves, there are 300 workers of whom 125 are Negroes. Two weeks ago there was a spontaneous strike. Young Organizer Murphy went out to the plant, organized the workers and called off the strike. The new union, Lodge No. 1910, meets with the company officials next week to sign an agreement. The vice president and the recording secretary of this union are Negroes. Colored men also serve as trustees of the organization.
Negroes On Every Committee
The Easton Rolling Mill has 800 employes of whom 300 are colored. These men are organized into Lodge No. 1245. Negroes are on every committee. The contract between the union and the company was negotiated by one Negro, Harry Dennis, and two white workers.
There is one lodge of chemical workers in Baltimore. This has 200 Negro members and the officers of the union are evenly divided between white and colored.
A contract has been negotiated with the sugar refineries. At a plant which employs 1,500 men, the majority of whom are colored, a Negro named Gilmore is vice president of the lodge.
Lodges have been organized at the Devere Cooper Works and the Baltimore Brass and Copper Co. Here too, Negroes take a prominent part in the administration of the unions, serving on all committees.
Release Negro Pickets
The stirring activities in connection with the organization of the employees of the Philipps Canning Co. at nearby Cambridge, Md., illustrate the new solidarity between colored and white labor which is manifesting itself in so many places where only racial antipathy is normally expected.
This plant employs 3,000 workers, the majority of whom are said to be Negroes. They were getting from 18₵ to 22₵ an hour. The workers got together and called a strike.
Six white and six colored workers marched to the company offices and submitted a set of demands. These were rejected. Immediately the plant was closed. The workers picketed it day and night.
An A.F. of L. organizer then entered the picture and settled the strike. After considerable dilly-dallying, the company got tough, rejected the union and blacklisted all those known to be active in it.
CIO Negotiates Contract
The CIO then got busy, reorganized the strike and signed 460 of the workers. At the next meeting 1,100 were signed up. A committee of white and black workers met with the Philipps’ management, and is now negotiating a contract. The CIO has filed charges of intimidation against the company with the National Labor Relations Board.
The CIO IS RELATIVELY NEW TO BALTIMORE. It has not been as active in as many directions here as in some other cities I have visited. Here is a drive on by the CIO. United Hotel and Restaurant Workers which has already increased wages from 30 per cent to 50 per cent in the eight restaurants it has organized, according to M. E. Pappas, the organizer.
Considerable difficulty has been experienced in getting Negroes to join this union. It is said that many have refused to join because they believe the CIO to be “Communistic.”
One Negro, Jesse Smith, is serving as organizer.
Considering Baltimore’s background, it seems remarkable that the drive has been so successful with so little inter-racial friction.
Some optimists feel that we are on the threshold of a new day in race relations as a result of the fight of Negro and white labor side by side for a higher standard of living.
Pittsburgh Courier, August 7, 1937.
By George S. Schuyler
PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 12—Negro workers of this city are living up to the tradition of intelligent militancy established over a century ago WHEN THE FIRST CONFERENCES of free Negroes were held. This may be “Sleep Town” in common parlance but the activities of Negro workers belie this nickname.
Accompanied by Donald W. Wyatt, industrial secretary of the Armstrong Association, I visited the CIO headquarters on North Broad street to find out just what part Negro labor is playing in the drive now on to organize the workers of this metropolis.
An old 4-story building with stone facade and ornate entrance, the place is a beehive of activity with clerks busy and telephone bells jangling. One gets the impression of money, skill and brains in this important nerve center of the CIO. The young white men who are directing things are not the type commonly associated with labor unions. Here is none of the indifference toward Negro investigation commonly experienced in the past. Everyone is courteous, helpful and understanding.
Negro President of Teachers Union
From a young white man, George Steele, organizer of the Credit Salesmen and Outside Collectors Local of the United Retail Employes Union, A CIO affiliate, who is also a member of the organizing staff and educational committee of the local CIO I learned something of the manifold activities going on in the busy headquarters.
He gave me a sidelight on the militant attitude of Philadelphia Negroes. When a strike was recently declared on an installment house whose patrons were largely Negroes, the striking collectors asked them not to go pay their installments until the company had signed with the unions. “The colored people gave us 100 per cent cooperation,” Mr. Steele declared.
The contagion of the union drive in this city has so spread that even the boy bootblacks have formed a union, demanding a 10-cent shine. A large number of Negro bootblacks have joined and a colored boy is president. While it is more like a club than a union, it is an indication of the attitude prevailing in the city.
The Association of Educational and Recreational Workers’ Local No. 474 of the American Federation of Teachers has a president, Mr. Charles Hunt, a colored man.
The station cleaners, chiefly Negro, has as organizer a colored man, Townsend Johnson.
Negroes in United Auto Workers
From Frank Hellman, president of Local No. 344 of the United Auto Workers, I learned that a big membership drive had been in progress for three months. There are a large number of Negro workers in the industry employed in the various agencies as washers, laborers and dealers. Negro workers, I learned, were easily organized. Some Negroes are on the executive committee of the union, which is local No. 258.
The United Bedding and Glider Workers’ Union has organized some 20 firms in the present drive, and its membership includes a considerable number of Negro workers. According to a woman official, no difficulty has been experienced in getting Negroes into the union.
From George Nott, president and organizer of the local union of the United Mine Workers which is organizing the Philadelphia Gas Works, I learned that a considerable number of Negroes are employed in the gas works. While Negroes were at first reluctant to be organized, little difficulty is now being experienced in doing so. One Negro is trustee of a station and another is trustee-at-large. Both serve on the executive committee of the union. Approximately 500 Negroes are employed in this industry in gas and coke plants.
“The Negroes,” said Mr. Nott, “are very faithful and militant union members. They make good organizers and prove their sincerity.”
The CIO lost the election in the Philadelphia Gas Works and this is attributed to the fact that the company used anti-Negro propaganda, telling the white workers that it was the union policy to put Negro workers over white workers.
Food Workers “Proud” of Negro Members
In the office of the United Food Workers’ Independent Union Local No. 107, David Blitman, one of the business agents, told me of the result of the nine-week drive in the industry. He declared that of the 300 organized in the union, 65 per cent are working under the closed shop, and 30 per cent of these members are Negroes. This union covers all the handling of food except in bakeries.
“We have experienced no difficulty at all in organizing the Negroes in the industry,” he declared. “They are as fine a bunch of fellows as imaginable. They have given us 100 per cent cooperation.”
Of the 14 members on the executive board of the union, seven are colored workers. Two Negroes are shop chairmen and one is slated to become a paid organizer.
“We are proud of our Negro members,” declared Blitman. “They are the first to join as soon as we start organizing a store. They have a fine spirit. They are most interested to know what it is all about.”
This union has succeeded in reducing working hours from 52 and 55 hours a week to 45 hours, and whereas wages ranged from $6 to $15 a week, the minimum is now said to be $22.
Mr. Daniel Elkins, young president of the Cleaning and Dying Workers’ Industrial Union, a CIO affiliate, was even more enthusiastic about the result of the drive among Negro workers in the industry.
Of the 2,500 workers in the trade, he declared that from 70 to 80 per cent are colored. Of the 600 members of the union 500 are Negroes. An organizing drive has now been in progress for two months. The two largest shops and three of the smaller ones of the total of 29 have signed contracts with the union.
Mr. Elkins was very frank about the problems of the union as they pertain to colored workers. “We must prove to our people in the trade,” he said, “that we are sincere and above board. Of our executive board of fifteen, 10 are colored workers. The vice-president is a Negro and so is the chairman in the largest shop, the United Tailors’ Association. So also is the shop committee of five in this plant.
“We are putting four full time organizers in the field,” said Mr. Elkins, “and two of them are colored men. This is the third union to enter the field in this city in the past five years. The two previous unions were affiliated with the A.F. of L. The organization was killed by the mistakes of the leadership which was weak and undemocratic. As a result we are hampered by a perfectly justifiable watching and waiting policy on the part of the workers. We are not collecting dues or initiation fees from anyone until we get a closed shop. Our union is run democratically. Every position is an elected position, and we tolerate no discrimination against Negro workers.”
Negro Shop Chairman Negotiates
“James Shorter (Negro), shop chairman in the North Cleaning Plant and chairman of our organizing committee,” said Elkins, “actually made negotiations for affiliation with the CIO. He organized his own shop of 90 people in three weeks time. Indeed, Negroes initiated this whole organization. Mr. Shorter, who is also a musician, is a member of Local No. 274, American Federation of Musicians, of which he is the business agent. When he had difficulties with the white union he fought for a separate charter. Joseph H. McCommer (Negro) our vice-president kept together the remnants of the former A.F. of L. union and used it as a nucleus of our present organization.”
“We have brought hours down,” he continued, “from 55 to 75 hours a week, to 44 hours a week. When the industry is organized, we will boost the wages. We are calling for a sharing of work and a living wage. The union scale will represent an increase of from 15 to 25 per cent.”
Negroes Strong in Meat Cutters Union
The Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workingmen of North America, Local No. 195, A.F. of L., has been conducting an organization drive for over two months. Because of past discrimination against colored workers, organizers report a certain joining, but claim that it is being overcome.
Of the 2,300 workers in the local industry, comprising of 19 different nationalities, about 30 per cent are Negroes. A colored man, Dewey Bucannon, is vice president. William Banks is shop steward at Duffy Bros., and Samuel Elliott at the Consolidated Dressed Beef Company. All are trustees of the union. The Negroes in the industry are both laborers and craftsmen.
George Rooney, organizer of the Transport Workers’ Union, a CIO affiliate, declared that “It is taking a considerable effort to persuade Negro workers to go along with us. The response has been slow. However, we have succeeded to a certain extent in breaking down the terrific fear of the union. There is a very definite need of a union. While our principal effort is organizing the Philadelphia Rapid Transit, we are taking in all transportation. The cab drivers are being organized by the A.F. of L.”
This union has just started its drive and no local has as yet been set up. So far as Negroes are concerned, they are mostly porters in the subway system and laborers.
Of the 3,500 hodcarriers and building laborers in Philadelphia in Local No. 332 of the International Hod Carriers and Building Laborers Union, approximately 75 per cent are colored. The union has four business agents of whom two are Negroes. One of these Negro business agents is Harry Murray, said to be a former A.F. of L. organizer.
Half of the members of the chemical workers are Negroes.
Of the 200 members of the Building Service Employes International Union, Local No. 125, A.F. of L., 100 are Negroes. This includes the president, vice president, treasurer and recording secretary.
In the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Stablemen and Helpers of America, Local 107, the Negro membership has risen from 50 in 1933 to over 500 at present. Negroes are trustees and members of the executive board of the union.
Of the 600 members of Pennsylvania State Employes Association, Local No. 6, 70 are Negroes. The union is affiliated with the CIO.
Almost 80 per cent of the members of the laundry workers union is colored.
Drives are in progress among the tobacco workers, the woodworkers and the hotel and restaurant workers, all of these groups having a large Negro representation. Indeed, aside from the CIO activities, of the 50 A.F. of L. unions organized since the NRA, half of them have Negro membership.
CIO Makes A.F. of L. Wake Up
All in all it is evident that Negroes are responding as well to the union drive as the white workers. This is the more remarkable since widespread discrimination against them in the past has engendered a feeling of skepticism about labor organization. They have been tricked in the past and accordingly are wary.
This is said to be especially true in the building trades where in the past there has been marked discrimination against Negro craftsmen. Often Negro artisans have been sent to the worst jobs and then only after white artisans had been placed. Difficulty has been experienced by Negro craftsmen in getting on PWA projects. Many Negro plasterers failed for this reason to pay their dues and were dropped from the union.
At the same time there has been, until recently the usual feeling on the part of white workers that Negroes could not be trusted and would desert in the first struggle.
But there is general agreement that the coming of the CIO has made a difference. It has made the A.F. of L. outfits wake up and do the organizing work that should have been done long ago.
Competition, it seems, is not only the life of trade, but also the life of the labor movement.
Among the strongest and oldest unions in Philadelphia are those of the coastwise and deepwater longshoremen. They have always been among the most militant in the United States, and a large proportion of them are Negroes, with Negro officers and business agents.
If any proof were needed of the essential oneness of humanity and the equality of black and white, it is demonstrated by the manner in which the black workers of Philadelphia have organized in unions to improve their standard of living and increase their economic power.
Chester Negro Workers “Play Possum”
As a visitor enters Chester, a large suburb of Philadelphia, a big sign announces that “What Chester Makes, Makes Chester.” It is true that Chester makes a whole lot of things.
First there is the Sun Shipbuilding Company, several fabricating steel mills, the Congoleum company, the Logood mill, the General and Sun Oil companies, and the Chester Tube and Pipe Company.
Rev. Barbour severely scored the “better” Negroes for their reactionism and slave psychology. “They do not lift a finger,” he said, “to protect the masses of their people. They have the utmost contempt for the masses.”
He charged that the city’s liquor interests “are fighting labor by plying the workers with drink. They have dropped the price of liquor for that purpose.”
Of the 20 college Negroes employed in the town’s plants, he charged that not one had lifted a finger to help the labor drive, while he pays his own railroad fare to go to organize labor. Only he and Rev. H. W. Watson have opened their churches for union meetings.
“Need a Good Negro Organizer”
“We need a good Negro organizer who can speak the language of these people,” he declared. “We can’t get a prominent Negro to make a talk. Only the common, ordinary Negro supports union activity.”
Chester is a town dominated by oil and shipbuilding people. There are a large number of Negroes on relief and the WPA has recently laid off lots of them to shift for themselves.
There is a big undercover fight going between the CIO and the A.F. of L., the politicians are trying to chisel in on the labor unrest and the company propagandists and the newspapers are playing up the old Communist scare to discourage labor organization.
Several Negro leaders are tacitly opposed to the union drive. One of them told me that the shipbuilding company “pays good wages” and that the Congoleum company pays from $24 to $40 a week. One Negro technician, Curtis Holmes, is employed in the laboratory department and there are said to be many Negro foremen in the plant. The Viscose Co., world’s largest producers of rayon, has a Negro foreman and employs many colored workers.
“Many Negroes,” declared a colored saloon keeper, “have drawn from $40 to $50 a week right through the depression while white men were eating out of swill cans.”
“Good Time” Town
Chester is known throughout the state as a “good time” town where the sky is the limit and joy is unconfined. It is “wide open” with the underworld, an extensive area known as Bethel Court, openly taunting every form of vice. It is said that the large floating population makes this necessary, but recently efforts were made to curb the growing power of this vicious area, without avail.
The town has five Negro policemen, a Negro magistrate, Casper H. Green; 61 Negro school teachers; city janitors and laborers; a Negro member of the school board, Louis Hunt, and Dr. W. E. Smith on the staff of the local hospital.
Some of the Negroes are said to be buying homes, but the majority are not reported to be following this example.
It is interesting to note that Henry Ford, a reputedly great friend of the Negroes, employs not a single Negro at his assembly plant in Chester where some 4,000 workers are kept busy.
Trenton Negroes Organized in Rubber
Approximately half of Trenton’s 9,000 Negroes are recipients of relief or employed on relief jobs. Those who are employed are chiefly in rubber with a small minority in the pottery and wire plants. The chief drive has been in rubber.
At the Puritan Rubber Company which employs a total working force of 150, about 20 Negroes have jobs. The plant is 100 per cent organized with Negroes on almost every committee of the union. One Negro worker, Thomas Kelly, is a member of the union’s executive committee, along with another colored man.
A three-week strike was staged and the Negro workers went out 100 per cent.
Wages now run from 30 to 60 cents an hour and the workers have won seniority rights.
Mr. Kelly is a modeler at the Puritan plant where he has been working for eleven years. Previously he was shipping clerk. Nevertheless he struck along with the rest for better working conditions and more power to the workers.
Head Compound Man a Negro
At the plant of the Acme Rubber Company, which employs the largest number of colored workers, they number 125 of the total union membership of 500.
From George Shepard, a Negro who has worked for this company for 11 years, I learned that a Negro, Mose Johnson, is secretary of the local of the Rubber Workers’ Union, and that all the Negroes except the latest hired, are members of the union. Most of them are semi-skilled workers. Two Negro workers are on shop committees.
As a result of the union drive, these workers have won seniority rights, annual vacations with a week’s pay, and minimum of 50 cents an hour for men and 42 cents an hour for women. Some Negro workers get $35 a week.
A small number of Negroes are employed at the other rubber plants, while in the three wire mills at least 40 per cent of the employes are Negroes. There is a union in all these plants and Negroes boast of proportionate membership in it.
All Quiet On the DuPont Front
There is almost no activity on the labor front in Wilmington, capital of the DuPont barony, where Negroes constitute more than 16 per cent of the population.
From Attorney Louis H. Redding, an alert and informed Negro barrister, I learned that Negroes are chiefly engaged in leather work, trucking, domestic work, building trades, railroad repair shops, steel mills and the Pennsylvania railroad. Most of them are unorganized, this being a notorious non-union town, the beneficiary of much of the DuPont paternalism through the years.50
In the spring there was a strike of the truck drivers. The Negroes went out with the whites but eventually the strike was lost.
Another strike was pulled on the automobile repair shops where Negroes are employed mainly as laborers although some are mechanics in the smaller shops. The strike at one time assumed serious proportions and Negroes were prominent in the picket lines.
A few Negroes are employed at the mill of Joseph Bancroft and Sons, textile manufacturers, but mainly as laborers and janitors. Wages are low and paternalism the order of the day.
It is considered a great gain that some sort of organization has been perfected in the industries where strikes were pulled. Whites and Negroes cooperated and marched together in labor demonstrations.
But as one man said, “You can sum up by saying that these people here are not organization minded.”
Negroes Head Camden Hod Carriers
Aside from being on relief, Camden, N.J. Negroes, totalling 10,000 are chiefly employed in the Campbell Soup plant as packers and porters. In a strike pulled two years ago, many of the Negroes went out and helped picket the plant. They are now serving on shop committees and as officers of the union. But informed persons declare that this is an “inside” union.
Most of the remaining employed Negroes are domestic workers, porters, in the coke works, as building laborers, in the gas works and at the Victor phonograph plant where they are chiefly laborers. The Victor plant is organized but has an “inside” union. Many canny Negro workers are said to have joined both unions just to play safe.
The president of the local is Joseph Huggins, Jr., a Negro, while his father, Joseph Huggins, Sr., is recording secretary. A highly intelligent Negro, Charles Mimms, is business agent, and also vice president of the district Council comprising 12 or 14 local unions.
Of the 538 members of the local, 75 per cent are Negroes. All the men in the union are working.
As an evidence of what Negro organizers can accomplish in getting Negroes signed up in a union, Mr. Mimms, who hails originally from Birmingham, points to the fact that last January when he was elected to his job, there were only about 80 members in the union. All the rest have been brought in by him in the past seven months.
The teamsters’ union has a large number of Negro members as the result of its drive.
Taylor and White, dyers, which employs 25 per cent Negroes, had a two-week strike in June. All demands were won.
All in all the great Philadelphia district where nearly a half million Negroes live, compares more than favorably with other sections of the country so far as the organization of Negro workers is concerned. Indeed, it is much better than most sections.
Where the Negroes have not joined the unions, the same thing is largely true of the whites. And the Negroes, at least, have some justification for their hesitancy in view of the unsavory record of the more reactionary unions of the A.F. of L.
The coming of the new, energetic CIO has been a powerful stimulant to labor organization. Whatever the outcome of its effort, its influence will long be felt in the labor movement.
Pittsburgh Courier, August 14, 1937.
By George S. Schuyler
NEW YORK, Aug. 19—Here in the world’s greatest industrial shipping and mercantile center, Negro workers have been so influenced by the deep currents of liberal and radical thought through the years that the necessity for labor organization is no longer questioned as it is in many other colored communities.
Union membership is taken as a matter of course and scores of thousands of Negro workers carry a union card. In Harlem alone, according to Frank Crosswaith, head of the Negro Labor Committee and a general organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union, there are 42,000 organized Negro workers. And perhaps no more than three-fifths of the Negroes in New York City reside in Harlem.
The current drives of the unions affiliated with the Committee for Industrial Organization and some affiliated with the older American Federation of Labor are bringing in hundreds of new Negro unionists weekly. On a dozen different fronts black and white workers are marching together toward industrial democracy.
Ladies Garment Workers Lead
The highly enlightened International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union, with its educated and far-sighted leadership, claims the largest Negro membership in the metropolis. Of its 255,00 total membership, over 10,000 are Negroes, and 7,000 of these are in New York City.
The I.L.G.W.U. has a definite policy of encouraging its Negro members to participate fully in all its activities: organizational, administrative, cultural and recreational.
One of its ace general organizers is Frank Crosswaith, veteran laborite and Socialist of 20 years experience. One of the business agents of giant Local No. 22 is Miss Edith Ransom, a colored woman. Of the 28 or 30 members of the various executive boards of the New York locals, six are colored. Another colored woman, Miss Winifred Gittens, is chairman of the finance committee of Local No. 25, and also secretary of the Negro Labor Committee, whose directors are representatives of the various labor groups in the metropolis.
100% Increase In Membership
In the big membership drive still going on, the I.L.G.W.U. has increased its membership 100 per cent, and the Negro increase has been proportionate. Today the union is about the third largest in America.
One source of its great strength is the protection, security and cultural and recreational facilities offered its members, regardless of color. All members have the advantages of sick and death benefits. The union maintains a health center and clinic open to all members and which specializes in diseases of the industry.
It goes in for extensive educational work in classes and forums in various sections of the city, including Harlem, and it gives annual scholarships to selected members for study at the labor colleges at Brookwood and Bryn Mawr. There is always at least one colored girl among those selected.
The union even holds classes in Negro history and the history of the Negro in the trade union movement. It maintains Naturalization Bureaus to train alien members (some of whom are Negroes) for citizenship.
Its physical activities include baseball, football, swimming, dancing, hikes and excursions. In addition, there are summer camps, concerts, plays, mass meetings with outstanding speakers, and educational trips to the numerous museums throughout the city.
And all these activities are free to all members of the union. Regardless of color or creed, they all agitate, study, strike, dance, bike and swim together.
From $12 to $60 a Week
At the Harlem Labor Center on 125th street, the nerve center of labor organization and administration in the Harlem area and headquarters of the Negro Labor Committee, Mr. Crosswaith told something of what membership in the I.L.G.W.U. has meant to colored women.
“As a rule,” he said, “the Negro worker received the lowest wage in the shop before the union came in. But a basic principle of the I.L.G.W.U. is equal pay for Negro work, so immediately you see the advantage of the Negro worker.
“Another advantage is protection on the job. After five days employment in a shop a worker has ‘citizenship rights’ there. This means that if there is a shortage of work in the shop, it must be equally divided among the workers and none laid off.
“The average wage for colored girls was $11 or $12 a week in the open shops. Few ever received more than that. Today we have some Negro girls who are earning as high as $60 a week. This is due solely to the closed shop enforced by the I.L.G.W.U.”
Mr. Crosswaith declared, in answer to a question concerning Negro activities within the union, that “Negro delegates are in attendance at every convention. They all have their expenses paid and suffer no loss of wages. They participate fully in the deliberations at these conventions.”
Send Atlanta Girl to Bryn Mawr
At the union’s international headquarters at 3 W. 16th street, Mark Starr, I.L.G.W.U. Educational Director, told me something of the manner in which Negro members are integrated into the union’s educational and recreational activities. In the union newspaper he pointed to several group photographs in which Negroes appeared and told of the union’s insistence that there be no suggestion of separation of races in any activities.
“That’s Barbara Shell,” he said, indicating an attractive brown girl in a group of a half dozen tennis players photographed on the campus at Bryn Mawr. “She comes from Local No. 122 in Atlanta, Ga. The local there was recently organized by Frank Crosswaith, and we have already sent Miss Shell to the labor college at Bryn Mawr. Indeed, our colored members are participating in all our summer institutes.
“Our chorus contains a number of colored girls. We have just released a record, ‘The Song of the CIO,’ rendered by them. It will be sung everywhere in the labor world.”
Mr. Starr told of the response of the Negro workers to unionization in Atlanta and Chicago. “We are at present engaged in organizing Negro and white workers together in the same local in Houston, Texas,” he declared.
Answers Questions About CIO
The record of the I.L.G.W.U. with Negro labor is significant because it answers in part the question often asked by Negroes. “Will the CIO be any different from the A.F. of L.?”
The I.L.G.W.U., the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the United Mine Workers are chief among the ten unions that launched the CIO and were read out of the A.F. of L. for so doing. President Dubinsky of the I.L.G.W.U., President Hillman of the A.C.W.A., and President Lewis of the United Mine Workers are the brains of the CIO and the directing heads of its activities. They have created the CIO and the directing heads of its activities. They have created the CIO in the likeness of their unions. And their unions are the most enlightened in America in according justice and fair play to Negro members. Everywhere the CIO unions seem to be trying to follow the example set by the I.L.G.W.U., the model for organized American labor. These men are labor statesmen, not labor skates, and they seem to envision a new America in which race prejudice and color discrimination will be at a minimum. It is noteworthy that every CIO union’s constitution specifically prohibits discrimination based on color.
Union Gets Negro Pharmacists Jobs
One of the major drives being directed from the Harlem Labor Center is that of the United Retail Drug Store Employes Union No. 199, which recently went over from the A.F. of L. to the CIO.
Prior to this drive most of the Negro pharmacists in New York with licenses were red caps at the various railroad stations. Out of 101 drug stores in the Harlem area, two gave employment to two Negro pharmacists with licenses.
Today, as a result of the unionization drive, 27 licensed Negro pharmacists are employed in the drug stores of the area. There are about 80 colored members in the local and two of them sit on the executive committee.
Grocery Clerks Pay Boosted 100%
Another union that has quit the A.F. of L. and joined its rival is the Retail, Dairy, Grocery and Fruit Employes Union No. 336. It has a total membership of 10,000, of whom about 250 are colored. According to George Snipe, Negro organizer, 200 of these Negro members have been organized in the last 75 days. There are several on the executive committee despite the small percentage of Negroes in the union.
Six weeks ago the local signed an agreement with the Harlem Grocery Store Owners Association involving $250,000 in increased wages.
Prior to the current drive, the practice of the store owners was to hire youngsters in school or just out of school and pay them $5 or $7 a week. In some cases they toiled as long as 79 hours a week. The union jumped in and boosted the pay to $75 a week minimum with a 54-hour week.
Commenting on the current drive, an officer said: “The Negroes have proved to be the most valuable union members. They have joined with facility. Today it is practically easy to talk labor unionism with the Negro.”
Janitors-Elevator Men Unionized
Next to the I.L.G.W.U. in point of Negro membership is the Building Service Employes Union, affiliated with the A.F. of L. Of its 30,000 members, more than 4,000 are colored. The union has a half dozen Negro business agents and several Negroes on its executive board. Thomas Young, a colored man, is first vice president of the union. Mr. Young is also vice chairman of the Labor Committee. The union maintains an office in the Harlem Labor Center.
This union embraces janitors, elevator operators, superintendents, porters and other employes of office and residential buildings.
At one time Negroes had a monopoly on this kind of work in New York City. There are still more Negroes than whites in the industry.
In the past the union suffered from racketeering. For years it never had more than 200 members. When Mr. Crosswaith was made organizer in 1924, he alarmed the officials by bringing in 500 Negro elevator operators in 90 days. Fearing they would lose control of the union, the white officials fired him. Today the union has a more enlightened leadership and its Negro members are too numerous and militant for anything to be put over on them. Moreover, they are helping to direct the union’s policy.
200 Negroes in Painters’ Union
It has been the traditional policy of the skilled workers to exclude Negroes from their unions either by constitutional provision or subterfuge. This has been the case in practically every city in America.
It was the more surprising, then, to learn that there were 200 Negro members of District Council No. 9 of the Painters’ Union, and that is also a member of the Negro Labor Committee.
Negro membership in the last two or three months has increased 80 per cent.
“There has been a very decided change in the attitude of white workers toward the colored workers,” said one official. “Today they seem to be recognizing the Negroes as equals in the army of labor.”
Another A.F. of L. union making tremendous strides in the organization of Negro workers is Cafeteria Workers’ Union No. 302, with offices at 260 W. 39th street. I was unable to learn the proportion of Negroes in the membership but was given to understand that it is quite large. Mr. Manning Johnson, a Negro, is one of the organizers.
Soft Drink Workers Lift Pay 80%
Equally vigorous in its drive is Soft Drink Workers Union No. 368, A.F. of L. It claims to be 100 per cent organized. It is a new union but is definitely going places. The Negro workers were getting almost no wages. Today the average wage is up 80 per cent. The union has a Negro on its executive board, although Negroes are considerably in the minority. There are about 50 Negro members. In this instance, too, the Negro Labor Committee was instrumental in launching the drive.
Drives are being instituted by the International Barbers Union No. 110, and an effort has been started to organize the funeral chauffeurs of the Harlem area.
The Association of Works Progress Relief Agencies of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes has a Negro, William Gaulden, as organizer and member of its Executive Board. The Union has a large number of Negro members.
Laundry Workers 65% Negroes
One of the most powerful unions in this area is the United Laundry Workers. It has a membership of 15,000 of whom about 65 per cent are Negroes. There are about 50,000 workers in the industry in New York City, 65 per cent of them colored.
The union has recently gone over to the CIO and is associated with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. Prior to this shift it was doing practically nothing except collect dues. Radicals jumped in, started a drive for members on June 16, and since that date it has grown from 2,500 to 15,000 members.
The Negro Labor Committee loaned the union a clever young Negro, Noah Walter, as organizer. Walter is now first assistant manager of the union with complete control of the Organization and Complaint Department.
In addition to Mr. Walter, there are four full time Negro organizers, two women and two men. There are two Negro members on the executive board of 13, and of the 30 members of the unit trade councils, 15 are colored.
“The Negro workers responded 100 per cent to the organization call,” Mr. Walter declared. “They didn’t even wait for the union to call them in some instances. They wrote in for the CIO to come and organize them.
“We find Negro and white workers getting along harmoniously. Indeed, Negro workers are often shop chairmen in laundries employing mostly whites. The bosses have been respectful to these shop chairmen.” Before the laundries were organized, women workers got from $6 to $12 for 48 hours, and men workers received from $12 to $16 for 55 to 70 hours work.
The union scale for women is $15.75 to $25 for 45 hours, with time-and-a half for overtime, legal holidays with pay, a week’s vacation with pay, a week’s sick leave with pay, and protection from being fired without just cause.
The union scale for men ranges from $20 to $65 for 48 hours, with the same benefits. “We have Negro washers getting $55 a week,” boasted Mr. Walter, “and drivers getting from $35 to $65 according to the type of laundry in which they are employed.”
Unanimously Quit A.F. of L.
The union withdrew from the A.F. of L. by unanimous vote. Officials say this was because it had never given its support to any organization drive. Many workers dropped out of the union because of its racketeering officials who were later tried and ousted. The union did not hold a convention for 20 years.
Under the old regime the policy was to never organize Negroes if possible. It thus fanned race prejudice and often threw out duly accredited members. While Negro members were in the majority, they were not represented among either the paid or unpaid leadership.
The CIO came along with its policy of organizing everybody and democratic administration, It won easily.
The union’s biggest fight has been against the company unions but is about to close two contracts with employers, each covering more than 10,000 workers.
A.F. of L. Aids Bosses
Union officials charge that the A.F. of L. union has been helping the employers fight the union. At one time it is alleged that A.F. of L. officials called a meeting and supplied the union men with whisky and the union women with ice cream. CIO members took the floor and stampeded the whole group out of the hall and into the nearby CIO office.
Union officials now claim to have eliminated all gangsters from the local.
The Chinese laundry workers are seeking an autonomous union allied with the CIO union. They “have shown a great deal of self reliance” one union man declared.
Workers Showing New Spirit
Union officials related two or three incidents that show the new spirit of the workers. One big laundry called a company union meeting for 6 o’clock. The union promptly got out a leaflet against it. About 175 workers attended the meeting called by the legitimate union and in 24 hours every worker in the laundry had signed up.
Another plant had only 15 workers organized out of 450 employes. The boss fired a Negro girl. The union warned him to rehire her. He refused. The whole shop stopped work and everybody joined the union. The boss recognized the union and rehired the Negro girl he had fired.
One of New York’s largest laundries laid off 35 workers and refused to rehire them. The workers threatened to tie up the plant. The boss then agreed to take back those he had laid off. He signed a contract with the union, agreeing not to lay off anybody but to spread the work around. It was customary for this laundry to lay off 50 workers during the dummer.
A journey of nearly an hour on the subway took me from midtown Manhattan to the busy headquarters of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America at 54th street and 3rd avenue in Brooklyn and hard by the waterfront.
Here war was in progress. A strike marred by violence had tied up all the shipyards in the vicinity since June 14. Around the old three-story brick building grim shirt-sleeved white men loitered, eyeing everyone suspiciously.
Challenged at the door, I managed to get in to see Charles George, a representative of the union’s national office.
From him I learned that of the total of 15,000 workers in the union, over 1,000 are Negroes. “They have come out 100 per cent with us” he declared. “The Negro shop stewards are among the best we have.”
He reported a large number of Negroes in Local No. 16 at Kearney, N.J., and was quite enthusiastic about the manner in which the Negroes had picketed the struck plants. He asserted that his was the only organization in this industry to hold mixed, racial meetings in Mobile, Ala., and Newport News, Va.
Dept. Store Employes Join Up
From James Webster, Negro organizer of the Department Store Employes Union Local No. 1250, I learned that the three-month membership drive has increased membership approximately 100 per cent. Every union committee has a Negro member, there are two Negroes on the executive board and two white and eight Negroes are on the section-action committee. He reported a “fair response” from Negro workers but bitterly scored the raising of the race issue by certain employers aided and abetted by a “race racketeer” who has been terrorizing the district for his won personal gain. Out of the 6,000 members in the union, there are less than 50 Negroes.
Mr. Webster is typical of a new type of Negro leader in the labor movement. Most of them have had college training or its equivalent. Webster, hailing originally from Stamford, Conn., is a graduate of Hampton and has studied at Columbia U. Edward Summers, second vice president of the Department Store Employees Union, has attended Howard University. Noah Walter of the Laundry Workers Union comes from Brooklyn, N.Y., and is a graduate of Bluefield (W.Va.) State Teachers College and the Rand School of Social Science.
“A Lot of Work To Be Done”
No survey of the New York labor picture would be complete without visiting T. Arnold Hill, veteran Industrial Secretary of the National Urban League and an authority on the labor movement as it relates to Negroes. Mr. Hill has recently completed a tour of the country.
“There is a lot of work yet to be done among Negroes,” he declared as we sat in the spacious Urban League offices high above the bustle of Broadway. “The SWOC must make a more definite campaign in the larger centers to bring Negroes into the union. It must show in the plants more evidence of equality and better distribution of jobs. This would encourage more Negroes to join the union.
“The Negro does not realize today that he does not lose his job because of union activities.
“I think the CIO might go in a little deeper for Negro members than it has. It has not yet exerted itself sufficiently to meet Negroes’ criticism.
New Negro Attitude ‘Encouraging’
“It is very encouraging,” he went on, “to see the increasing understanding that Negroes have of the necessity for labor organization. While there is room for great improvement we do have a nucleus in various centers of the country upon which we should be able to construct a healthy growth.
“In industries where Negroes constitute a semi-skilled group, their one chance of advancement is to join industrial unions. Craft unions do not provide for organization of laborers and unskilled workers. For this reason Negroes should identify themselves with the CIO.
“However,” he added, “the CIO has been shortsighted because it has failed to utilize the existing channels of information to reach the Negroes.
So far as the National Urban League is concerned, we are wholeheartedly in favor of Negro organization and are in many directions working to bring this about.”
Pittsburgh Courier, August 21, 1937.
40. DETROIT AWAITING FORD CRISIS51
By George S. Schuyler
DETROIT, Mich., Sept.2—Black Detroit is in uproar and confusion as the zero hour looms for the showdown fight between the Ford Motor Company and the United Automobile Workers of America.
Sides are being taken violently. Most of the preachers and professional men are against the U.A.W. and openly in favor of the Ford Motor Company. Dependent upon the masses for their livelihood, they fear that if the Ford Negroes espouse the union cause they will ultimately lose their jobs which would be a major disaster for Detroit.
There are from 16,000 to 18,000 Negroes working for the company and getting a minimum of $6 a day. About 400 more are in the Chrysler plant and considered equally well paid. But at the Ford Company the Negroes have been given skilled work in practically all departments. There are some skilled workers at Chrysler but the diversity of employment there does not at all compare with that given Negroes at Ford’s. Negroes are also employed at the Brigg and Detroit Steel Products companies. Graham Brothers is said to be the only large plant at which Negroes are not employed.
Own 3000 Automobiles
Those who side with Ford and the “inside” union known as The Ford Brotherhood, which the Negro workers are said to be dragooned into joining, point with pride to the prosperity which has come to the Negroes working at Ford’s.
They say that a large number of Negroes have been able because of the good wages to purchase homes and that more than 3000 own automobiles.
As a result of the example set by Ford, they say, Negroes have been getting into factories in the Detroit district in larger numbers than ever before. They are ready to almost fight any stranger who comes in town and says a good word for the U.A.W.A.
The workers themselves are keeping quiet. The professional folk claim that few have joined the U.A.W.A. but union advocates say that at least two-thirds of the Ford Negro workers have joined. Many for safety sake belong to both the Ford Brotherhood and the U.A.W.A. until it is definitely settled who will represent the workers in collective bargaining under the provisions of the Wagner Labor Relations Act.
Ford Spy System Active
Union sympathizers present another side of the picture. They point first to the fact that the extensive Ford spy system allegedly headed by gunmen, thugs and ex-convicts supervises the men as in a penitentiary. That all sorts of threats are being made to prevent them from joining the auto workers union.
They claim that in the Ford plant segregation is rife as it is also at the other plants; that all restaurants and wash rooms are racially separate although there is no law in Michigan forcing segregation of the races.
They point to conditions in the Ford foundry which is almost exclusively run by Negroes. Here the Negro death rate is said to be appalling with the stay of the average Negro worker very short before his health is impaired.
They point also to the fact that at present the workers have no security in their jobs and can be fired at a moment’s notice for any reason whatsoever or none at all.
While union officials refused to give any figures on membership of Ford workers in the union because of the impending struggle, they assert that despite the Ford pay system and the attitude of the Negro preachers and professional men, the attitude of Ford’s Negro workers toward the U.A.W.A. has undergone a marked change in the past two months.
Two months ago their attitude was one of contempt and ridicule. Today they are willing to receive the union propaganda “literature” and a large number are signing up. This is especially said to be true since the Ford Brotherhood, the “inside” union was organized. The workers argue that since they must apparently join some union, they would rather belong to the U.A.W.A. They are also beginning to understand that under the provisions of the Wagner Act they cannot be discharged for union membership, as Negro leaders have been telling them.
Union leaders assert that the attitude of the Negro leaders, many of whom they charge with having received Ford money, is based entirely upon the experience of Negro workers with the old craft unions and not with the new industrial unions that have sprung up all over the country and are following a policy of no discrimination because of color.
Crane Operator Heads Union Drive
Heading the drive of the union for Negro membership in Detroit is young organizer Paul Silas Kirk, a graduate of Talladega, Ala. High school who has been in Detroit since 1929 and with the U.A.W.A. since 1936. He was formerly a crane operator with the Michigan Steel Casting Co. which produces auto parts.
This plant was first organized by calling small meetings. Then large meetings were held and demands were made on the company. Company stool pigeons “snitched” and the men were locked out. The union struck and was finally granted a contract.
According to Kirk the U.A.W.A. has 200,000 members in the Detroit area of whom 7,500 are Negroes. Of the 34 locals of the union, 18 have Negro membership.
Chief Negotiator a Negro
At the Michigan Steel Foundry Negroes constitute about 50 per cent of the 500 workers. Two of the union’s departmental committees are headed by Negroes, Clarence Jones and Jack Harrison. The Corresponding Secretary is a Negro. The union’s chief negotiator with the management is a Negro, Samuel Lawson.
At the Cadillac Motor Company where 5,000 are employed there are 350 Negroes. The union has 65 per cent of these workers.
The Chief Shop Steward there is a Negro, Baker Wall. He was the Assistant Chairman of the Strike Committee and was largely instrumental in bringing the Negroes into the union. There are in all 25 Negro shop stewards in the plants.
At the Dodge Motor Company’s plant which employs 70,000 more than 75 per cent are in the union. Of the 1,500 Negroes, 65 per cent are in the union.
Curtis Davis, a Negro, is chief shop steward in the foundry department and Jesse Wilson is chief shop steward in the cleaning department. Wilson is also Chairman of the union’s Welfare Committee.
Negro On Executive Board
At the Chrysler plant where 10,000 workers are employed, 85 per cent are in the union. Samuel Fanroy, a Negro, is chief shop steward of the Sanding Department, a member of the Executive Board of the local and also a member of the U.A.W.A. District Council. There are, in all, ten Negro shop stewards in the Chrysler plant.
At the Chevrolet Auto company’s plant 98 per cent of the 60,000 workers are members of the union. Of the 700 Negro workers better than 98 per cent are union men. It is said that the Chevrolet plant has the most progressive and intelligent group of Negroes as reflected in their militancy and their participation in the administration of the union.
Of the 7,000 men employed by the Bohen Aluminum company which makes auto parts, 95 per cent are in the union, while 50 per cent of the 800 Negro workers are union men. The chief shop stewards in plants Nos. 2 and 3, are Negroes, Messrs. Hodges Mason and Herman Bonds.
Wages Boosted 40 Per Cent
Union officials point to many gains as a result of union organization. Before the coming of the union, Negroes’ wages averaged 45₵ and 50₵ an hour. They now average 75₵ an hour.
In the past Negroes were laid off when the employers saw fit. Now if a white worker starts after a Negro worker he is laid off first.
These officials assert that union membership has laid the foundation for the Negro worker to realize equality in the performance of any work for which he is fitted.
In Dodge’s Dept. 82, a Negro applied for the job of cone setter. The white workers objected to a colored man having such a skilled job and he did not get it. After the union came, the same man applied for the same job again. He got the job and it is one of the highest paid in the department. His wages are about $1.25 an hour.
Race Relations Improve
Considerable improvement in race relations has been noted as a result of the policy of the U.A.W.A. in this regard. At the Chevrolet plant, for example where most of the whites are Southerners, a picnic was arranged by the union for August 21 at Paris Park.
When the question of interracial attendance was raised, there was a revolt on the part of the racial reactionaries, but after several meetings the union went on record against any discrimination. Negro members were placed on the Picnic Committee and colored union members were given tickets to sell.
After the election of delegates to the recent convention it was discovered that no Negroes had been elected. The vote was reconsidered, more delegates were called for and several additional ones, all Negroes, were unanimously elected. I was told that a Negro would surely be elected to the executive board, the governing body of the international union at the convention. The U.A.W.A. recognizes that the Negroes are the key to the Ford organization drive and every effort is being made to give them the fullest representation.
Negroes in Union Upstate
Accompanied by Walter T. Hardin, Negro, Field Organizer for the U.A.W.A. outside the Detroit area, I journeyed by automobile 100 miles north of Detroit to Saginaw, stopping at several places by the way.
Hardin is an experienced labor organizer who was in the 1919 steel strike and in 1930 was a leader in the unemployed movement when there were 750,000 jobless in the state. On November 12, 1931, he was grabbed by the Black Legion because of his activities in behalf of the unemployed, severely beaten and left by the roadside. Another leader in the jobless movement was beaten crazy by these hooded ruffians. In 1936 Hardin joined the U.A.W.A. in the Pontiac district.
The response of the Negro workers outside the Detroit area to the union drive has been very good. In Fostoria most of the Negroes are in the union and dominate the locals. In Rochester, Mich., where there are 100 Negroes in a union membership of 580, the local has colored leadership. In New Haven, Mich., where a foundry does jobbing for Chrysler, Negroes constitute 400 of the 700 union membership. There, too, they dominate the local. In Grand Rapids there is a malleable iron foundry with 500 workers including 35 Negroes. The president of the local is a Negro, Henry Shed.
At Saginaw I visited the home of a quiet-spoken, thoughtful dark man, Boss McKnight, who is highly regarded by everyone. He has worked for the Gray Iron Foundry, a Chevrolet subsidiary, for many years. Of the 4,700 employees only 630 are Negroes, 75 per cent of whom are in the union, Local 461. McKnight took an active part in forming the union and was unanimously elected its vice president.
At Pontiac I had the pleasure of meeting Oscar Noble, an upstanding young Negro who holds the highly responsible union office of Chairman of the Bargaining Board at the Pontiac Motor Company. William Banks, also colored, is a member of an interdepartmental bargining board. There are 14,000 workers in this plant of whom less than 500 are colored. Incidentally, the Pontiac local of the U.A.W.A. is one of the largest in the State. The company here used the most drastic efforts to keep Negroes out of the union educational and recreational activities, but failed.
Union Boosts Pay in Flint
In Flint, Mich., 80 per cent of the Negroes employed by the Buick Co., in its foundries are union men. A Negro, Henry Clark, is part-time organizer and one Negro is a shop committeeman.
A few Negroes are employed in the Chevrolet plant and during the sit-down strike, a number of them stayed in with the whites. These Negroes are mostly porters. The Fisher Body plant employs Negroes only as kitchen help. There is much Negro unemployment in the city.
While one professional man informed me that “All the Negro workers are skeptical as hell about the union” and that a quiet effort was on foot to ease foreigners and Negroes out of the union, he pointed out that the union had made quite an effort to get Negro members. Large meetings were held in Negro neighborhoods and well attended. Some Flint Negroes participated in the historic Monroe, Mich., demonstration and played a significant part there.
I learned that the Flint strike was accelerated by the speed-up system in the plants. With the coming of the union the men are working more slowly and this is better for their health.
In the Buick Foundries Nos. 70 and 71, working conditions are terrible on the health. There, as in the Ford foundries in Detroit, Negroes die like flies from Type No. 3 pneumonia as a result of coming out of the terrific heat into the cold.
The union has boosted the wage of these Negroes from 45₵ an hour to 80₵ and 95₵ an hour, and the pay day is now weekly instead of fortnightly. The men are paid $15 a week during the compulsory seasonal layoff and have secured seniority rights.
Negroes High in Cleaners Union
Back in Detroit, I had a conference with Hyman Schneider, general organizer of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, who organized Cleaners and Dyers Local No. 124. Of the total of 1,700 members, 30 per cent are Negroes. The union has signed up the entire 69 shops in the city since last February.
Out of 15 members on the strike committee, six were Negroes. The Negroes are reported to have picketed exceptionally well. At the largest plant in Detroit, a Negro has been elected shop steward.
There are three Negroes on the executive board of the local, Ed. Curry, a colored man, is vice president and another colored man, William Bradley, is recording secretary.
From J. Cross, representative of the International Bakery and Confectionary Workers Union, Local 326, I learned that the membership had jumped from 20 in February to 2,000 at present of whom 10 per cent are Negroes.
Two of the five union members who comprised the committee that negotiated the contract with the Ward Baking Company were Negroes. While Negroes are usually porters in the trade, many are serving as shop stewards representing the men in their relations with the company.
“Once the union is explained to the Negroes” declared Mr. Cross, they give it good support.”
As a result of the union drive, men in the organized plants do not work over ten hours on Saturday and Sunday as formerly, have a 40-hour instead of a 60-hour week, and the minimum wage has been boosted from 40₵ to 55₵ an hour throughout the city. They also now enjoy seniority rights and a week’s vacation with pay.
Out of a total of 5,000 members of United Dairy Workers No. 83 only 20 are Negroes, but they are enjoying the benefits of closed shop agreements which the 23 companies doing 80 per cent of the volume of business have signed.
5000 Negroes In Steel Unions
In February 1937 there was not a single local of the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers in the Detroit area. Today there are 5,000 Negro union members alone in steel. This is about one-third of all the Negroes employed in steel and scrap iron business.
“We have been able to sign contracts with all concerns in this area without resorting to the strike” declared Charles Kiser, Detroit district director for the United Mine Workers, “I have never met a finer bunch of colored people in union activity in the entire country than there is here in this area.”
From Leonidas McDonald, stalwart Negro S.W.O.C. field organizer, who has a desk at the headquarters, I learned that there are numerous Negro committee members. One lodge has a colored president and financial secretary. Another lodge numbering 125 members has only eight Negroes and yet two of them were elected officials.
“In no case,” asserted Mr. Kiser, “have we negotiated a contract without the Negro’s participation in the deliberations.”
Negro Business Agent
From Ed. Thal, secretary of the Building Trades Council, I learned that the Sanitary Workers have a Negro business agent and have boosted their pay to 75₵ an hour. There are a large number of Negroes in the union. In the building laborers union, the majority are colored men. Negroes are represented also in the lathers, plasterers, bricklayers and cement finishers unions.
There are around 800 Negro rubber workers in the area and a majority of them are organized.
Leonidas McDonald said that some Negroes in the steel industry in the area are now getting $40 a week regularly, a considerable increase over the prevailing wage before the union came in. Mr. McDonald is something of a hero in the labor world in this area because of his fine organizational work in the Chicago district and also because he went to Monroe, Mich., at the height of the disturbance there to organize, was set upon by company thugs and vigilantes aided by the police and severely beaten. He was knocked unconscious, revived and knocked unconscious again and again. Rushed to the hospital he was given a private room. Soon white workers and their wives from miles around came to his bedside with tears in their eyes and loudly expressing their sorrow.
Race Prejudice Broken Down
Mr. McDonald said that “Race prejudice is practically down in the labor movement in Detroit.”
Supporting this view, Walter Hardin, the U.A.W.A. Negro field organizer pointed out that he had negotiated contracts for the men in shops where no Negroes are working at all. As an outstanding example of the new attitude he cited the case of the local of the Romeo Foundry situated between La Peer and Rochester, Mich. The plant has 13 Negroes and 365 whites working in it. At first a white delegate was elected to represent the local at the U.A.W.A. convention. This action was later overruled and a Negro was elected delegate because the white man was a pattern maker while the Negro was a laborer. The men in explaining the switch said they wanted somebody to represent them who understood the bad conditions in the plant rather than a worker who had a comparatively easy job.
Pittsburgh Courier, September 4, 1937.
By George S. Schuyler
ST. LOUIS, Mo., Sept. 9—The current unionization drive has so far touched Indianapolis, Louisville and St. Louis only lightly. The Steel Workers Organizing Committee has been active for many months in Indianapolis and St. Louis, but CIO offices have only recently been established in those cities and Louisville and the general drive is only in its initial stages.
This is due in part to the CIO strategy of concentrating major organizational efforts in the great industrial centers, in part to the face that these border cities are notoriously non-union communities where low wages and long hours are the rule, and in part to the Southern tradition of segregation and discrimination which hangs heavily in the atmosphere of all of them and has been so instrumental in perpetuating industrial peonage.
Thus the labor conditions in these border cities reflect the instability, insecurity and uncertainty of this social and economic No-Man’s-Land.
The newspapers are mostly opposed to the new union drive and busily working the Communist scare against the CIO. The Negro professional class, with a few notable exceptions, reflects the views of the editorial writers of the daily press. The Negro workers are, in the main, scary and hesitant. Nevertheless, from the point of view of the laborites, the gloomy picture is illuminated by a few bright spots that give some promise of better things to come. Here and there Negro labor is displaying a new spirit, a new solidarity, a new pioneering enterprise that strengthens the view that the working masses are beginning to think fundamentally about the basic problems of food, clothing and shelter.
Colored Woman On Committee
At the CIO headquarters in Indianapolis, Joseph D. Persily, the regional director, told me something of their progress in the two months the office had been open.
The Wadley Poultry Company, with 200 workers, of whom 35 per cent are Negroes, is completely organized, the local being affiliated with the United Cannery and Agricultural Workers of America. One of the five members of the negotiating committee which arranged the contract with the company is a colored woman. Mr. Persily, a young white man with the new labor viewpoint, assured me that “Our policy is to bring out Negro leadership wherever possible.”
Negroes constitute 25 per cent of the 200 workers in the Piel Bros. Starch Company, which is 100 per cent organized. There, it is said, a number of Negroes have blossomed out as leaders. The plant is at present completely closed down. Two of the seven members of the union’s negotiating committee are Negroes.
Public Workers Organized
One of the guiding spirits in the organization of the United Municipal Employes is Mr. Robert Obelton, a Negro. There are 200 Negroes out of the 1,100 members. Colored members are said to be very active, and two of them are on the union’s negotiating committee. The Negroes played a prominent part in a recent demonstration against the decision of the city council to cut wages.
At the plant of the Century Biscuit Company, where 10 per cent of the employes are colored, the most important and influential member of the union next to the president is a Negro named Shirley, who is on the negotiating committee. He is a former coal miner. The union, now on strike, is the United Bakery Workers No. 86.
Half of the members of the United Ice and Fuel Workers Union No. 87 are Negroes, and some are serving as officers.
This is also true of United Grain Workers No. 88, which covers the different plants in the city.
The local of the Hod Carriers and Building Laborers has a two in one Negro membership, and practically all of the officers from the president down are colored.
Of the total of 4,000 workers employed in the meat packing plants of the Kingan, Armours, Swift and smaller companies, about 35 per cent are colored. The main plant is Kingan, where the A.F. of L. union has obtained a contract, but the CIO union is contesting it before the National Labor Relations Board. It is, or should be, of interest to Negro workers to know that as a result of Negro workers having shunned the union, over 40 per cent of the 800 men recently laid off in the industry were Negroes.
At the Indianapolis Glove Company, which employs 300 colored women, the leading spirit for unionization is a Miss Louise Dawson, who has been responsible for the little bit of success obtained in organization there. Although these 300 Negro girls are getting much less than 300 whites in the company’s other plant, they are refusing to join the union and are positively hostile to all efforts to improve their workingclass status.
Negro Steel Workers Scary
Harvey James of Huntington, W. Va., and Local 6006, District 17, United Mine Workers of America, is an experienced labor unionist, a worthy representative of that fine type of honest, upstanding Negro workman supplying so much of the new militant leadership among the masses. I had a long talk with him in the fine offices of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in the Amalgamated Clothing Workers building on West Ninth street. He is at present Field Representative of the SWOC, trying to organize the Negro workers in the various steel fabricating plants in Indianapolis.
It has been a hard fight to organize these Negroes. At the plant of the National Malleable & Steel Company, 50 per cent of the 866 workers are colored and only about 125 have joined the SWOC drive. The plant has a company-fostered union, which is using the usual pressure on the workers to keep them out of the legitimate union. Most of the Negroes are as frightened as rabbits, although it is said they are favorably inclined. No contract has as yet been secured.
Negroes Stay In Boss’s Union
At the foundry of the Link Belt Company, 400 of the 900 workers are colored. They have almost all remained in the company-fostered union. At the Dodge plant of this same company, where Negroes are 35 per cent of the 800 workers, the majority of the whites have joined the new steel union, but only 40 Negro workers have done so. A contract is now being negotiated between the union and the company.
At the Switzer Cummings Company, where there are only 23 colored out of a total of 800 workers, only 4 Negroes have joined the overwhelming majority in the union.
It is illuminating that while segregation is not the law of Indiana, the colored workers at National Malleable are segregated in the washrooms as if they were in Mississippi. Most of the Negroes are reported to be in debt to the company, which uses the old loan shark method of keeping the workers enslaved and thus docile. Many of them are so deep in debt that they draw practically nothing for their killing labor. The colored women workers are terrorized by the white woman who hires them and she threatens to fire anyone who joins a union. Colored women get 40 cents an hour in this plant, while white women get 48 cents an hour. Men get 50 to 65 cents.
Henry Ford, whom certain Negro leaders in Detroit think is in love with Negroes, has one of his assembly plants in Indianapolis. Not a single Negro is employed there.
Preachers Cold-Water Union
“All we have met from the Negro preachers,” said a union official, “is discouragement. They don’t seem to care anything about the low wages and bad working conditions their people suffer, nor the feudal conditions under which the people here live. We have been assisted by Dr. Cable, the Negro city councilman and Secretary F. E. DeFrantz of the Y.M.C.A., but by no one else.” The attitude of the rest of the leading Negroes allegedly runs from indifference to hostility. They quote the local N.A.A.C.P. head as saying, “I have come to the conclusion Negroes had better stay out of the union.”
Nevertheless, the union organizers are optimistic, “I believe we’ll be successful in getting the Negro here lined up,” Mr. James stated. He pointed out that since last Labor Day the CIO had signed up 12,000 members in Indianapolis and environs, and that there was evidence of a definite change taking place in the attitude of the Negro workers.
Louisville Remains Dormant
Most of the Negroes in Louisville are employed in the tobacco industry, in domestic service, building construction for the various railroads and miscellaneous pursuits. It is a typical border anti-CIO town, where union labor has never had much of a foothold.
There is one colored A.F. of L. tobacco local of which a Negro, William Brown, is president. Some idea of labor conditions in the tobacco industry may be gleaned from the fact that stemmers range from $7 to $10 a week with the first figure the most prevalent. But this is better than the $5 a week average paid for domestic service.
I went to the CIO office in the Starks Building at Fourth and Walnut, where I talked with Peter Campbell, a former A.F. of L. official, who is now regional director of the CIO. The office has just recently opened and he had little to tell me. Moreover, he was the first big CIO official I’ve met who seemed to be completely steeped in the traditions of the old South so far as Negroes are concerned.
Construction Workers Alert
Hod Carriers’ and Building Laborers’ Local No. 86 has all Negro officers and George Dougherty is president. There are 200 members and in recent months it has grown 100 per cent. It has managed to boost wages from 75 cents to 87-1/2 cents an hour, according to Mr. Dougherty.
Building and Construction Laborers No. 576 is a mixed union with 2,300 members of whom better than 50 per cent are colored. The secretary is Charles J. Newton, a Negro. These workers, allegedly less skilled than the hod-carriers, are now getting 50 cents an hour. They were getting 35 cents and 40 cents before unionization.
Both these locals belong to the A.F. of L. There are three Negroes on the Louisville District Council. There are about a half dozen Negro carpenters belonging to the local union.
The only work of the CIO so far has been the organization of a local of the Iron, Steel and Tin Workers’ Union. There are said to be 100 Negro members of this school.
Stirrings in St. Louis
Labor is marching forward on many fronts in St. Louis. But owing to the Southern traditions that hang like a miasmic pall over the metropolis that sprawls from the Mississippi to the Missouri rivers, and to the previous dominance of reactionary A.F. of L. officials, labor is not marching forward very fast. Nevertheless, all things considered, much progress is being made in organizing steel, furniture, electrical manufacturing and automobiles. Of the 900,000 population of the city, Urban League officials estimate there are 110,000 Negroes, 40 per cent of whom are from Mississippi and Arkansas. Just like the whites, they have brought the Dixie mores along with them. They are slow to heed the appeals of labor organizers, having obtained what they consider a favorable position in steel plants by scabbing years ago. Then, too, they have noted the manner in which the A.F. of L. building trades in the past have driven the ablest Negro mechanics out of the city or out of their trades. As one intelligent Negro said: “It is a crime the way the building trades choke off the Negro artisans.”
Just two Negro preachers out of the hundreds in the city have taken any favorable interest whatever in the strengthening of Negro labor through unionization. The Negro educated (?) class as a whole is lying low, indifferent or outspokenly anti-union. By comparison, the Urban League is radical in its labor interests and activities. One reason advanced for the indifference or hostility of most of the Negro preachers to organized labor is that they are constantly begging small sums (or large ones if they can get them) from various business concerns and so feel indebted to them.
Negro S.W.O.C. Organizer
There are 25,000 steel workers in and around St. Louis and the S.W.O.C. started in August, 1936, to organize them. There are a large number of Negroes in the industry and realizing this, the S.W.O.C. early sent George Edmonds, a veteran Negro organizer, into St. Louis. He considers the area very complete and difficult, and different from any other place in the country. The Negro workers he holds, play a most important industrial part.52
There are 26 locals of the S.W.O.C, and Negroes are active members in all of them. All have Negroes as officers when they can get them, but many Negro members, it is asserted, are too timorous to serve in positions of responsibility and reluctant to even attend meetings.
The largest lodge is that at the American Car Foundry, where Negroes are 50 per cent of the 1,700 workers. At the Scullins Steel Company, 60 per cent of the 1,400 workers are colored, and great difficulty has been experienced in organizing them because of the diversity of work offered them and the fear of unions instilled by the company’s propagandists.
There are 2,000 Negroes at the Granite City Casting Company, where a total of 3,800 workers are employed. The S.W.O.C. is now struggling to become sole bargaining agent. There has been no great rush of Negroes to join the union.
At the Missouri Rolling Mill, Negroes constitute half of the 600 workers. The plant is 85 per cent organized, and a colored man is vice-president of the union.
The Sheffield Steel Company recently signed a contract with the union. Five hundred of its 700 workers are Negroes, and there are a number of colored members serving as union officials. They are on all committees.
Most of the other steel plants are small fabricating concerns which do not employ many Negroes.
About 400 of the 4,000 auto workers in the city are colored. At the time of the strikes, no effort was made to organize them and only 15 Negroes joined. Negroes were openly used as scabs during the strikes. The union, it is said, has now changed its policy.
The situation in the laundry industry also reveals how the Southern white attitude works to the detriment of labor in this border city. The A.F. of L. is directing the current drive to organize the 100 laundries in the city. Negroes constitute the majority of the workers, and yet there is not a single Negro organizer or official in the union. Moreover, the laundry drivers in the Truck Drivers’ Union will not support the inside laundry workers. As a result, only 42 laundries have been organized and the bulk of Negro laundry workers are not joining the union. Of course, some of this is due to sheer inertia more than anything else, inertia and fear.
Hotel Employees Organized
The Hotel and Restaurant Employees’ Association has 3,000 members of whom well over 600 are colored. It is an A.F. of L. outfit. While there are some Negroes on committees, there are no Negro officials or organizers. The Negro maids, who have a virtual monopoly in the city’s hotels, were wise enough to get through a clause safeguarding their position.
Of the 500 Negroes in the Local No. 603 Teamsters’ Union, most of them are moving van men. There are, however, about 20 Negro milkwagon drivers traveling routes for big dairy companies. There are no Negro officials or organizers in the union. One intelligent Negro member said, “Just dumb Irish Catholics run the outfit.”
The Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees has about 50 Negro members, all car cleaners. It is said that Negroes are being gradually squeezed out of this work.
There are reported to be many Negroes in the A.F. of L. Cleaners’ and Dyers’ Union.
The Textile Workers’ Organizing Committee has been very active in St. Louis, but there are few Negroes in the industry. In one plant, the Burkhardt Manufacturing Company, they are credited by observers with having done a “phenomoneal thing.” This company manufactures auto seat covers and employs 300 workers, half of them Negroes. Race relations were very bad there. The T.W.O.C. organized the plant, the officials of the local are equally divided between the races and race relations have improved greatly. When the company recently fired a Negro checker, the whole working force, white and black, pulled a 90-minute strike of protest, which led to the man’s reinstatement, it is said.
The workers in garages and auto agencies have been organized by the CIO and there are about 100 Negroes in the union. The A.F. of L. has the repair shops.
Longshoremen Boost Wages
The International Longshoremen’s Association has two locals, No. 1400 in St. Louis, of which Frank Hargraves is president, and No. 1401 in E. St. Louis, of which Jones is president. The membership of the two locals is entirely Negro and numbers around 250. Mr. Hargraves is special organizer for the I.L.A.
These workers were formerly getting about 25₵ an hour and often had to borrow from the commissary, to say nothing of enduring “lay time.” They pulled several successful strikes and today they are getting 50₵ an hour.
There are two rival unions of shoe workers, A.F. of L. and CIO. One factory has about 100 colored workers, but Negroes in the industry are mostly janitors and laborers. Few are as yet in either union.
The A.F. of L. tobacco workers union has about 50 per cent Negroes. There are a large number of Negro women in this industry but they are said to be indifferent to labor organization.
A drive is on to organize city and government employees in whose ranks there are many Negroes including 500 employed by the Board of Education. But as elsewhere this type of Negro seems timorous and ultra-conservative as a result of his “education.”
Negro Heads Building Service Group
The Building Service Employees Union is headed by Mr. Messingale, a colored man. A drive is in progress to organize the many Negro elevator operators, porters and maids in department stores. A union official declared that “The Negro is becoming more labor conscious and tends to react favorably.” This union, which is 50 per cent colored, is credited with having more contact with Negroes than any other in the city.
It is interesting to note that the Negro beauticians are trying to set up a separate (Jim Crow) union. It is equally significant that the strong local branch of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters refused to pay an assessment to fight the CIO.
I met W. Sentner, national representative of the United Electrical and Radio Workers of America, a CIO affiliate, which covers the plants manufacturing electrical and radio equipment. He reported 6,600 workers in the industry in St. Louis and 5,600 are in the union. Of this number approximately 400 are Negroes. The current drive got well under way in March, 1937.
Negroes Strike 100 Per Cent
When the workers struck at the Emerson Electric Co. on March 8, the 46 Negroes in the plant went out 100 per cent with the other workers. They are all in the union. Very few Negroes are in production, being mostly porters and dip room laborers. During the strike one Negro was on the negotiating committee of 11 members.
The Wagner Electric Co. has 3,110 employes, 10 per cent colored. A Negro member was recently elected to the executive committee of 17, and one is on the negotiating committee.
At the Century Electrical Co., a Negro, Lawrence Young, is one of the seven members of the union’s negotiating committee, although only four of the 50 Negroes in the plant are members of the union. Young has spoken over the radio more time for the union than any other member.
Meat packing is an important industry in this city and while many workers are oganized the CIO is preparing to launch a determined drive to get all of them.
The Hod Carriers and Building Laborers group is almost exclusively colored, but aside from that Negroes are virtually barred from the building trades. By some necromancy a Negro was recently permitted to join the plasterers’ union and everybody viewed it as a nine-day wonder.
After a long struggle with the reactionary A.F. of L. motion picture projectors union during which time Negro projectors were getting from $8.00 to $18.00 weekly, the 20 Negro operators were finally admitted to the union. They now earn from $32.00 to $55.00 a week.
Negro Workers Council Active
Many of the more enlightened Negroes of St. Louis like Sidney Williams, Industrial Secretary of the Urban League, and Arnold Walker, also of the league, have realized the necessity of labor education and the significance of the current labor drive, and have sought through the St. Louis Negro Labor committee to inform and guide the bewildered Negro workers. The committee has done excellent work in this direction. It is directed by a board of 15. The president is the well-known E. J. Bradley, 3rd vice president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
At CIO headquarters in the Title & Guarantee Building, I talked with Bert Taventer, regional director, who claimed 40,000 CIO members in the St. Louis district. As to the Negro’s reaction to the current labor drive, Mr. Taventer said, “We have found that they have been very reticent in coming out. We understand that that is because they have been bulldozed in the past. When we get them in the movement and they find that we don’t discriminate because of race or creed, they become enthusiastic supporters of the union. They make it a religion.”
Concerning the objection of some of the St. Louis white workers to associating with Negroes in the union halls, he said “Race has undoubtedly interfered with the organization work here. But our position is that if Negroes are good enough to work in the industry, then they are good enough to meet with for the common good.”
Mr. Taventer there reflected the spirit prevalent in all of the many CIO offices I have visited.
Pittsburgh Courier, September 11, 1937.
By George S. Schuyler
ATLANTA, Sept. 11—The almost hysterical vehemence with which the Southern press denounces the “Communistic” CIO, is a barometer of the rising fear of labor unionism and its more enlightened attitude toward union labor in Memphis, Birmingham and Atlanta. The Southern employers who have waxed sleek and fat off the proceeds of quasi-slave labor and lured numerous sweat shops from Northern industrial centers with the bait of colonial wage standards, grow jittery as both A.F. of L. and CIO invite the Negro to march with them toward industrial democracy. They know only too well that leveling up the wages of black and white workers, long fooled into fighting each other, marks the beginning of the end of the halcyon days of industrial feudalism in the land that still worships Lee. Already the Negroes they see, are restive. Memphis A.F. of L. Sees Handwriting
It is obvious that the Memphis A.F. of L. has seen the “Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin” of the new labor deal on the industrial wall, and is heeding the handwriting. With the town serving as a “refuge” for CIO organizers working to emancipate the wage slaves in Mississippi and with a CIO office scheduled to open this month with Attorney Robert Tillman of Mississippi in charge, the A.F. of L. hears the hound of competition baying on the heath and is tossing the burden of Negrophobia overboard.
When Frank Hargrave, International Longshoremen’s Association organizer, from St. Louis, visited the town about six weeks ago, organized a strike of the low-paid Negro stevedores who defied efforts of the bosses to prevent picketing, the A.F. of L. Memphis Trade and Labor Council came to the mens’ assistance and aided them in negotiations with the employers.
The men won their rights to organize, went back to work, their local No. 27 became affiliated with the Council and they now meet regularly in the Labor Temple where all the city’s organized workers meet.
Negotiations are now going on with reference to wages and hours.
Being young to the labor movement, most of these men are lacking in labor education and are said not to be paying dues or attending meetings as they should, but labor officials are optimistic about the future of this union.
Negroes “More Susceptible”
Up historic Beale Avenue, immortalized in the affable George W. Lee’s “Beale Street: Where the Blues Began,” I strolled early one morning to the imposing, castle-like Labor Temple on the corner of Lauderdale. There I interviewed President Ley G. Loring of the Memphis Trades and Labor Council who was most courteous and obliging.53
He declared that “In the last six months there have been more Negro workers susceptible to labor organization than ever before. They are beginning to feel the need of organization and we are beginning to feel the necessity of organizing them. We are just now getting an international organizer from the A.F. of L. to start our campaign.”
He boasted of the plans to celebrate the biggest labor day in the history of the South when Negro and white workers would parade together to demonstrate the new solidarity of labor in Memphis.
Negroes Head Unions
Mr. Edw. Smith, a veteran Negro laborite, is president and business agent of Local No. 52, International Hod Carriers and Building Laborers Union which has a membership of 200. This union now has a minimum wage of 62-1/2₵ an hour for an 8-hour day. A year ago the minimum scale was 50₵ an hour.
Back in 1934, the whites didn’t pay much attention to this union. “They are much more cordial now than ever before,” declared Mr. Smith. “Race relations have unquestionably improved in the labor movement here.” At one time, not far back, whites were accustomed to use the epithet “nigger” in union meetings. Mr. Smith and others protested against this practice and it has ended. This labor leader feels that “history is being made” in Memphis.
There are two locals of the longshoremen with a total membership of 300. All officers from president down are Negroes.
Local No. 427 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union is composed of some 20-odd colored girls who are pressers in a clothing factory.
Some “Mixed” Unions
There has as yet been no organization drive among building service employes or laundry workers. Local No. 521 of the cement finishers has 25 Negroes in a total of 60 members. There are about 25 Negroes in the 150 members of the bricklayers union, while 12 of the 50 organized plasterers are colored. There are two locals of carpenters, one is colored with about 30 members and the other whites with about 400.
The Coopers Union has 175 Negroes out of a total of 250 while the Firemen and Oilers group is entirely Negro with a Negro president.
The bricklayers meet separately according to “race.”
The Switchmens Union is mixed but Negroes predominate. Among the structural iron workers, there are a few Negroes as helpers, so-called. Efforts are being made to organize the Virginia Bridge and Iron Works where some Negroes are employed.
Last year a federal labor union was established at the American Finishing Co. with 500 members, of whom 250 are colored.
Concerning the painters, I learned that efforts were being made to organize a separate Negro local. Some Negroes want it but some do not. The whites are similarly divided.
Of the 16,000-odd organized workers in Memphis, more than 3,000 are Negroes.
Opposes Firestone Training Negroes
Indicative of the attitude which labor must overcome in Memphis, is the story told me about Firestone’s tire plant where both white and colored are employed. The company opened schools for members of both groups to prepare them for upper bracket jobs according to the story. When this news came to the attention of the Chamber of Commerce, a committee was delegated to take up the question with the company and voice the strenuous objection of the Chamber to Negroes being prepared for or assigned to upper bracket jobs.
At the McCollum & Robinson Mop Factory, the white workers refused to work in the same department with Negroes. When the white went on strike, the Negroes stayed in, joined the company union and refused to have anything to do with the labor union.
Such incidents reveal the distance that has yet to be traveled in Memphis. But there is no doubt that such attitudes are not so general as before and do not today represent the viewpoint of organized labor in the city. Quite likely they will almost disappear when the CIO begins to supply the competition which elsewhere has been like a breath of fresh air to the labor movement. Meantime, Memphis Negro workers are slowly awakening.
Negroes On Bargaining Boards In Birmingham
There is, of course, little of the NEW labor drive in Memphis as yet. Conditions in Atlanta are almost identical, so much so that it is scarcely necessary to dwell at length on them. There as in Memphis, Negroes dominate the building labor and are in a mixed plasterers union. Painters, bricklayers and carpenters, however, are in separate unions. Recently Frank R. Crosswaith, brilliant general organizer of the International Ladies Garments Workers Union, organized Local No. 207 in Atlanta, which has 300 Negro girls in it. Aside from this, the labor picture in Atlanta varies little from that in Memphis. But CIO organizers are now at work in the city and ere long it is probable a great deal will be heard from the capital of Georgia.
In contrast to Memphis and Atlanta, there has been much new labor activity in Birmingham, the Pittsburgh of the South. Not only have Negro workers joined the unions in great numbers but they have met with bosses’ representatives to negotiate contracts.
Many Negro Officers In Steel Unions
At the headquarters of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in the Steiner Building, I interviewed Thomas Pate, the field director, whom I found quite cordial and co-operative. Of the 32 steel lodges in the district, all except one have Negro members. In many of the lodges, Negroes predominate and several have Negro officers, among them a number of vice-presidents. In a number of lodges, I learned Negroes could have all of the offices from president down, but seemed to prefer to elect white men to the leading offices. Among the Negro organizers employed by the S.W.O.C., in the Birmingham district are Ed. Cox, A. G. Johnston, Rev. Alonzo Walker and James J. Israel. Mr. Pate told me the Negroes on the whole had responded as good as whites and sometimes better.
The S.W.O.C. has signed contracts with the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, of whose 10,000 workers, 55 per cent are Negroes. Approximately 40 per cent of the Negroes are in the union. It has also signed contracts with the Woodward Iron Co., and the Continental Gin Co., Unit Stove Co., McWain Pipe Shop, Birmingham Stove and Range Co., Virginia Bridge Co., and various scrap iron firms.
Labor Organization Lifts Wages
At the Continental Company the 340 Negroes are almost all union men. After a five-week strike they won raises of 11 cents an hour.
The Ensley SWOC Lodge, of which a Negro minister, the Rev. W. M. Hall, is vice-president, has a totaled membership of 1800 of whom half are Negroes. Union activities have boosted the wages from $2.68 a day to $3.60 a day.
The McWain Pipe Shop, with 400 workers, mostly Negroes, organized a lodge even before the SWOC came. Efforts to force them into the A.F. of L. failed. Jesse Gill, a core maker of eight years’ experience, said there were 275 Negroes and 100 whites in the McWain plant. The lodge has a colored vice-president and secretary, Mr. Gill told me the treatment of the men had vastly improved and the wages are much better as a result of the union. They used to work from dawn to dusk and were constantly cussed out by the foreman. That has been ended. Common labor which formerly received 30 cents an hour is now getting 40 cents.
Stage Five-Week Strike and Win
There are 450 employees at the plant of the Birmingham Stove and Range Company. Most of them are Negroes and all but two are in the union. Last winter they staged a five-week strike. Other lodges in the district sent food and money to help out, but singularly enough no white striker was given anything. It was explained that the whites had been getting better wages than the Negroes and consequently were in less need than their colored fellow workers. That seems to be a new high in solidarity.
Mr. Pate showed me some of the pay envelopes the men had received prior to the strike; 50 hours, $7.94; 60 hours, $8.86; 30 hours, $4.55; 27 hours, $3.02; 54 hours, $6.98. Other weekly salaries were: $10.93, $11.51 and $11.76 for a six-day, 54-hour week.
The strike won the men a general 20 per cent increase.
Mr. Pate deplored the fact that there were Negro moulders in the city getting $25 a week who should be getting the union scale of $8 a day, but who refused to join the union.
At the Virginia Bridge Company, with 349 workers, of whom only a seventh are members of the union, the few Negroes have been slow to join as, it would seem, have the whites.
Scrap Iron Workers Cut Hours
There are ten scrap iron yards in Birmingham and environs employing a total of some 400 men, mostly Negroes. Before the union came along they were getting $1.50 for a ten-hour day. Now they are getting $2 for an eight-hour day. In addition to winning recognition of their union, they have won seniority rights. Most significant of all, their contract calls for no cussing out of Negroes by their bosses. That alone would seem to be worth the union fee and dues.
At the Unit Stove plant, Negroes number 175 out of the 250 employees. All of them are in the union. Prior to the organization of the lodge, the minimum pay was 25 cents an hour. It is now 30 cents an hour, with 15 per cent bonus every three months.
“Welfare” Thwarts Unionization
At two of the plants where extensive “welfare” is furnished the workers, the SWOC has made no headway. These plants are the Stockham Pipe and Fittings Company, which hires 1300 men, mostly Negroes who get half of what white men get elsewhere, and the American Cast Iron Pipe Company of whose 1000 workers, 650 are Negroes.
Several Negro workers said the Negro welfare worker at the Stockham plant is more reactionary than his brother Congressman Mitchell of Illinois, which is certainly a grave charge. He has long been a bitter opponent of unions.54
The ACIPCO is one of the country’s outstanding examples of “employes ownership,” with welfare features difficult to find elsewhere. While all the facilities are strictly segregated, they appeared to be identical and adequate. A $100,000 dispensary has recently been completed with a staff of the finest physicians and dentists . . . (white, of course), obtainable in the city. Free hospitalization is given not only to employees, but to their families. There are three colored nurses, each supplied with a personal Ford touring car.
There is a well-stocked company store allegedly “cooperative” where the best quality goods are said to be sold to workers at lowest cost. All clerks are white, I noticed.
There are 53 company-owned houses renting from $9 to $15 monthly, and the company has a real estate agent to arrange home buying on terms for the workers.
“Welfare” But No Democracy
One is justified in dwelling somewhat at length on this company because it is unique. The plant was left by its founder to the workers in it, and every worker is a stockholder, and an equal one under the so-called Eagan plan. Almost all are industrial veterans, a large number having been working there for fifteen or twenty years. New men are on probation for six months until found “desirable” to receive benefits. Each man is insured for $500.
This is an apparently democratic arrangement, something new in American industry, until you examine it carefully. There are, as I have said, 650 Negroes out of 1,000 employees, yet the Negro workers, even though employed there for 25 years have no say whatever in the administration of the business built up by their brain and brawn.
There are three boards in the company. Two are white; the Board of Management, which is the highest, and the Board of Operatives, and one, the Colored Auxiliary. The Board of Operatives cooperates with the Board of Management in admiminstering affairs, but the colored board is only advisory, and the colored officers would not seem to possess any real power.
Thus, 350 whites with the higher paid jobs, run the plant, while 650 Negroes have no voice whatever. Which probably isn’t strange in Alabama.
With a minimum pay of 42 cents and a maximum of 58 cents an hour, it cannot be said that the Negro workers are growing rich under the Eagan plan, but they seem satisfied and have spurned all overtures of the SWOC organizers. The majority of the supervisory jobs are held by white men. Negroes are not employed in the moulding and machine shops, but are everywhere else except, of course, in the administrative offices. The mimeographing office, however, is run by Negroes.
Negro Workers Picket Lumber Company
At the CIO office on the seventh floor of the National Bank Building (reached via jim-crow elevator) N. B. Swick, field representative, boasted that the Alabama CIO leads the U.S. in activities. He told of the four-week strike of 37 Negro workers at the Grayson Lumber Company, and the manner in which they daily picketed the plant. He said, “They stacked up 1000 per cent.” It was the same, he reported, in the American Bakeries strike.
In nine out of ten cases, he said, a Negro is the vice-president of the union, and there are always several Negro officers. The CIO seems determined, according to its officials, to eliminate every possible trace of color discrimination. This is admittedly difficult when the vicious Alabama laws do not permit mixed racial meetings.
American Bakeries workers are 60 per cent Negro, Martin Biscuit, 85 per cent; Grayson Lumber, 98 per cent, and Nehi Bottling, 65 per cent. These figures indicate the importance of Negro labor in Birmingham.
Saw Mill Workers Respond 100 Per Cent
There are a number of saw mill and timber workers in and around the city and 75 per cent of them are Negroes. These men have responded 100 per cent to the union call and several Negroes are serving as officers of the union. The workers were formerly getting 14, 15 and 16 cents an hour, but a minimum base pay of 38 cents an hour has been established, regardless of color or race.
United Soft Drink and Bottling Workers’ Local No. 220 has a majority of Negro workers. The vice-president and most of the committeemen are Negroes.
A CIO official said: “These local unions here are really functioning.”
There are some Negroes in the unionized skilled crafts, but not very many. Here as elsewhere, the old spirit of race reactionism is said to dominate the thinking of craft union officials. No particular advances have been made in that direction. The United Mine Workers, with its large Negro membership, Negro officers and organizers, is flourishing.
“Most Negroes Want CIO”
According to young James J. Israel, who has been doing organizing work for the SWOC among Negroes for 9-1/2 months, “The majority of the Negroes really want the CIO.”
H. D. Coke, managing editor of the Birmingham World, who has done much to enlighten Negro workers, thinks “The CIO drive is teaching the Negroes in industry the value and necessity of cooperation and mass action. Its weakness here lies in the lack of trained organizers. I believe they shipped A. Q. Johnson away from here to Chattanooga recently, mainly because he insisted upon the same wage scale for whites and Negroes.”
In this connection, Mr. Coke cited the strike at the H. W. Smith foundry, which was finally settled after 45 days. The Negroes got a 5-cent increase while the whites got a 15-cent increase on hourly pay. Organizer Johnson, a Negro, protested against this and was promptly transferred.
Mr. Coke feels that the CIO has been lax in organization, and has failed to touch many plants as yet. “It needs a little more zip and life,” he asserted.
A Revolution Has Taken Place
After traveling 6,000 miles, visiting 35 cities in eleven states since July 4, I am convinced that a revolution has taken place the effects of which are bound to be far-reaching, not only in labor relations, but in race relations. For the first time in fifty years, Negroes have been invited to join with white workers on a plane of equality for better working conditions for both, and, in the main, they have responded admirably, considering some of their unfortunate experiences with reactionary unions in the past.
A year ago there were three million organized workers. Today there are over seven million. In every part of the country, Negroes have not only flocked to the unions, but, what is more important, they are sitting around the conference table with white workers and bosses, negotiating working and wage agreements involving millions of dollars. We are on the way to getting a new and important leadership concerned with the basic and fundamental things of life rather than the froth. This the Negro group needs badly.
Inasmuch as the group having the majority of the workers in a plant can legally represent, ALL the workers under the provisions of the Wagner Act, Negroes who refuse to join unions will find themselves represented, without any voice whatever, by the white workers. It is far better then, for them to join the union now so they WILL have some voice. Those that are looking to employers to mother them along will be cruelly disillusioned because the employers dare not now do the things they did just little more than a year ago. The Wagner Act forbids it.
New Labor Drive Spells Freedom
The CIO drive, and, to a much lesser extent, the A.F. of L. drive, points to a new freedom for Negro workers. Almost every one of the hundreds of new unions has paragraphs in its constitution guaranteeing no color discrimination or racial segregation in the administration of its affairs. They are leaning over backwards to get Negroes to attend meetings and assume office. This is a great opportunity for Negroes to improve race relations fundamentally and they should avail themselves of it more than they have.
Both the CIO and the A.F. of L. need to hire more trained Negro organizers and spend more money for educational work among Negroes. Both have lamentably failed to produce union literature adapted to organization work among Negroes and have criminally neglected to use the vast machinery of the Negro press which is read weekly by one quarter of the colored people in America. They must realize the danger to labor of an indifferent, ignorant or hostile Negro upper class and take immediate steps to counteract it by presenting the facts concerning the number of unionized Negroes, the number of Negro organizers and officials, the part Negroes are playing in negotiating contracts, news about interracial union gatherings, and generally do about a hundred times more than they have done to woo the indifferent or antagonistic Negro worker to their standards.
Negroes Key to Industrial Democracy
Both the CIO and the A.F. of L. must realize that the Negro worker in America is the key to industrial democracy. When he achieves a free labor status, all other workers will be emancipated. This is truer today than ever before because technological advance has completely undermined the exclusiveness of the skilled white workers who previously excluded or discriminated against Negro labor. Today, almost all the industrial processes can be performed by what was known years ago as unskilled labor, thanks to invention and industrial rationalization. This strengthens the position of the Negro worker, mainly “unskilled.”
Many of the more intelligent labor officials realize this, especially those who guide the destinies of the CIO. But all white workers must be brought to clearly understand the changes that have taken place and what is their significance socially, economically and racially.
Now that the drive is well under way and tens of thousands of Negroes have joined it, the CIO and A.F. of L. must solidify the position of labor by sincerely striving to break down industrial segregation in mills and factories. They strive to keep all obstacles from the path of the smart Negro who aspires to rise above the station of laborer or helper. This they can and must do if they expect to hold the Negro.
Need Negro Labor
Both the CIO and the A.F. of L. should immediately hire a competent Negro familiar with labor problems and with the peculiar problems of Negroes to advise them on race relations, educational work, publicity, and every means of cementing the bond between white and colored workers and eliminating any shadow of discrimination from the labor movement once and for all. Such an advisor should work as assiduously among white workers as among colored, and arrange to have a capable speaker at all union conventions, picnics and other gatherings, and generally to do all the things that are now crying to be done with nobody doing them.
Marvelous progress has been made in this new labor drive. Much greater progress can be made if the two major labor groups will not take the Negro for granted and will not forget that the 1937 Negro is no fool.
Pittsburgh Courier, September 18, 1937.
By Romare Bearden55
The vastness of American industrial enterprise is impressively realized in her steel areas. There is the tremendous steel province centering about Gary. Another is in the South with Birmingham as its heart. The last great district sprawls about Pittsburgh, extending eastward to Bethlehem, south through Wierton and Huntington, and west along Ohio’s Mahoning Valley.
With over a half million men employed in steel, it is natural that attempts would have been made to organize them. However, until recently the larger corporations have vigourously counteracted all attempts to bring the workers into the unions. In this the corporations were under the domination of men like Gary, Schwab and Carnegie. Gary openly stated that U.S. Steel would have no dealings with unions.56
Beginning with the Homestead strike of 1892, some of the bloodiest and most bitter industrial conflicts have occurred in the steel areas. Therefore, when John L. Lewis signed a contract on behalf of the CIO with Big Steel in March of 1936, he had smashed through a veritable fortress of reaction and intrenched capital. With the recognition of the CIO by the U.S. Steel Company and its subsidiaries, or what is commonly termed Big Steel, the CIO had organized 70 per cent of the steel industry. In accomplishing this, Lewis had the backing of such powerful unions as The Amalgamated Clothing Workers, his own United Mine Workers, and the newly organized United Auto Workers. All of these unions contributed to an organization fund for the Steel drive. It has been variously estimated that Lewis spent upwards of $75,000 a month in unionizing the steel workers. His success in organizing the steel workers, as well as other mass production industries, can be attributed mainly to his policy of industrial unionism. Previously, most of the organization done in steel was among the skilled workers who were brought together in different crafts of the trade. Machinists, electricians, millwrights, all had their own unions. Little attempt was made to bring together the thousands of unskilled laborers who comprised the bulk of the steel industry. There was little rapprochement between the skilled and unskilled workmen. They could never join the positive and united action. This was one of the causes of the failure of the great steel strike of 1919 when Foster tried to bring all the workers together. However, Lewis, with this resuscitated plan of industrial unionism, has organized everyone who works in the plants into one large federation. Especially is the industrial union advisable at this time, because with the increasing technological advances in the industry the skilled workman is being pinched harder and harder.
When Big Steel saw how well-knit their workmen were, they were forced to give in to the CIO’s demand for union recognition, increased wages, an eight-hour day, and time and a half for overtime. Big steel did not want a halt in its production. The steel industry has been on the upgrade since 1936. The American market has been good, and there has been a stream of foreign orders largely for the purpose of rearmament.
Flush with their initial success in Big Steel, the CIO rushed into the organization of the big independent mills. The six largest of these include nearly all the other men employed in steel. These companies are known as Little Steel, and include, The Youngstown Sheet and Tube, Jones & Laughlin, Republic Steel, the Bethlehem Steel Co., Weir’s National Steel Co., and Inland Steel. The workers at these companies went out on strike—with the exception of those employed at the Jones & Laughlin Mill (they signed a CIO agreement) and the workers at the Weirton National. But whereas Big Steel has met the union demands, Little Steel has fought the CIO with a ruthlessness for which the CIO was hardly prepared. The strikers were intimidated and beaten by company thugs, aeroplanes were used to fly food to the men who remained in the Republic Mill, vigilantes and other flag-waving organizations were formed in the Little Steel towns, back-to-work movements were initiated, and all this was accompanied by furious anti-CIO propaganda.
The strikes were broken to the extent that the mills have started working again. This does not mean that there is no hope for the CIO in Little Steel. The mills have been crippled. When a mill is shut down and the fires are allowed to cool, the insides of the furnaces often have to be ripped out and relined. The gauges in the rolling mills have to be reset, necessitating a large waste of steel. Higher wages are paid to the strike-breakers who are less efficient than the regular men. It is alleged that huge sums have been appropriated to bribe town officials and to pay the salaries of the Babbitts who headed the anti-union citizens’ Committees. The profits at Girdler’s Republic Mill were less by over $5,000,000 in the second quarter of 1937 than in the first quarter. Therefore, if the CIO can plug certain apparent weak spots in its setup, the chances are that Little Steel will be fully organized. Although most of the strikers have gradually gone back to the mills, a number are still in favor of unionism. But when the strikes began to drag out and the pay-checks were really missed, the men grew restless. They wilted under the pressure from home, the grocer, and the installment man. Couple this with the well-organized propaganda against the CIO and it is understandable why they were taken in by the back-to-work movements. If the CIO has the patience to continue working in the areas, will undertake to educate the men, and develop leaders from their numbers, Little Steel will be forced to recognize the union. Little Steel has become the Verdun in the conflict between labor and capital in the steel industry, and a victory for labor will be as vital as that battle was to the Allied forces.
With an understanding of the nature of the struggles in steel, we can turn our attention to the Negro worker. Previously, the Negro steel worker had been denied entrance to the unions. He was employed in the menial jobs, and the old Amalgamated was not interested in him or in any unskilled workman. But with the coming of the CIO and the active policy of industrial unionism, an earnest effort has been made to get the colored workers into the union. When Big Steel signed the CIO contract, most of the colored workers in U.S. Steel joined the union. However, they waited at first to see which way the cat jumped. At the Jones and Laughlin Mill the colored men were hesitant about wearing their union buttons until the agreement was actually signed. It is difficult to get accurate figures, but roughly 75,000 Negroes are employed in the steel industry. They have migrated to the steel areas from the South, have little education, and a great deal of their life centers around the church. In the larger cities they live in narrow, ancient, cobble-stoned alleyways, flanked on both sides with densely packed houses. In the smaller towns their houses cluster wearily along the railroad tracks or around the hulking mills.
In talking with many of the Negro steel men in the Pittsburgh area, the writer found a variance of opinions concerning the CIO. Most of the objections were unfounded and came out of a lack of understanding of the principles and operation of the union. However, a few of these adverse opinions might be stated. One man who was a chipper at the Allegheny Steel Co. said that when the company recognized the CIO his wages were raised from $.83 an hour to $1.03 an hour. A chipper is a man who works with an automatic hammer and drill and cuts out the imperfections in the steel. The man contended that the company has started “scarfing” a lot of its steel, which is a mechanical method that accomplished the same results as “chipping.” He feels that there will be less work in the future for the chippers. A number of the Negro workers denounced the fact that the more skilled men in some of the larger plants did not allow the Negro men to rest in certain shanties or use the best lavatories and showers, which they reserved for themselves. This, in spite of the fact that the companies had placed these conveniences in the mills for all the workers and did not intend any Jim Crowism. The men feel this is hardly fair treatment from fellow union workers. The more ambitious colored workers are angered because they are given the worst jobs with little chance for advancement. They want to work as electricians, millwrights, crane operators, and machinists. In answer to the objection that they might not be qualified for these jobs, they say that promising white workers are apprenticed to the skilled men until they can learn the craft. These Negro workers feel that the union should fight for the same opportunities for the colored men.
The writer talked with some of the white workers in the Pittsburgh district to learn their feelings towards the Negro workers and found that out of the struggles there is slowly growing a kindredship between the two groups. John Dutchman, a CIO director in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh told of how at the beginning of the drive he had to meet with a few colored workers in their homes at night, with the shades down. Later he spoke at their churches and organizations. Gradually he was able to break down their antipathy toward the union. Dutchman said: “It is difficult to organize the Negro workers, but once they are in the union they become good union men.”
In the Little Steel areas the Negro workers have been reluctant to join with the CIO. Here in these small towns the colored worker is in a position analagous to Mohammed’s coffin—“suspended between heaven and earth.” On one hand he is faced with the disrespect of organized labor if he refuses to join its ranks. And if he sides wholly with labor he must face the wrath of his employers and the fascist-minded vigilante groups. The whole pattern and background of his life tend to make him faithful to the employer. He is isolated in his social life. He is under the influence of inept and backward leaders. He thinks in terms of his stomach and pocket-book and does not understand the broader issues of the labor struggle. His feelings are typified in an experience the writer had with a colored steel worker in Warren. After a talk with the man on the street, the writer was invited home for dinner. The man said he had gone back to the mills after the back-to-work movement had started. “You know,” he said, “a man can’t stand to see his kids go hungry.” He was definitely interested in the CIO and listened closely during the meal to an explanation of the workings of the CIO and of industrial unionism. Finally he stopped chewing his food, and “Son,” he said, “what you say sounds pretty good. But what I go by is this. Here on my plate I got one chop. If I join the CIO can I get two chops?”
In Warren, Ohio, a town typical of the smaller steel communities, there is a real bitterness between the white and colored workers. A few instances might suffice. The writer went to the base headquarters of the CIO set up for the strike at Girdler’s Republic Mill in Warren. There the writer interviewed one of Clint Thomas’ assistants. This man formerly worked in the mill. He was discouraged over the actions of the Negro workers during the strike. He said that about 2,000 men were still out on strike and only ten of these were Negroes. In reply to the query of whether attempts had been made to organize the Negro men, the writer was informed that a colored organizer had been brought to the area and had tried unsuccessfully to get the Negro workers into the union. The colored workers had been promised that they would receive the same treatment in their particular job classifications as the whites. He said, “We feel here that the Negro worker has his place,” and named several of the ugly jobs usually given to the colored men. Then continuing, he said, “I wouldn’t care to work alongside of a Negro, or have a Negro as my foreman.”
Afterwards the writer talked to several of the white workers in front of the headquarters. All of them trenchantly denounced the Negro. In fact, quite a few colored men had been beaten. While talking to a group of the strikers, two colored men, dressed in mill clothes and carrying their lunch-buckets, passed on the opposite side of the street. One of the strikers, a tall, hard-featured fellow, drew a knife, held it up to the group and said in a long Southern drawl, “I bet if I stick one of them black bastards with this, he’ll howl.”
These feelings, harsh as they are, arise naturally from the conditions of the strike. The strikers hate all scabs, and here the Negroes are considered scabs. Possibly the CIO leadership could have affected a better understanding between these workers by a thorough educational program. As it was, it was easy for the colored workers in Warren to sense the hostile attitude towards them, even when they were first approached to join the union. Even the Negro men who stuck with the CIO seldom come to the headquarters except to get their supply of groceries from the commissary. The CIO cannot get the full support of the Negro workers in Little Steel by a “middle of the road” course. Instead, the Negro worker must be made to feel that he is welcomed as a significant part of the labor movement.
The colored workers in the Pennsylvania Iron & Steel Company at Tarentum, Pa., can be offered as evidence that the Negro worker will seek the union when opportunities for advancement are not denied him. When fully staffed, the company employs about 350 men, of whom nearly 250 are colored. Every man in the plant belongs to and enthusiastically supports the CIO. The president of the Local is a Negro, Hunter Howell. By their own ruling the local requires their dues to be paid a month in advance of the CIO requirement. Not only must a man belong to the CIO in order to work in the mill, but his dues must be paid up.
The mill is one of the few old “puddling mills” that are still operated. Most of these mills have been replaced by those mills using the blast and open-hearth furnaces. The major principles in the operation of the plant are not difficult for the layman to understand. Pig iron billets are heated in small furnaces by crews of two or three men under the charge of one man who is called a puddler. The iron is constantly turned by the men, who work before the withering heat of the furnaces with long iron rods. The white hot iron is worked until it is roughly the shape of a large ball. When the puddler feels that the iron is sufficiently heated, it is taken out of the furnaces with a big clamp. Then it is rushed along a stationary cable, dripping hot iron and slag all the while, until it is pushed into the rollers. The rollers are a series of cylinders in constant motion. When the iron strikes the rollers it is pressed out like biscuit dough. After its trip through the rollers, the iron is passed out into the yard in the desired shape. In this case, strips averaging eighteen feet in length, six inches in width, and half an inch in thickness were the result. When the strips are cooled they are sent to the finishing mill. Here the iron is reheated to rid it of imperfections and sent through another set of rollers. But, at this point, the iron is finished in long, round strips to be cut into bolt forms.
The company’s chief product is a bolt used in the linings of engines called the “Lewis Staybolt.” In the trade it is considered one of the finest products of its kind. This is very significant when it is considered that colored workers in the mill are employed in skilled capacities. There are colored rollers, puddlers, and millwrights. Joe Langston, the head roller, is a Negro.
The writer interviewed Mr. W. A. Hicks, the president of the mill, and his superintendent, Mr. John Davis. Mr. Hicks was well satisfied with his colored workers and found them equally efficient as the white workers. Mr. Hicks said that he did not practice racial discrimination in the mill, and that the colored workers could advance according to their abilities. When white workers applied for jobs they were not considered if they did not care to work with colored men.
In the plant, as well as on the outside, there is a fine relationship between the workers. They live near each other. Their children play together in a large ballfield back of the mill. The writer took some pictures of Howell, the president of the local, in the mill yard. After snapping several pictures, one of the white workmen came over and asked the writer to take his picture with Howell. When the picture was completed, the white worker said, “I wanted you to take my picture with Howell because he’s my best friend in the mill. And if I’m not his friend he hasn’t a friend in this mill.”
And finally, the picture of American life is changing. Along with his white brothers the Negro steel worker is being tested in the mighty cauldron of American life. The Negro leaders, as well as the leaders of labor, must spend time and patience in considering his problems. His own leaders from out of the ranks must be developed. The outworn patterns of his thinking must be recreated. If this is done, the Negro steel-worker will be moulded into a powerful unit in the ranks of organized labor.
Opportunity, 15 (December, 1937): 362–65, 380.
By Mollie V. Lewis
The Crisis, 45 (February, 1938): 54.
45. NOEL R. BEDDOW TO MR. CHARLES E. FELL, NOVEMBER 29, 193857
The criticism of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare by Mrs. Sharp’s committee and the Real Estate Board just goes beyond anything heretofore known in the South. According to these so–called great Democrats it is a crime even to confer with negroes or union labor or, indeed, anyone or anything that may in any way call attention to conditions in the South that are so bad that they smell to high Heaven.
In fact, according to these high lights, intellectual monstrosities, exalted brain trusters, there is nothing wrong anywhere in the South. The Southern workers are so contented, the share cropper’s life is a bed of roses, their life is one of supreme bliss and would continue to be so if it were not for Reds and Communists who have inveigled and persuaded them into conferring in Birmingham. So it is that Dr. Graham, Dr. Nixon, Dr. Mason and Mrs. Louise Charlton, Congressman Patrick, in fact any and everybody who does not subscribe to their cruel philosophy of hunger, destitution, misery and crime are Reds and Communists and have sinister motives when they confer with these alleged happy, but truly unhappy people.58
Can you beat it? Can you even approximate the ostrich-like attitude of these would-be saviors and, finally, what sinister influence prompts this spasmodic outburst?
According to these high lights, only Real Estate Boards can confer, only bankers in Houston can confer, only industrialists in Nashville can confer, only Liberty Leaguers in Washington can confer. No sinister motives there. Oh no! No investigation as to who called the conference or who paid the bills, but when suffering masses represented by college presidents, life long labor leaders and understanding leaders of the Negro race confer, then and only then do sinister influences raise their unholy heads? Oh yeah?59
So the Dies Committee has been invited to investigate those sponsoring the conference. Labor welcomes this if the Dies Committee will come in, without bias and prejudice, and conduct a thorough and complete investigation, without the interference or assistance of Mrs. Sharp’s committee, the Real Estate Board or the Better Birmingham Committee because if they interfere or participate, the time and money would be worse than wasted if the true facts are to be known.60
Communism—apparently those who mouth the word with such freedom and ease do not know the difference between Communism and rheumatism. They know they have an ache or pain somewhere so they yell, Communism. Certainly Labor is not in favor of Communism. Communism means the end of liberty, freedom, organizations whether in churches, lodges or labor. Of course Labor is not Communistic. It could not be communistic and believe in God, a democratic form of government, and Labor does believe in God, a democratic form of government, liberty, the marriage vows, free speech and peaceful public assembly. No, Labor is not communistic. It is merely seeking those rights guaranteed it under the self-same Constitution that business resorts to so frequently to set aside legitimate legislation passed by those seeking the benefits guaranteed them by this Constitution under which we all live but which is often interpreted so unjustly.
Equality—the only equality labor is seeking in the South is the equality of wages and working conditions. The Negro worker certainly is not seeking any social equality. He has his churches, his schools, his teachers and if he is a true, upright and honest Negro, he should be an honor to himself and his race. There is no question of social equality in labor organizations. Workers meet in the same hall, the white man sitting on one side and the colored man sitting on the other to discuss their mutual problems of bread and meat. When these discussions are ended they depart to their humble homes in order to secure much needed rest that they might enter the mills and factories to make another day. So, again, these Liberty Leaguers and their cohorts who are crying race equality are wrong. There is no race equality even among their own organizations.
Very truly yours,
Noel R. Beddow
Philip Taft Research Notes, Birmingham Public Library Archives, Birmingham, Alabama.
RESOLUTION No. 38
Federal Anti-Lynching Legislation
A resolution on this subject was presented by Lodge No. 1531.
Your committee recommends the adoption of the following substitute resolution:
Whereas, (1) A bill was introduced at the last session of Congress intended to eliminate lynching and pave the way for extending the benefits of the New Deal and democracy to millions of Negro workers and underprivileged white workers; and
(2) Such anti-lynching legislation passed by Congress would help the free organization of labor; now, therefore, be it Resolved, (1) That this convention endorses the principle of Federal anti-lynching legislation; and
(2) That the Executive Officers of the SWOC be instructed to work for the passage of an Anti-Lynching Bill in the present session of Congress.
A motion was made and seconded to adopt the substitute resolution offered by the committee.
Delegate Spillers, Lodge 1014: I fully agree with this resolution. I also would like to ask, Mr. Chairman, that a copy of this resolution and also the resolution dealing with poll tax in the South be sent to our Senators and Congressmen, especially Senator Barkley, of the state of Kentucky, and also that gigantic Senator from the state of Texas, Mr. Martin Dies.
Delegate Cotten, Lodge 1066: I would like to make this recommendation to the Steel Workers Organizing Committee Executive Board, that all friendly Negro organizations they can reach and have contact with be furnished with a copy of this resolution, so that they may see the position the Steel Workers Organizing Committee has taken upon the question of lynching.
Chairman Murray: I might say for the information of the delegates that the officers of the organization, upon the passage of this part of the committee’s report, intend to forward a copy of your action to each member of the Federal Congress, in both the Upper and Lower houses.
We will also be pleased to send it to all other organizations throughout the country who are interested in the promotion of this cause and the passage of this legislation. That is our purpose, of course.
Delegate Wilson, Lodge 1961: I do not look upon that bill solely as a race bill. The thugs paid by the bigger companies throughout the United States ride up and down the streets slugging workers throughout this whole CIO drive. I think it is a good resolution, and we ought to go back and work and send telegrams, just like we did on this other resolution.
The motion to adopt Resolution No. 38 was carried by unanimous vote. . . .
RESOLUTION NO. 42
Unity of Negro and White Workers
The committee recommends the adoption of the following substitute resolution:
Whereas, Employers constantly seek to split one group of workers from another and thus to deprive them of their full economic strength, by arousing prejudices based on race, creed, color or nationality, and one of the most frequent weapons used by employers to accomplish this end is to create false conflicts between Negro and white workers; now, therefore, be it
Resolved, That the SWOC hereby pledges itself to uncompromising opposition to any form of discrimination, whether political or economic, based upon race, color, creed or nationality.
A motion was made and seconded to adopt the substitute offered by the committee.
Chairman Murray: That is one of the age-old fundamentals of this organization, that there be no discrimination exercised against any individual, regardless of race, creed, color or nationality—a mighty fine structure upon which to build a great union.
Delegate Balint, Lodge 1666: I believe there should be a statement made in the resolution concerning political discrimination in the South.
Director Mitch: Several resolutions have been passed dealing primarily with problems that affect all of us, but particularly the South. This one question is more acute in the South than in any other part of our nation. The question of Negro and white workers meeting together and considering their common problems has been one of the real obstacles thrown in the way of organized labor in the South.
We have met that situation and I can say for the colored workers that I think generally they understand that our organization is trying to provide equal rights for them economically, and they have adhered accordingly. We know that city ordinances have been passed in practically all of the industrial sections prohibiting the colored workers and white workers from meeting in the same hall. Our meetings have been broken up, particularly in Gadsden, Alabama, where the Republic Steel Corporation is in control and associated with other industries who have carried out the program of busting the organization of the workers.
I refer particularly to the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. In every instance where arrests have been made they refuse to prosecute. They simply let them out on their own recognizance, and on appearance before the court, the matter is dismissed. We have no opportunity to test the constitutionality of these various ordinances, and hence they are only used for the purpose for which they were enacted, and that is to intimidate the workers, to prevent them from meeting for the purpose of perfecting their organization.
It has affected us in many ways. The various state laws, antiquated state laws that were put on the books at a time when organized labor did not know what was going on, are still on the statute books, all of the anti-laws and all of the weak laws. For instance, the Workmen’s Compensation Laws in the various Southern states are particularly weak compared with any of the other industrial states of the nation. The unemployment compensation law in the South is particularly weak, and in Alabama our own law was recently amended, where the interpretation of a labor dispute was written into the law, and it will forever prohibit anyone from drawing unemployment compensation if they even think about stopping work.
This question has been a real one as far as my activities in the South have been concerned, but I may say to you that as a general rule we have overcome most of the real opposition, because the workers do meet together and consider their common problems. They have organizations wherein some of them are not permitted to meet, and some of them are not even permitted membership.
The American Federation of Labor, with its high officials, met in the city of Atlanta recently, and there they made a pronouncement that they were again going to organize the South. They make that statement periodically, but the big thing they tried to emphasize that they were going to do, was that they were appealing to the colored workers, and I say to you frankly, when I was President of the Alabama State Federation of Labor, twenty-one Negroes came to my office and wanted me to take up the matter of getting a charter for them, because they had been deprived of membership in the regular carpenters’ union in that city. I sent in the charter fee and all the necessary information to the Carpenters’ headquarters at Indianapolis, and they replied acknowledging receipt of the charter fee and all other information and said that the matter would be handled in due form. About a month later they received a letter returning the charter fee and saying that an investigation had been made, and under the circumstances they felt it was inadvisable to issue the charter as requested.
The point is that many labor organizations, particularly those affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, will not permit Negroes to hold membership. The Negro workers understand that. They also understand that when Bill Green and some of his associates make an appeal to the Negro workers to join the American Federation of Labor, when they were asked why it was that the A.F. of L. did not make provision to take care of the membership of the colored workers, they were unable to reply, because Bill Green would then have to say the same thing he usually says—“I have no authority.” This is what he said when I went over the heads of the representatives of the Carpenters’ Union to him, at the request of the Negro carpenters in Birmingham who wanted to organize.
There is a great deal that could be said about the antiquated laws and the denial of the right of franchise not only to the Negroes but to the white workers as well, because of the cumulative poll tax laws in the state of Alabama. Thousands of eligible age who would have the right to vote in other states are deprived of that right in Alabama, because of the accumulation in poll tax that has gone on for years, and they cannot get enough money ahead to pay their poll tax. Less than 20 per cent of the voters of eligible age do vote in Alabama, and that is typical of the other Southern states.
This problem is a real problem in the South. We had hoped that this convention would be meeting in Birmingham, but because of some circumstances that arose we thought it was advisable not to hold the convention in Birmingham.
This is one of the problems that we had in our minds because of some of the things that came up recently. I know you all have these problems to a certain degree, but it means so much to us in the South. I say to you frankly we are overcoming these problems, we are overcoming this traditional prejudice that has grown up and has continued ever since the civil war between the states. Thank God, as far as labor organizations are concerned the Negroes know where they belong, they are really coming into the various CIO organizations. They want to come in and we want them in, because they are doing everything possible to elevate their race.
Delegate Prebeg, Lodge 1014: This is the foundation of the resolution which we had in our policy before. This is something like the constitution of our United States, the constitution which gives to all American citizens in the United States a country that was built of all kinds of nations. This resolution covers all the laborers, regardless of creed or color or nationality, and this is the very foundation we must put in force when we go home, we must do this through our lodges and spread this news among all the workers. If we want a 100 per cent labor organization, from the stewards in our lodges to the chairman and directors of the Executive Board, if we want them to enforce and believe what they preach, we will succeed and have a 100 per cent Union in the United States.
Delegate Wilson, Lodge 1961: I just want to say a few words and tell the brothers how we have overcome the race situation in our little plant. I am elected a delegate here out of my plant for the majority of the members. We have whites and Negroes, and we do not know what color each one is outside of our plant. When a brother is sick, regardless of race, creed or color, if he is financially disabled we meet him.
Gentlemen, I want to say that I was elected by the solid vote of our local union, not by the majority.
The colored man sought to win his freedom, and you can easily draw the colored man into our organization, where they all belong. In the South you have a problem, but that problem consists of a little bit more than the Negro membership. You have to offer them jobs on your committees and instruct them how to handle them. In some sections the Negro has been dominated so long that he is bound to be unfamiliar with the way of doing things. So the officers will encourage those boys by elevating a few of them to stewardships and jobs of that kind, and you will find your job much easier.
Delegate Walker, Lodge 1102: In respect to the representative from Alabama, I heard him make the statement that the Negro knows his place. I am not going to raise any question about that, unless he is willing to voluntarily advance the answer, but we as Negroes hear that so much, that the Negro knows his place. I don’t say this as a matter of insinuation or insult, because I believe he is all right, at least I am advancing that thought, anyway.
But we want to clear up these things. We don’t want to have these things happen in the CIO, infringements and intimidations. We frequently hear the remark yet, even among the reactionary forces, that the Negro knows his place. Here is one thing that we want to understand and we want to advance this information to every CIO member here, be he black or white, male or female, regardless of who they are, even to their religious denominations, that so far as the Negro’s place is concerned he is just like anybody else, he is a man created in this world by God, and God has placed us here as human beings, irrespective of nationality, race, creed or color.
I thought once I was going to be elected a delegate to the Alabama convention. I didn’t want to go very much because I knew where it was going to be held, but when the Lodge said they were going to elect me down there I said that was all right. I said, “If the CIO sits in Alabama and you send me as a delegate I am going, because I am a man and expect to take my place as a man wherever I go.”
As for the Negro’s intelligence, certainly we haven’t had the chance in the United States of America for educational advancement that the white people had had, but we do have just as intelligent Negroes in the United States as there are anywhere in the world.
Getting back to the resolution, the resolution refers to any form of discrimination, whether political or economic, and that resolution should be couched in these words, “His full rights,” regardless of what they are. If this country goes into war are you going to segregate the Negro from his white brother? You didn’t do it in France.
I say, let the CIO take their stand and let the white and Negro brothers from the South fight this out as best they can, but we up here, let’s give them their full rights.
Director Mitch: I don’t know, but it seems to me that the delegate who just spoke certainly did not understand what I said. After I explained that the American Federation of Labor would not take Negroes into membership and said that the CIO wants them as members, I then said that the Negroes recognized their place and were coming into the CIO. That is what I meant, that they felt their place was in the CIO.
As far as doing something for the Negro is concerned, I think I can answer that, or the Negroes of Alabama can answer it as to what the CIO, through the United Mine Workers and the Steel Workers particularly have done for the Negro in the South.
Not to take up any further time on it, let me say the misconstruction has always been that the Negro is advocating social equality. We know that is a lie put out for the purpose of further dividing our forces. We know all the Negro wants is economic and industrial equality.
Delegate Brown, Lodge 2110: Mr. Chairman, I had not intended to say anything on this, in view of the fact that I was out on committee work and was busy during the time the resolution was read. I came in in time to get on the tail end, and I want to say that this racial prejudice not only exists in Alabama, but it also exists in the East, in the West, in the North, and in the South, throughout the length and breadth of the United States of America, and we cannot solve our vexing problems except we take the bull by the horns.
I happen to occupy the position as presiding officer in my local Lodge, vice-president and delegate to this convention, and I have the same problems that are in Alabama in Jersey now. I hear it said, “I would join the organization, but you have a Negro presiding officer there.” They stay out, they haven’t backbone enough to come into the organization, because of the blackness of my skin they stay out, and I say it is because of ignorance and superstition that they look with suspicion upon the Negro.
God made all men to dwell upon the face of the whole earth. I don’t believe any intelligent Negro is seeking social equality, but I am here to tell you I want all the educational and industrial and political equality I can get, and if you give the Negro an opportunity he will do as the white man has done. He will prove that he is equal to any other man that lives. I tell you I am willing to live for the CIO and I am willing to fight and die for those principles.
Executive Director Beddow, Southern Region: Mr. Chairman and delegates, I had not intended to say anything on this most important resolution, but my good friend and colleague, William Mitch, from the state of Indiana, stated in his talk that in the South as in the North and the East and the West the Negro knows his place. He does, and he is a poor man of any race if he does not know his place. He knows that he is working side by side with the white man in the mills, and even though God Almighty made him black as charcoal, if he is a good, honest American citizen, he ought to be proud that he is a Negro.61
The Negro knows his place in our organization, and I am telling you now that in the Deep South it is side by side of me and Bill Mitch in Alabama and Tennessee and Georgia.
You heard the quartette sing here. They came from Bessemer, Alabama, only twelve miles from the city of Birmingham. The president of that organization is a man whom God Almighty chose to make black, and he is proud of it. He sits over there now, and so I repeat what Brother Bill Mitch said—the Negro, the white man, the Indians, the Chinamen, any man who comes into this organization knows his place, and it is to take the rightful place that he can and does acquire in the organization.
We have been fighting the workingmen’s battles in the South. Brother Mitch told you people that in Gadsden, just a few nights ago—that is Tom Girdler’s place—and I am going to confess something now, I used to be a little bit wild, but I am living a better life because Tom Girdler can’t go to Heaven and I’m not going to Hell with him. There is no room for both of us down there. It would indeed be a hell of place if we both got down there.
We went to Gadsden. We have a Lodge started in Gadsden, and the police in Gadsden raided that Lodge and arrested twenty-nine men. Why? Because there were three colored men in it. Brother Will Watts, one of the organizers, called me up and he was so nervous that his heart sounded like a jackass kicking a tin can, even over the telephone. He said, “Mr. Beddow, what are you going to do about it?” I said, “Sign their bonds, and if you haven’t got it, put it up in some way and I will get them out, I will be there tomorrow.” I went over to Gadsden the next morning and sat down with George Rains, the city attorney, and I said, “Will you accommodate me?” He said, “In what way?” I said, “Convict one of these men. I want to show you how lousy your laws are in Alabama. I want to take it to the Supreme Court of the United States, and we will advertise Gadsden to the world for what it is.”
We went up to the hearing and we took a stenographer. She sat by the judge and he was so nervous he could not even conduct his case properly. Mr. Cowherd and I were acting as attorneys. The judge said, “We are going to call on one of the cases and let them represent all of them.” I said, “Oh, no, you’re not, we are going to try them one at a time.” He said, “If we acquit one of them will it be all right?” I said, “Yes.”
To make a long story short, they acquitted one of these men and we left the police court. I made the announcement that we were going to hold a meeting, and we took sixty black men and white men and we held a meeting.
We still believe in God Almighty in the South, and whenever you kneel down in prayer and pray, “Our Father, which are in heaven,” you don’t say the black man’s Father or the white man’s Father—he is the Father of us all.
I make these remarks in amplification of what Brother Bill Mitch said. The black man knows his place. There is only one place for him in the United States, and that is in the CIO where we can help him and take them on to where they ought to be.
Delegate Freeman, Lodge 2176: I would like to back up what Brother Beddow said. It is another hell hole, it is another Harlan County, Kentucky. I was one of the twenty-nine men arrested in that place and we have some good colored men in our organization, as good as there are anywhere. If every man in all the locals all over the country would work as hard as the organizers, it wouldn’t take so long to get this CIO organization everywhere. The CIO has done more for the country in the last three or four years than the American Federation of Labor has done for it in the last sixty years. I am awfully proud of it.
A motion to close debate was carried.
The motion to adopt substitute Resolution No. 42 was carried by unanimous rising vote.
Proceedings of the Second International Wage and Policy Convention of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, Chicago, May 14–17, 1940, pp. 182, 184–89.
All throughout the towns of Penna. wherever there are steel mills, the population is in motion to unionize the steel industry under the leadership of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC). Never before was the opportunity as great for the colored people to join the union which insures for Industrial Organization (CIO) which is determined to march forward to organize the unorganized in the mass production industries. Contrary to the old time-worn policy of some labor leaders, the CIO firmly takes the stand to organize all the workers regardless of race, creed and color.
What does this mean to the colored people? This organization drive means the securing of better wages, shorter hours, better conditions on the job and for the home. It means the elimination of those barriers which formerly spelled discrimination to the colored worker in steel. It means more adequate education for our children and higher living standards.
IN THE UNION THERE IS STRENGTH!
To achieve this, we colored workers must join hands with our white brothers and sisters, marching shoulder to shoulder, to abolish company unionism and to establish an organization of our own which shall deliver us from the clutches of the steel barons.
The Labor Committee of the National Negro Congress pledges its full support in this drive to organize the steel industry. We urge all organizations of the colored people, churches, lodges, fraternal orders, civic groups and so forth, to support this drive. We appeal to all colored workers in the steel mills to join the union. Only a powerful trade union movement can give us better economic security and liberate us from the shackles of company union slavery.
Visit the SWOC headquarters and get literature. Invite SWOC speakers to your meetings and organizations to further explain the great importance of organizing the steel industry.
Issued By The Labor Committee
National Negro Congress
1605 Catherine St.—YWCA.
Flier in possession of the Editors.
By Phillip Bonosky
When Ben Careathers boarded a bus to take him to Ambridge, a town near Aliquippa, one morning in ’36, he was not traveling blind nor really alone; the way led like a living chain from comrade to comrade. For in the Negro section of Ambridge, call Plan 11, there was a man waiting for him; it was at his door that Ben knocked and entered that evening.
They waited inside until darkness arrived. The area was saturated with spies and deputies, company stool pigeons; eyes and ears bought and paid for. Darkness was the other, third comrade they were waiting for; and when it arrived, they went with it the long way round into Aliquippa—city under siege. Again, hand led him to hand, workingman’s hand; a door opened, and a comrade pressed him in.
The day before he had met in the SWOC office in Pittsburgh with Philip Murray and Clint Golden, in charge of organizing steel in Pittsburgh. Murray had looked keenly at him and asked him one direct question: “Will your politics interfere with organizing the workers?”
Those hands that had reached out through the darkness to take him were his politics. The blunt, smog-stained hills surrounding Pittsburgh and looking down on the booming mills whose fire consumed the sky—this too, was in his politics. The men rushing from those dark mills, as though from prison, coughing up bitter smoke—these were his politics most of all!
What he had learned in struggle had brought him to Communism; and if his life meant anything at all, it meant, it had to mean one thing above all this moment, as he sat in the kitchen of a Negro comrade’s house, pondering his next step; those steel-workers sleeping now in beds for fear and distrust were waiting for him. They could not know that he was there, in this kitchen, listening to the tin clock; still they were waiting.
Dawn was gray. Smog hovered over the town like a dark lid. He could taste it, that bituminous sweet taste, with bitter steel mixed; he could feel that jagged, stained air go down into his lungs. He coughed to clear his throat, feeling his lungs good and solid.
He made his way to a corner saloon, which swept him in with its malty breath of beer. Negro workers were lined up along the damp bar; few were drinking. Money was scarce in this year of the depression.
He took up the traditional stance at the bar, one foot raised on the brass rail, the spittoon within easy range, and ordered a bottle of Iron City beer. He poured himself a foaming glass, drank, examining the men over the yellow rim.
They were steel workers, and their talk was steel talk—his talk. Those faces were the faces of his memories, of his everyday struggle, his own face, in fact, reflected like an endless mirror down the bar.
The man he picked out to open up a conversation with was a youngish worker whose face had given him what he wanted. “Have a drink?” he said, nodding to the bottle. The other turned to look at him; their eyes met steadily for a moment, and he made a half-salute and poured himself a glass.
Ben watched it go down, and then asked casually, “How are things here?”
Ben chewed on this. “Suppose a guy wanted to get a job here?” he said. “How’d he go about getting one?”
“Get a job?” The other shook his head. “They ain’t hiring. But if they were hiring, you couldn’t get nothing but open hearth or blast furnace. . . .”
Ben understood what he meant by you, so he nodded slowly.
“But, look here, come over and talk to my friends,” the other said. “They’ll give you the real low-down.” And he took Ben down to the other end of the bar. Then, before he could do anything about, the one thing happened that he had been in a sweat about; somebody recognized him!
“Why, Ben Careathers!” the voice boomed out in the deputy-crawling town. “What are you doing down here? I’ll be damned!”
“You sure you know me?” Ben asked.
Know you! Why, weren’t you fighting for those Scottsboro boys? I heard you speak for them!”
He shook hands all around, and when the silence developed and he felt their eyes on him, he took a breath and said: “Well, friends, I’ll give the story to you straight. I’m here from the Steel Workers Organizing Committee of the CIO. I’m trying to set up a union in this town.”
His friend broke into laughter. “Man,” he cried, “why didn’t you say so at first?”
Ben smiled. But his friend continued studying him, puzzling something out, his face in a frown. Finally he said: “I just want to ask you one thing.” Ben invited him to ask. “Tell me straight now; is the Communist Party conducting this drive?”
“No,” Ben said slowly, “not exactly. It’s interested in organizing steelworkers in the CIO though.”
“But the Communist Party says it’s Okay?”
“Oh, yes,” Ben replied.
“Then I’ll join! he cried, slapping down his flat hand on the bar. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have confidence in it. If the Party says so, I know it’s going to be all right. The Amalgamated is Jim Crow; but now I swear the CIO isn’t going to have any ‘for whites only.’”
Scottsboro had led to Aliquippa; struggle was a phoenix constantly renewing itself, endlessly reborn.
Like good news he was taken from house to house, and he talked to groups of four and five, behind closed windows, drawn blinds, locked doors; whites came, too; and slowly Aliquippa, surrounded by terror, itself became surrounded by workers. . . .
Two weeks after the first discussion in the SWOC office, Ben walked into Clint Golden’s office and poured out a pile of application cards on his desk.
Golden looked startled.
“Where’d you get these?” he cried.
“You and Murray sent me to Aliquippa, didn’t you? That’s where I got them.”
“And the initiation fees?”
Ben made another green pile.
“Wait a minute,” Golden cried. “I got to get Phil to see this!”
In a moment he was back with Murray, pointing to the piles on his desk. “Ben,” he directed, “just tell Phil how you did it!”
He tried to tell Phil Murray “how he did it,” but Murray never fully understood.
The fact that he was a Communist was key. Murray tacitly conceded this by appointing men like Gus Hall, Ben Careathers and other Communists on his organizing staff. Murray had asked Ben whether being a Communist would interfere with his organizing the workers. Ben could have told him that being a Communist interfered with nothing whatsoever except capitalism, starvation, disunity, the open shop in the steel industry.
It had started far earlier than two weeks ago, or even months ago when John L. Lewis was thrown out of the A.F. of L. and launched the CIO, and the Party had mobilized its membership as an army of “volunteer organizers,” of which Ben had been one, bringing hundreds of workers into the CIO. It had started in a log cabin outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee, when a Negro youth of fourteen had run away from starvation on a sharecropper’s patch and struck out on his own. It had started perhaps when Ed Johnson was lynched for “rape,” and his body twirled from a rope tied to the Tennessee River bridge, while thousands stood on the bank and gaped.
Part of the beginning lay in his struggle to obtain for himself the elementary tools of learning, literacy. At eighteen he couldn’t read or write. Somehow the sovereign state of Tennessee had overlooked the Careathers’ share-cropping patch, and left it unsullied by learning. It was not provided in the scheme of things for Negro children to become scientists, writers, musicians, artists.
He followed Bill Holt, a fifteen-year-old Negro high school student, who worked in the same shop with him, around the shop copying down the numbers he marked on furniture. Numbers weren’t so hard, and he could get away with it; but one day he received a letter from his sweetheart, Lela, and he stood there helplessly staring down at the mysterious words. Finally he picked out a word at random and asked Bill Holt to tell what it was, pretending it was too “big” for him. The whole letter was too “big” for him, actually, and he turned it over at last to Holt who read it to him, and then tactfully suggested that Ben take lessons from him so that he could learn to read “better.” So he studied his ABC’s!
But once he had learned to read, he began to read the print off the paper. He read now with a hunger that only the starved know. He read on his way to work; on the streetcar coming back home; he read as he ate, and read as he ran. He resented the time wasted in sleep, and propped himself up to the light at night, with the book swaying in his hand, until he collapsed out of sheer exhauston. He read Carter Woodson and W. E. B. Du Bois, Benjamin Brawley, Kelly Miller. He joined Toussaint L’Ouverture in his struggle for Haitian freedom against Napoleon, as P. G. Steward described in his book. . . .
All the time he was seeking for the answer to the question which life posed in such gigantic terms with which every Negro in one way or another grappled all his life long. For a Negro there could be no peace, no sunny acceptance of things as-they-are no matter how stubborn one shut one’s eyes.
This was no overnight revelation.
He had been working as an upholsterer for Mister Balfour (Mister Balfour; but Mister Balfour’s boy called his father, Spencer) 66 hours a week for $7.50.
Balfour’s assistant, Jim, said to him one day: “Ben, take these chairs to the corner of Fourteenth and Elm.”
“Put the number down,” Ben said.
“Just take them over to Fourteenth and Elm,” he repeated.
Ben picked the heavy chairs up and lugged them to Fourteenth and Elm, thinking there must be only one building there; but there were three and a vacant lot. He brought the chairs back.
“Jim,” he said, “I can’t find the place. Where is it exactly?”
Jim called over another man.
“Covey,” he said, “tell Ben here where I want these chairs delivered.”
“Fourteenth and Elm,” Covey replied.
“On the corner?” Ben asked. Or fourteenth or on Elm?”
“Ben,” Jim said, “this man told you, and I told you. You can hear, can’t you? I say it’s on Fourteenth and Elm, and what I say I mean!”
That was it; all the advice about being cautious in a white man’s world flew out of his head; he grabbed a chair. “I say to hell with you! And what I say I mean!”
They turned green now with panic, and yelled for the boss, who came runing. When he heard the story, he turned on Jim and the other and said: “Look, now, don’t bother Ben—he’s a good worker, but he’s cracked. Let him alone!”
This “benevolence” cost him $7 or $8 a week compared to what the white workers got; Mr. Balfour knew a gold mine when he saw one. But this “tolerance” was priced too high, and Ben Careathers went on strike—a strike of one—and returned to work when he was promised another dollar a week. When, by degrees, he finally achieved the dizzy height of $9 a week, he had reached the limit, no more sky.
All this was behind the story of “how he did it;” but there was more.
He came North just before World War I, looking for higher wages.
He was in Pittsburgh during the war years, working as a janitor, as a “helper” in the Pittsburgh Railways Company, trying to save enough money to set up an upholsterer’s shop of his own. The war to “save the world for democracy” failed to stir his pulses. But it did open up jobs, including jobs for Negroes. It also raised the whole question of the meaning of war itself. One day, as Ben hurried home from work, he was accosted by a Negro man selling pamphlets. He took one of the pamphlets thrust into his hands, cast a casual glance at it, and said “this is socialistic, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” the Negro man replied, “It’s socialistic. Do you know about socialism?”
“No, Ben answered, “and I don’t want to know.”
The other man looked at him for a moment. “You know,” he said, “anybody who knows all about it, and doesn’t want it—well, I can understand that. But if you don’t know, and don’t want to know—then you’re a fool!”
Ben walked on, but the man’s voice had stung him! He turned abruptly back and said: “Give me one of those!”—determined to read it and show up who the real fool was! It was so easy to cry, “Down with this! Down with that!”—he had done that himself, cursing the evils of the world, and not one Jericho had fallen! But how, in what sensible realistic way could the common people hope to win their freedom? He had never found the answer, and didn’t expect to find it now.
But he opened the pages and read, and continued to read, and read on through to the end, whispering finally almost in spite of himself: “Jesus Christmas! This sounds like what I want!”
The address of the Socialist Party was published on the back, and he found his way there quickly, and spent the evening listening to the speeches, talking, discussing, reading more literature, including Bellamy’s Looking Backward.
Then one day he joined.
They were all brothers—Negro and white; there was no discrimination here, the only place in which he had ever found this to be so! He was happy, jubilant, so happy and jubilant that he invited all his friends to the dance the Socialist Party was holding in Moose Temple. His dreams were really coming alive now, the smothering lid of oppression was lifting a bit!
The proceedings had hardly begun when two of the SP leaders took him aside (how many times had he been so taken aside?) and, with deep embarrassment, they explained to him: “Ben, we’re having trouble. We in the Socialist Party believe in full equality, of course; but the hall owner has been objecting to Negroes here and threatens to close the hall.”
They didn’t have to say any more. He went out of there, burning with anger; he felt that a hope, a profound dream, lay dead. “It went to my heart,” he said, recalling that early incident. He was through. From now on, he would devote himself to his shop (which he had succeeded in establishing) and to that alone. Except that he could continue to find in books what life did not have. That door need never close!
Three years slipped by, and one day, Bill Scarville, the same comrade who had sold him his first socialist pamphlet, turned up at his door with a copy of a newspaper and tales of a new workingman’s party. The paper was called Voices of Labor, and was put out by the Communist Party (the first time Ben had heard the name); and it transpired that Bill, too, had left the Socialist Party and helped found the Communist Party.
So what about the Communist Party? Grand words—but deeds? True, it was born in struggle against the policies of the Socialist Party, which was all to the good; but words, like birds, flew away when you tried to catch them.
They talked and debated and argued; Ben was tougher now, harder to convince. When the Worker came out as a weekly, he subscribed to it; no harm in that; but he kept his mind unreconciled. His brother, who had also come North, had joined the new Party, and also spent hours arguing with Ben. Ben put up every argument he could think of, except the deepest one of all; the wound that the SP had dealt him had never healed. Socialism equaled—or did it?—brotherhood, but it was they, those who had called him “comrade” who had also asked him to “understand” chauvinism.
But one day, in 1928, he was persuaded to go down to the Lyceum to listen to a “real porch-climber” speak. The man’s name—William Z. Foster—was quite familiar to Pittsburghers; he had led the famous 1919 steel strike. Ben listened, and the language of the man was instinct with struggle, with echoes of mines and mills, of railroads and factories, this man, knew work and men who worked!
When he was asked, then, to sign a card that brought him into the Communist Party, he did not refuse. . . .
But for the next two years he did little, attended few meetings. His family was growing; he was busy at the work he knew so well. The revolutionary tides of the world tugged him only weakly. The country was riding a boom, and nothing seemed more common than money.
In 1929 the smiling face of “prosperity” split wide open, and the sickness that had been growing like a cancer showed itself to the world. . . .
On March 6, 1930, Ben Careathers took a bundle of leaflets under his arm and went downtown to hand them out to the unemployed workers. This leaflet had been issued by the Communist Party, and called for nationwide demonstrations against hunger and unemployment. Thousands came out on the streets in Pittsburgh that day, and the police came with them. Ben was arrested, taken to jail, and fined $10.
There was no turning back now, no arguments, no waiting-and-seeing. Political struggle was to be his bread from now on. The depression forced him to sell his shop, plunged him into the middle of the unemployed movement. He was soon leading the demonstration of hungry at the Penn Station Courthouse to force recognition of the Unemployed Councils. He was in Chicago at the first convention of the Unemployed Councils to set up a national organization. People were starving on a state “food-basket” grant of 90 cents a week; and they fought bitterly to raise this to $1.50 a week! In cash, not in baskets—and they won.
The way he threw himself into the struggle, passionately but without losing his common sense, his easy-going ways, his courage or resourcefulness, convinced the Party that he was equipped for a responsible post, and he became full-time secretary of the Allegheny Unemployed Councils. Then came the Scottsboro case, and he fought to free the Alabama-framed. He went down into the hills of West Virginia to set up soup kitchens for the striking miners during the ’31 strike. He marched to Washington, heading a Pennsylvania contingent on the National Hunger March in 1932. That same year he first met Steve Nelson who was leading, as he was leading, a state hunger march group to Harrisburg.
He fought evictions—lugging the furniture back into the house from the street where the Sheriff had dumped it. He fought for jobs for Negroes. He helped eliminate the coal-and-iron police in Pennsylvania. He went to the Soviet Union for three months and saw with his own eyes that land where the workers ruled, and this sealed forever his conviction, profound as it then was, that he had indeed found the right road, the inevitable road for his people and for all American workers.
He was down in the books of the Mellons and Rockefellers and Morgans a hundred times. Their police knew his face, his name, his voice. When, in 1940, he ran for lieutenant-governor of the state on the Communist ticket, they pounced on this brazen act and intimidated dozens of workers who had signed petitions to put Careathers on the ballot—and then indicted him, along with 30-odd other Communist leaders of Western Pennsylvania, for “fraud” in gathering petitions. They sent him and the others, among whom was Lloyd L. Brown, to the jail which Brown was to describe in his novel Iron City.62
The war interrupted all this. Ben found a new situation when he came out. The mills were booming day and night producing steel for the armies. He threw himself into the struggle to convince the Negro workers that this anti-Axis war was their war, too; and to do this he led the fight for upgrading and hiring Negroes, breaking through Jim-Crow barriers at the huge Dravo Shipyards that built invasion barges for D-Day. And when the war ended, he continued to fight for these objectives, even though this was no longer “popular” . . . in fact, seditious.
Now, the iron fist of U.S. imperialism showed itself openly. To Ben, it was no surprise, that fist had never, even under the best circumstances, been quite absent. Western Pennsylvania is the very heart of industrial America. Here, the vast billionaire interests are anchored.
Ben reflected in himself that deep, almost folk wisdom, of the miners and steel workers of this region, who know what they want . . . let the fine words fall where they may! Western Pennsylvania has been ruled with an iron fist always. The workers have learned both how to endure—to keep alive, healthy, cheerful; and how, when the moment comes, to strike. Lightweights cannot survive here. Workers will go about their business, in their own way, living in the ways that the oppressed learn to live, moving slowly, or not at all, exasperating the middle class theorists of social change.
They will not butt their heads pointlessly against iron walls, nor will they, overwhelmed by oppression, turn over and die. . . .
They are wrong . . . those who meet Ben Careathers, misled by his calm expression, his quick laugh, the radiance of his face. He is profoundly typical of Pittsburgh! Those eyes, which have seen everything, are glowing with hope! There is not a shred of illusion in the man—and not a trace of pessimism. He is modest, but no intellectual from any Harvard, Yale or what-have-you could outwit him or negate his knowledge. He is mild and gentle, but like iron.
Misleading, as the prosecutor learned the day Ben took the stand to testify for Steve Nelson during Nelson’s first trial. The prosecutor knew how to “handle” Negroes, he came up to Ben, and wagged his finger at him.
“Get back—back!” Ben snapped. The prosecutor was so startled he jumped back four feet—and stayed there! In jail, he acts as though he is free and the jailers are in jail. In court, he acts as though he were judging . . . and the judge feels it, and struggles to convince the man that he should play the role assigned to him by the state!
On trial, he forgets that his life is in jeopardy, and demands the right to appear to testify in favor of FEPC! A man under indictment, nevertheless, he shows up in the midst of his enemies and denounces them and demands that a law be passed protecting the Negro people from discrimination in employment. His voice is free, and men who can slap him into jail any moment have to listen to him, and be persuaded. . . . For Ben’s voice is the voice of the Negro and white workers of Pittsburgh, and try as they might—malign him as they do—when he speaks, the enemies of the workers know that the oppressed speak through him. How to chain that voice too!
On August 17, 1951, they arrested him, along with Steve Nelson, Bill Albertson, Irving Weissman, James Dolsen, on the charge of conspiring to advocate and teach the violent overthrow of the United States government. Obviously, a man fighting for FEPC was conspiring overthrow!
They knew he was sick. They knew because the court-appointed doctor knew it, and knew he was very sick, but stated that he could continue the trial, nevertheless. Struggle had not left him untouched, tuberculosis, the disease of the oppressed, had taken hold of him. With almost open delight that its victim was also physically helpless, the court ordered Ben to leave the hospital and appear before it—even at the price of his life!
He walked—a 62-year-old man—slowly to the lectern in the courthouse so close to Mellon’s great banks, Rockefeller’s huge power, Morgan’s gigantic mills and mines.
“My name,” he said in a low, clear voice, “is Benjamin Lowell Careathers.” He began to cough. The court watched him struggle to regain his strength. “I was born in the South. My life has been an open book. . . . My father was born a slave about 100 years ago. My mother died when I was very young. My father was left with nine small children to care for. I was the third of the nine, and it fell to my lot to look after the smaller ones and to work on the farm. In the winter months, after harvest, my father would chop wood and dig ditches for the white landlords. He took the older children to work with him and—”
The judge listened to the stool-pigeons and perjurers malign this man’s life, cutting it to fit the pattern of “conspiracy.” He was not interested in the halting story which this sick man was struggling to bring out. “This personal history,” he interrupted, “is out of order.” And so he dismissed with a wave a whole life’s struggle . . . this story . . . the way the rulers dismiss the history as well as the lives of the people they oppress!
When I interviewed Ben Careathers in Pittsburgh, he told me in his soft voice: “I’m convinced that capitalism is responsible for the crimes I’ve seen in my life. If I don’t live to see socialism—I want my children to. We tell a story in my family. My father’s father was a slave—but, slave though he was, he never let his master whip his child. . . .”
He coughed cruelly for a moment, and then said: “My party—the Communist Party—is dearer to me than my life. It means what it says. Nothing will cause me to flinch—no matter what happens. For we’ll win out in the end.”
“We’ll win out in the end. . . .”
And the tearing cough took possession of him and I sat still as he struggled with lungs that already were bleeding.
“They want to kill you!” I said, turning from those eyes full of courage and a belief so profound that it was his strength took with me, as though he had so much to give!
But to you . . . fight for this man! Yes, they want to lynch him “legally,” and only the voice, the aroused voice of humanity can save him.
Masses and Mainstream, 6 (July, 1953): 34–44.
RICHMOND, Va., Aug. 7.—In one of the first solidarity actions of the kind, more than 200 white clothing workers, members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, marched in a mass picket line Thursday around the plant of the Export Leaf Tobacco Co. (Brown and Williamson) where 200 Negro tobacco workers have been on strike since Monday.
Both groups of workers are relatively new to unionism—the clothing workers having been organized, 800 strong, last year after the passage of the Wagner Act. About the same time an organizational drive by the Southern Negro Youth Congress brought about 3,000 Negro tobacco stemmers and laborers into a union which later affiliated with the CIO.
The policy of Southern employers is to keep Negro and white labor completely divided, either into separate branches of industry, or separate departments, if working in the same plant. The same division has been maintained in the A.F. of L., where the policy of refusing to organize Negro workers has been rigidly followed, with only an exceptional instance where Jim Crow locals were set up.
But with the coming of the CIO, unity of Negro and white is now developing. This mass demonstration of white workers, met joyfully by singing and clapping Negro pickets, was the first experience of its kind for all who participated.
Earlier the ACWU local had voted to donate $50 for the strike.
Pays Wages $4 to $6 a Week
The strike is going strong, with union leaders maintaining a 24 hour picket line, and appealing for support to the whole community. Last night a 15 minute broadcast was made over station WRTD by Dr. James E. Jackson, Jr., educational director of the union.
Among the other leaders of the strike are C. Columbus Alston, the Southern Negro Youth Congress leader, Francis Grandison, business agent, and Edward E. Strong, Southern Negro Youth Congress general secretary.
The Export Leaf Tobacco Company is a subsidiary of Brown and Williamson Tobacco Co., makers of Wings, Kool, and Raleigh brands. These brands carry a union label issued by the International Tobacco Workers Union, A.F. of L., which has completely ignored the Negro workers employed on the preparation and stemming of tobacco before it is ready for the cigarette machines. It is well known that the white workers have little benefit from the union either since their wages are generally lower than decent living standards require. The union is run autocratically by E. Lewis Evans, who has refused to hold a convention for the last 30 years, and has taken over all offices (president, secretary and treasurer) for himself.
Daily Worker, August 8, 1938.
Wage Increases and Other Benefits Won In Richmond Strike Where White and Negro Pickets Marched Together
RICHMOND, Va., Aug. 21—The victory of 300 exploited Negro tobacco workers in a strike against the powerful British-American Tobacco Co. in which the workers’ CIO union won wage increases and other benefits, struck a vital blow to Southern Bourbonism.
Francis Grandison, business agent, and James Jackson, Jr., educational director, young Southern Negro leaders, led the Tobacco Stemmers and Laborers Local Industrial Union, CIO, to a successful fight against the combine.
Settlement of the strike, which was supported by the white workers in Richmond, was made on the basis of minimum demands presented by the union to Thomas B. Morton, Virginia Commissioner of Labor, who was attempting to mediate the dispute. The company capitulated on all but one of the many stipulations, and signed yesterday the contract drawn up by the union embodying these demands.
The provisions pay increases for tobacco stemmers of from 1 to 2 cents a pound, on various grades of tobacco, averaging about $1.25 a week; 2-1/2 cents per hour for men and women wage workers or about $1 a week, with time and a half for overtime; 26 cents a day increase in expense account on out of town hauls for chauffeurs; and special increases for firemen. Workers were previously paid as low as $4 to $6 a week at a time when the holding company of Export Leaf was paying over 21 per cent dividends.
The company will also check off union dues from wages upon written order of the worker; furnish the union with seniority lists to be used as a guide in priority of reemployment; furnish space on its bulletin board for union announcements; continue the grievance setup contained in the old contract, make any health improvements considered necessary; and provide 7 holidays with pay, 3 days vacation with pay for employers who have worked for the company 30 weeks or more, and a week’s vacation for some workers on a merit basis.
Blow To Bourbons
The strike was epoch-making in many respects, chiefly in the blow it dealt the Southern Bourbons and their British and Wall Street financial allies in their most important industry, tobacco—the fortress of low wages, exploitation, race differentials, and the open shop. It represented equally striking a marked advance for Negro workers through their first venture in unionism in the South, and pointed up a brilliant set of rising young Negro leaders in the South who are the founders and directors of the union.
The struggle was won through unprecedented solidarity all down the line, illustrated by a picket line that massed at least 200 workers daily, and by a determination that twice voted to refuse minor concessions from the company even when the strikers were threatened with eviction and other hardships. Interracial solidarity, too, was demonstrated during the strike two weeks ago when 200 white Southerners from the Amalamated Clothing Workers marched en masses to the plant and strengthened the Negro picket line by their numbers and rousing enthusiasm. Support from other unions came in the form of contribution to the strike fund from other tobacco locals, the ILGWU, the Agricultural and Cannery Workers, the Newspaper Guild, locals of the American Federation of Teachers, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and others.
The victory of the union was especially significant in that Export Leaf is, along with Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co., a part of the giant industrial octopus of British-American Tobacco Co., which controls 100 subsidiaries in all parts of the world from Nazi Germany to New Zealand, and is controlled in turn by the Imperial Tobacco Co., English tobacco trust, and by the Duke family and other stockholders of the old American Tobacco Co.
“This does not represent, however, a climax, but a beginning,” James Jackson, educational director, declared, “With this as a beginning, plans are being laid and a committee set up to launch an organizing drive throughout the tobacco industry in the Piedmont area of Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky. A start has already been made at Export Leaf and other factories in Southside Virginia by C. Columbus Alston, aggressive young Negro founder and representative of the Tobacco Locals, where workers in many plants are restless. The new Tobacco Workers Organizing Committee is also girding to force the tobacco trusts to abide by the Wage and Hours Law.
Daily Worker, August 22, 1938.
By Augusta V. Jackson
The Crisis, 45 (October, 1938): 322–24, 330.
She was a scrawny hardbitten little woman and she greeted me with that politely blank stare which Negroes often reserve for hostile whites or prying members of their own race.
I had been directed to her tenement in Richmond’s ramshackle Negro section by another woman, a gray-haired old grandmother whose gnarled hands had been stemming tobacco for five decades.
“The white folks down at union headquarters is all right,” she had said, “and we love ‘em—especially Mr. Marks. But if you want to know about us stemmers and the rumpus we raised, you better go see Mamma Harris. She’s Missus CIO in Richmond.”
The blank look softened on the thin dark face when I mentioned this.
“Must’ve been Sister Jones,” she said, still standing near the door. “They all call me Mamma though. Even if I ain’t but forty-nine and most of ‘em old enough to be my grandmammy.”
I edged toward a rocking chair on the other side of the bed.
“I’m a CIO man myself,” I remarked. “Newspaper Guild. Our local boys just fixed up The Times-Dispatch this morning.”
She yelled so suddenly that I almost missed the rocker.
“Bennie!” she called toward the kitchen, “you hear that, Bennie? CIO’s done organized The Dispatch. Moved right in this morning. What I tell you? We gonna make this a union town yet!”
A hulking overalled Negro appeared in the kitchen doorway. His booming bass voice heightened his startling resemblance to Paul Robeson.
“Dispatch?” he thundered. “God Amighty, we do come on.”
Mrs. Harris nodded in my direction.
“He’s a CIO man from up New York. Wants to know about our rumpus out at Export. He’s a Guilder too, just like the white ‘uns.”
Benny limped toward the other chair.
“They give us hell,” he said, “but we give it right back to ‘em. And it was we’uns who come out on top. The cops was salty. Wouldn’t even let us set down and rest. But I told the women, I told ‘em ‘Sit down’ and they did. Right in front of the cops too. Didn’t I, Louise?”
Mrs. Harris nodded energetically from her perch on the bed.
“You dead did. And they didn’t do nothing neither. They ‘fraid of the women. You can outtalk the men. But us women don’t take no tea for the fever.”
Bennie boomed agreement. “There was five hundred of the women on the picket line and twenty of us mens. But we sure give ‘em hell. I talked right up to them cops, didn’t I, Louise? Didn’t I?”
Finally Mrs. Harris got around to the beginning.
“I wasn’t no regular stemmer at first,” she cried, “but I been bringing a shift somewhere or other since I was eight. I was took out of school then and give a job minding chillun. By the time I was ten I was cooking for a family of six. And I been scuffling ever since.
“But I don’t work in no factory till eight years ago. Then I went out to Export. Well, it took me just one day to find out that preachers don’t know nothing about hell. They ain’t worked in no tobacco factory.”
“Them cops beat up them strikers something awful out at Vaughn’s he said. “They even kicked the women around. But they didn’t do it to us, huh, Louise?” We stood right up to ‘em.” Mrs. Harris waved aside the interruption.
“Then there was this scab,” she went on, “only he ain’t no scab then, cause we don’t have no union. We ain’t even heerd of no union nowhere then, But I knew something was bound to happen. Even a dog couldn’t keep on like we was. You know what I make then? Two dollars and eighty cents a week. Five dollars was a too bad week.”
“I put in eighty-two and half hours one week,” Bennie said, “and they only give me $18.25. I think about this one day when one of them cops . . .”
Mrs. Harris shushed him.
“Now this scab—only he ain’t no scab then—he rides me from the minute I get to Export. He’s in solid with the man and he always brag he’s the ringtail monkey in this circus. He’s a stemmer like the rest of us but he stools for the white folks.
“There’s two hundred of us on our floor alone and they only give us four and a half and five cents a pound. We don’t get paid for the tobacco leaf, you know. You only get paid for the stems. And some of them stems is so puny they look like horse hair.”
Bennie was chuckling softly to himself but a glance from Mrs. Harris held the cops at bay for the moment.
“And as if everything else wasn’t bad enough, there was this scab. We’s cramped up on them benches from kin to can’t, and he’s always snooping around to see nobody don’t pull the stem out the center instead of pulling the leaf down both sides separate. This dusts just eats your lungs right out you. You start dying the day you go in.”
She coughed automatically and continued.
“Well, I keep this up for six long years. And this scab is riding me ever’ single day. He’s always riding everybody and snitching on them what don’t take it. He jump me one day about singing and I ain’t got no voice nohow. But I like a song and I gotta do something to ease my mind or else I go crazy.
“But he jump me this morning and tell me to shut up. Well, that’s my cup. Six years is six years, but this once is too often. So I’m all over him like gravy over rice. I give him a tongue-lashing what curled every nap on his head.”
For a moment she had the same beaming look which Bennie displayed when he spoke of the cops.
“I sass him deaf, dumb and blind, and he takes it. But all the time he’s looking at me kinder queer. And all at once he says ‘You mighty salty all of a sudden; you must be joining up with this union foolishness going on around here.’
“You coulda knocked me over with a Export stem. I ain’t even heard of nothing about no union. But as soon as he cuts out, I start asking around. And bless my soul if they ain’t been organizing for a whole full week. And I ain’t heerd a peep.”
“I ain’t heerd nothing neither then,” Bennie put in, “and I been there fifteen years.”
Mrs. Harris caught another breath.
“Well, I don’t only go to the next meeting downtown, but I carries sixty of the girls from our floor. They remember how I sass this scab and they’re all with me. We plopped right down in the first row of the gallery. And when they asked for volunteers to organize Export, I can’t get to my feet quick enough.”
“I come in right after,” Bennie remarked.
“And it ain’t no time,” Mrs. Harris continued, “before we got seven hundred out of the thousand what works in Export. The man is going crazy mad and the scab is snooping overtime. But they can’t fire us. The boom time is on and the warehouse is loaded to the gills.”
She paused dramatically.
“And then on the first of August, 1938, we let ‘em have it. We called our strike and closed up Export tight as a bass drum.”
Bennie couldn’t be shushed this time.
Mrs. Harris was beaming again.
“Then this scab came up with a couple hundred others and tried to break our line,” she recalled, “but we wasn’t giving a crip a crutch or a dog a bone. I made for that head scab personal—but the cops wouldn’t let me at ‘im.”
“I stayed on the line for twenty-four hours running,” Bennie chuckled, “and I didn’t take a inch from none of them cops.”
“And we wasn’t by ourselves neither,” Mrs. Harris went on. “The preachers,” Dr. Jackson, the Southern Aid Society and all the other union people help us. GWU and them garment ladies give us a hundred dollars right off the bat. Malgamate sent fifty. The ship folks down in Norfolk come through, and your white Guild boys give ten dollars too.”
“It was them white garment ladies what sent the cops,” Bennie cut in. “They come out five hundred strong and parade around the factory. They got signs saying ‘GWU Supports Export Tobacco Workers.’
“Them cops jump salty as hell. ‘White women,’ they say, ‘white women out here parading for niggers.’ But they don’t do nothing. Because we ain’t taking no stuff from nobody.”
“We was out eighteen days,” Mrs. Harris said, “and the boss was losing money hand over fist. But you know how much we spend in them eighteen days? Over seven hundred dollars.”
Her awed tones made it sound like seven thousand.
“But it was worth it. We win out and go back getting ten, eleven and twelve cents a pound. And better still we can wear our union buttons right out open. We might even have got them scabs fired if we wanted, but we didn’t want to keep nobody out of work.”
Bennie stopped smiling for the first time.
“We might be better off if we did,” he said soberly. “I bet we do next time.”
Mrs. Harris explained.
“They been sniping away at us ever since we win. They give the scabs all the breaks and lay off us union people first whenever they can. They give all the overtime to the scabs and even let ‘em get away with stripping the stem down the center. But we ain’t licked yet. We still got two hundred members left and we still got union conditions.”
Her face brightened again.
“And we fixed that old scab—even if he is been there nineteen years. We moved him off our floor completely, and he ain’t allowed to ride nobody.
“We got a good set of people downtown now and we’re reorganizing right along. By the time our new contract comes up in June, we’ll probably have the whole thousand.”
“And if we strike again, and them cops jump salty,”—Bennie began.
And this time Mamma Harris let him pursue the subject to his heart’s content.
The New Republic, 103 (November 4, 1940): 624–26.
By James E. Jackson, Jr.
An old man with a sparkle in his eyes and a young fellow about twenty-three were earnestly engaged in heated conversation in the back row of a meeting of Local Union No. 31 of the Tobacco Stemmers and Workers Industrial Union. Columbus Alston, negro Committee for Industrial Organization organizer had just spoken. Workers in the audience were now filling the aisles of the Leigh Street M.E. Church, where the meeting was being held, slowly filing up to the secretary’s table, paying their initiation fee and signing membership cards.
Unobserved, I took a seat in front of the old man and listened intently.
“So your jes’gonna be workin’ wid us a li’l while, Jim. You say you are going in business fo’ yo’self an’ soon get rich. An you gon’ give yo’ money to solve de problem of de po’ after you become rich? Well, tis very brave of you to think like dat, Jim, but I’se afraid you ain’t bein’ very realistic.
“Lissen to me boy, de cards has all been shuffled and dealt long befo’ we got into de game. Dere ain’t no new gold mines to be found, Jim. You cain’t start no new business widout big money; you cain’t get dis cap’til ‘cept by borrowin’ it from men’s who own it, and dese men ain’t goin’ len’ it to you to use against them, or to invest and make money for you’self that they could be making. Now, Jim, we done tried it befo’—dat is, yo’ people has. ‘Member Anthony Overtone? Why, he was the greatest pretender to a rich man our whole people could boast of, an’ along come the depression (when de big fellows took all from de smaller big fellows)—an’—shoo!—our fondes’ hopes of escape into de ranks of de bosses jes’ went kerplunk. No, Jim, Mr. Alston done said 95 per cent of our people are wage workers. The five per cent business men can’t grow because they ain’t no more room in de house of Morgan to let ‘em in.
“We is a po’ people, Jim, we’s a race of workers. De one thing we own is our labor—and dat ain’t enough. We got to organize; we got to jine wid millions of whites in a fix jes’ like us; we got to unite our labor in one mighty union—our only economic weapon, our one hope for freedom and equality. I done thought about dis thing for a long time, Jim. An’ now it’s here. All we gotta do is jineand study an’ learn all dey says. ‘Cause we’s buildin’ somethin,’ Jim, bigger’n me an’ you an’ any of us. One day dis south gonna be a fittin place fo’ a mans young ‘uns to grow in. ‘Tis gon’ be beautiful an’ healthy an’ free an’ kind, Jim, an’ we’s on our way. Yassah, an’ we’s helpin to make it wid our own hands. Go on, Jim. Sign up boy; dey’s a new day, and a new day’s a comin soon.”
United Mine Workers Journal, April 15, 1938.
Maritime Union Backs 8,000 Longshoremen In Southern Ports
JACKSONVILLE, Fla., Oct. 18—Eight thousand striking longshoremen continued to bottle up nine ports from Wilmington, N.C., to Tampa, Fla., today in one of the biggest walkouts in recent years.
Initiated by rank-and-file firm today despite efforts of shipping lines, merchant and representatives of Joseph P. Ryan, reactionary union head, to effect a “truce.”
The longshoremen are demanding recognition, higher wages, and eight-hour day and time and a half for overtime for its members, many of them Negroes, in the ports of Wilmington, Charleston, S.C., Savannah and Brunswick, Ga., and Jacksonville, Miami, Ft. Pierce, Port Everglades and Tampa, Fla.
Will Stay Out For Pact
A contract between the International Longshoremen’s Association and the shippers expired Sept. 30 and the walkout began last Saturday following the breakdown of negotiations.
V. E. Townsend, Southern representative of the union, conferred tonight with business spokesmen, who attempted to have a “truce” called “which would permit handling of cargo to be resumed” during negotiations.
Strikebreakers were being used to work two Clyde-Mallory ships in Miami, and an official of the line said all of its sailings out of New York and Miami for Charleston, Jacksonville, Key West and Tampa had been “cancelled until further notice.”
Both white and Negro dock workers stood shoulder to shoulder in these deep-South ports, ready to defy either the police, shipping lines or sell-out maneuvers of the Ryan machine from its New York City headquarters.
Meanwhile the National Maritime Union, organization of 47,000 unlicensed seamen on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, also with main offices in New York, pledged its support to the 8,000 rank and file longshoremen now on strike in six southern ports for wage increases and overtime pay.
Joseph Curran, general organizer for the N.M.U., announced that the seamen in the struck ports had agreed to move no ships, loaded or unloaded by strikebreakers.63
This action, he pointed out is in line with union policy since the rank and file seceded from the International Seamen’s Union last spring and set up its own union.
“We are now following the general policy adopted by the principal CIO unions,” Curran said. “With the rise of industrial unionism, the desire of rank and file trade unionists to cooperate with one another in winning their demands can now be fulfilled.
“In the event that scabs are put aboard the ship to handle cargo, the crews will, in all likelihood, refuse to work with them.
“Of course, if the company wishes to move a ship to another port, we have no alternative but to take her out—providing, that the lines are not released by scabs.
“However, if the seamen move a ship to another port, we will be sure that a telegram is sent ahead to the destination notifying the longshoremen there the reason for the move.
“In a case of that kind, undoubtedly the striking longshoremen will call upon their fellow longshoremen in the next port to refuse to load or unload the ship.”
Daily Worker, October 19, 1937.
A report on the integration of Negro workers into the maritime unions of the Pacific Coast states.
By Ford Bellson
San Francisco is the metropolis of the West, and towers over the two other large urban centers of the Pacific Coast, Los Angeles and Seattle. The rapid growth of San Francisco has been stimulated by the industrial and commercial economy that has become the life of the city by “The Golden Gate.”
The people of San Francisco have profited with the growing business developments of the shipping industry that now thrives at the “western gateway” to America. Perhaps nowhere in America are wages as high as they are here, and it is the boast that the working conditions are the best in the country. This situation, however, cannot be attributed so much to the wealth of the city or to the interests that control its capital, as to the strong trade union movement among San Francisco’s workers. This movement has not been easily and peacefully established, but is the result of a long struggle among the mass of workers, who have waged a vigilant battle to mature their organizations into powerful weapons for their own protection. Negroes, although they constitute but a small portion of the State’s population, have played an important role in the development of this trade union unity. They are enlisted in every large A.F. of L. Union that does not maintain jim crow practices, They have taken a prominent role in the formation and guidance of the unions, occupying many positions of trust and responsibility, and governing the employment of many thousands of workers, both Negro and white.
Among the Negroes who occupy such positions at present are Lem Greer, Joe White and C. Richardson, officers of the Executive Committee and the Board of Trustees of the mighty International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, Locals 1–10; and Reveals Cayton, business agent of The Marine Cooks’ and Stewards’ Union, and a trustee of the Marine Federation; Alex Forbes, business agent of The Musicians’ Union; Pat Slater, a member of the executive board of the Building Trades Laborers’ Union; and Alex Waters, a dispatcher in the hiring hall of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union.
The present encouraging status of the Negro in the San Francisco trade union movement has come as a result of militant activity for equality for Negro workers on the part of both Negro and white trade unionists. The effectiveness of this struggle was clearly evidenced in the recent successful fight for checkerboard (Negro and white) crews on all ships that sail out of the port. This activity was initiated by the Marine Cooks’ and Stewards’ Union, and had the backing of most of the other union groups.
The whole question of equality of employment opportunities for Negroes on ships touching the West Coast came up during the general strike of 1934. Prior to that time only a few Negro seamen were affiliated with the Marine Cooks’ and Stewards’ Union. The majority of those that were organized at all were associated with the Colored Marine Benevolent Association. This organization was controlled by the Pacific Steamship Company, now known as the Dollar Lines. The conditions under which the men worked and the manner in which they were exploited were almost beyond belief. They were constantly harassed, and penalized for the slightest offense. There was no means of redress for grievances. They worked from 16 to 18 hours a day, and sometimes longer. Various forms of “kickbacks” cut into their meager pay. In order to keep their jobs, they were practically forced to gamble away portions of their salaries. “Cuts” from such games were palmed off to the individuals in control of the organization and others who possessed an “in” with petty officials. Another form of kickback took the form of forced drinking; the workers were coerced into buying a certain amount of the bad liquor that was sold to them on shipboard each payday, at exorbitant prices. Negro workers who rebelled against these conditions were threatened with the loss of their jobs, and from time to time a “bad Negro” would be discharged as an example to the others.
In 1934, during the strike of seamen on the Pacific Coast, about 500 Negro workers joined the picket lines just when the shipping companies were trying to get them to sign up as “scabs.” As a reward for their help in winning the strike, they were later taken en masse into the Marine Cooks’ and Stewards’ Union. Their new affiliation not only guaranteed them better conditions of work, but gave them definite assurance that they would always have racial representation in the counsels of the union, with a minimum of two official positions at all times. The two positions now held are as business agents for the union’s offices in the ports of Seattle and San Francisco.
With the enrolling of Negroes in the Marine Cooks’ and Stewards’ Union, several lines tried to take punitive action against the Negro union members, hoping thereby to demoralize the racial unity. Some refused to hire Negroes in any capacity. The union elected a committee of five, two of whom were Negroes, to study this problem. The committee made the following recommendations:
(1) That equal shipping rights be established regardless of race to all members of the Marine Cooks and Stewards on all ships, and
(2) That seniority rights be established; the oldest membership card to receive the first job regardless of race and regardless of the ship.
As a result of this stand, “checkerboard crews” were literally forced upon the ship operators. And today on all freighters and steamschooners, as well as on the American President Lines, Negroes are being placed as members of the crews.
The contracts of 1934, won by the striking seamen, bettered the conditions of all seamen, but the effect of the contracts was felt more by the Negro workers than by the white ones. They had gained protection by a strong union, in which were Negro representatives to handle any cases of discrimination that might take place either on the ships or in the hiring halls. Their working hours had been cut to nine a day, and they had established a grievance committee to prevent the subtle forms of exploitation under which they had previously suffered.
In 1936, the contracts were opened for negotiation instead of being renewed as in 1935. This resulted in a new maritime strike. By this time the Negro workers were deeply entrenched in the union. They took an active part in protecting their rights as workers, and enlisted the help of the entire Negro community in the struggle.
The strike was caused by the desire of the workers to maintain the system of hiring men through the union’s hiring halls, rather than placing their employment security in the hands of the shipping concerns. They also wanted an eight-hour day, both for men aboard ships and for longshoremen; and cash payment for overtime worked at sea, instead of time off in port.
The first point was of particular importance to Negro workers, for the union-controlled hiring halls preserved the seniority rights of all seamen and longshoremen regardless of race, and prevented discrimination against Negro workers. The eight hundred Negro seamen and longshoremen employed on the Pacific Coast struck along with all the white unionists. They were on the picket lines as rank and filers, and also occupied leading positions of trust on the strike committees that guided the actions of the unions during the crisis. Fifteen Negroes were on the longshoremen’s strike committee. Negroes also served on the strike committees of the Marine Cooks’ and Stewards’ Union, the Miscellaneous Workers’ Union and the Bargemen’s Union. The Joint Strike Committee, which controlled the action and decisions of all the smaller committees, included three Negroes, Joe White, Reveals Cayton and George Novelle.
The attitude of the maritime unions to the Negro worker was clearly shown during this strike by the positions of leadership accorded Negro workers. Since 1934, when the Maritime Cooks’ and Stewards’ Union had opened its doors, the others had followed suit. The Negro had been accepted in nearly all the maritime unions, had been assured of equal protection as a worker, and had functioned in various official capacities in the various union groups. An encouraging outgrowth of this situation has been a strong trade union movement, one that recognizes the need for unity among all workers, in other fields of work. This movement still has a long way to go, but each month brings new victories against Labor Jim Crow on the West Coast, the latest being in the Painters’ Union of the A.F. of L., where a Negro was admitted recently after many months of agitation and the restrictive racial term “white” was erased from the constitution and by-laws of the local.
Opportunity, 17 (May, 1939): 142–43.
By Robert C. Francis
In an enlightening and interesting article in the April Opportunity, Mr. S. A. Haynes, of the Philadelphia Tribune, tells us of the plight of Negro seamen in many of the seaports of the world. We must concur with Mr. Haynes in most of his analysis and, as he has indicated, the majority of these ex-seamen who “are now eking out a miserable existence as underpaid longshoremen and habitues of the waterfront” . . . “constitute an integral part of the world’s social and economic order.” It is true that there is injustice in the black seamen’s “ostracism from the high seas,” but whether or not the matter is worthy of challenge is highly problematical. The discussion of this problem gives rise to some fundamental and worthwhile questions which involve the future outlook for seagoing persons. It is a questionable fact that the sea as a calling now offers the opportunity for the ex-sailor that is presented even by the most menial jobs ashore. The condition of the seamen is slowly being improved and the outcome of the Geneva Maritime Conference of last year may, at some later date, find them on a basis more comparable to that of other workers. The credit for much of this must go to “The Old Man of the Sea,” Andrew Faruseth, President of the International Seamen’s Union, who has been fighting the battle since the days of “crimping” and “shanghaing.” Yet the working conditions with which sailors are forced to contend, are still abominable and this is conclusively demonstrated by the fact that labor turn-over on American ships is in the neighborhood of 25 or 30 per cent. Those who have followed the history of the Morro Castle disaster, realize that such things occur as a result of “hiring inexperienced men at low wages.” In the ranks of the white longshoremen of the country, one may find more and better sailors than those who are now in our Merchant Marine and passenger service for the reason that they have become disgusted with the virtual slavery that exists while aboard ship.64
Today, ships are operated by crews who learned their seamanship like Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Admiral of the Queen’s Navee,”—“Post Card Sailors,”—the “old Salts” call them. They go to sea with a new suitcase and buy postcards at each port to send to their friends back home. Many of them are irresponsible boys in quest of adventure, or older individuals of like degree.65 Mr. Haynes says: “Three decades ago, when ocean travel was not the lucrative enterprise it is now; when the great clippers and sailing vessels of the seven seas were at the height of their glory; when ocean liners were yet in swaddling bands, and cargo contracts, smuggling and contraband were the chief sources of revenue; steamship companies in Europe, the Americas and Africa took pleasure in signing on Negro crews—the Negro seaman was a welcome guest at shipping offices and in all ports of commerce and trade;” but, as a poet has said, “Earth will not see such ships as those again.” He might have added: “Neither will it see such sailors.”
An interesting observation is that the decline in the use of Negro seamen is parallel with the decline in the use of the sailing vessel. There is here an implicit tribute to the Negro seaman. Notice the fact that with the decrease in the amount of skill, courage and physical ability occasioned by the ascendancy of the steam-vessel, there has been a decrease in the demand for the black sailor. In the days of wooden ships and iron men, the Negro seaman was to be seen in any seaport, but in these days of wooden men and iron ships, the demand for the easier, less hazardous jobs has so increased that the colored man is forced out by competition. Surely it is a compliment to the Negro that when the going was hard, he was in demand, but as it became easier, he was replaced by others.
The black seaman did not quit the sea for the same reason old tars of other races have. As Mr. Haynes so aptly shows, he was forced to become a “landlubber,” while less experienced and less capable workers were given the jobs. Had economic pressure not motivated the change, he would probably have continued to “go down to the sea in ships” because it is harder for him to find decent work ashore.
The question is: Has he gained or lost? In the first place, it must be recalled that no group has been more affected by progress than has the seafaring class. The seaman who was once the original “Jack-of-all-trades” is now merely a sea-going laborer. In the days of the sailing vessel, it had been necessary to go aloft in a storm and repair rigging or do a number of other most dangerous tasks. A sailor could mend a pair of shoes or do a multitude of similar things in a facile manner. Today, however, cleaning and scrubbing consume most of his time and his other duties are not much more involved. That is the reason the result is sometimes disastrous when an emergency does arise on a ship in mid-ocean. The greater percentage of present-day sailors are not sailors—they are workers on board ships. This is not true of some foreign countries which still train sailors in the old-time way. Sailors are still more subject to the whims of their superiors than are any other laboring group because of the very nature of work on shipboard. If they are abused by their superiors, they cannot quit until they get in port, and that hinges upon the articles under which they have been signed on. A Negro in a crew now has a more difficult time than formerly because it was skill and ability that made him respected by his shipmates; while now, he is just another laborer—and a black one at that. Of course, we realize it presents the oppressed seamen of other races with the opportunity to feel superior to someone else.
In view of the foregoing, it were probably the better part of valor for the black man to stay away from marine occupations.
Another entirely different aspect of the whole question is the relationship of the sailor to the family unit. The position of the families of steadily employed laborers in our industrial system is none too secure. Very few of them make enough to support a group of five on a health and decency standard.
The average sailor has never made sufficient wages to support any kind of a family. This is the main reason why many of them do not marry. Hence, it might be for his improvement that the Negro has forsaken the sea. In the case of those sailors who have taken upon themselves the responsibility of a family, many of these families are forced to supplement their income in other ways. Much the same thing is true of the families of seamen as is true of those of longshoremen. The “wife toiling at underpaid employment to keep her home, but finally losing strength and hope, and letting her family drift to improvidence and misery; and the children ill-nourished and ill-cared for, driven into blind alley employment and forming as they grow up, a new generation of casuals.”
Beyond the inadequate income is the truism that a sailor is not a good husband. He is not, because he must, of necessity, spend most of his time away from home. The man may have all of the attributes that are necessary for the successful carrying out of the role of husband, but the fact that he is absent so much means that companionship is lacking. One of the most necessary elements for successful family life is companionship. A seaman is really a stranger to his family. Indeed, there are grounds for arguing that they (the seamen), should not marry. This being the case, one may wonder if the Negro seaman has lost so much in being barred from the sea. Mayhap this is an example of discrimination that will be to the advantage of the race.
Most of the romance and beauty left the sea when the famous Clippers were replaced by steamships. No modern vessels can compare in grandeur with such famous vessels as the “Sovereign of the Seas,” or the greatest Clipper of them all, “The Northern Light.” The Negro left the sea at the time when the Clippers left—he took a conspicuous role in the days of glory and daring. During these early days, there were Negro skippers in charge of well-known sailing vessels. An example of this is the case of Captain Shorey, who was in command of one of the best-known whalers that sailed out of San Francisco Bay. He shipped an entire Negro crew. Today, what chance does a black man have to get into a cabin, except to clean it? All things considered, is it not better that we look away from the sea?
A bit more of subjective observation may be excused at this time. These comments were written because of a definite interest aroused by Mr. Haynes’s article. The above analysis comes as a result of conclusions occasioned by some study of seamen in the United States generally and those of the Pacific Coast in particular.
It is hoped that these observations will be provocative of further discussion which may prove to be instructive. Seamen, like longshoremen, have not been subjected to economic and sociological discussions as have other groups of workingmen. There is a definite need for such study because it is as the result thereof that the conditions of laborers are improved. (For instance, it was Upton Sinclair’s book, “The Jungle,” that caused the government investigation of the Packing Industry which resulted in the Pure Food and Meat Inspection Acts of 1906, and gave status to the workers in that industry). But until such a change is forced on the ship-operators, it would be well for the Negro to stay on land “and never go to sea.”66
Opportunity, 14 (July, 1936): 211–12.
Eastern Steamship Lines Victory Marks Growth of Rank and File Movement Among Seamen—Grange’s Threats Ignored by Crews
By J. Lambert
BOSTON, April 17.—A major victory was won here last week by the crews of the Eastern Steamship Line when they tied up three passenger ships, the Arcadia, the New York and the Boston, to force the ship owners to grant their demands. Their demands were a ten-dollar increase and overtime pay and double time for Sundays and holidays. Previous to the strike, the rank and file had organized, for the first time in the history of this company, a joint meeting of five ships crews to advise the union officials of their demands. The officials showed plainly by their reactionary tone that they were against the interests of the seamen. They tried to convince the seamen that through peaceable negotiations their cause could be won.
The members of the Eastern Steamship crews, who for the past twenty years had been heralded as the backbone of the reactionary clique at the head of the union, saw a new light. For the first time since the infamous betrayal in 1921, the talk of strike began to develop. It gained momentum as facts of the strikebreaking activity of the officialdom were laid before them. Rank and file leaders aboard the ships worked out plans for action; meetings were held and spokesmen elected to carry forward plans for strike. A meeting of the three ships’ rank and file leaders decided that the crew of the S.S. Arcadia should start the strike when they would be asked to sign an agreement. The steamer New York, lying at the dock, was directed to follow.
Rank and File Leadership
On Thursday afternoon the ship owners and reactionary union leaders were dumbfounded when, instead of signing the old agreement, the sailors and the engine room crews on the Arcadia declared a strike and piled off. Ten minutes later the crew of the New York followed, and they were followed by the Negro stewards department of the two ships, consisting of 400 men.
Telegrams were sent the S.S. Boston and other ships. The owners were forced to cancel both sailings. Four hundred passengers were already aboard.
When the S.S. Boston docked on Friday morning, all the reactionary officials in the union were aboard to prevent a walk-out. Starting with attacks on the rank and file leaders, calling them “Moscow agents,” they ordered that the elected spokesmen of the crew be fired in an attempt to break the strike, but this action only urged the crew to act with more decisiveness. They walked off to a man. The Negro stewards department, consisting of 200 went ashore with wild enthusiasm.
Officials’ Plans Defeated
The first move of the reactionary leaders of the union was to try to divide the men up into their respective crafts, to try to reach separate agreements. This was defeated when every man to a thousand strong piled up in one union hall, demanding a joint settlement for all men, Negro and white.
Dave Grange, vice-president of the International Seamen’s Union, tried sob stories to get the men to call off the strike. He immediately changed his tactics when rank and file leaders jumped on the platform and called for election of a real negotiations committee. Grange, seeing that he could not break the unity of the men, suddenly became very militant, but this did not fool the seamen, especially the Negro stewards department who were over 600 strong.
Four times Grange and the other reactionary leaders went to the ship owners and came back to the seamen with concessions, but the men stood solid for the original demands. They cried and bullied the seamen and had their gangsters beat up the militants, and tried to stampede the seamen into joining the attack by calling the militants “Communist agitators.” The seamen were not to be foiled by these tactics.
They drove the gangsters out and told Grange they would drive him out if he started any more of his mud slinging and red-baiting.
Finally, a settlement was reached for the stewards department, but they refused to go back to work until the demands of the seamen and engine room crews had also been settled. The officials and the ship owners were licked to a frazzle with this show of unity of Negro and white. After three hours they were forced to agree to all the demands put forward by that much-heralded section of seamen called the backbone of the reactionary clique of the head of the union.
The whole strike was settled in 24 hours with the greatest increases yet won by the seamen on the East Coast. The men are jubilant over their great victory and realize it was not only a victory over the ship owners, but also a victory over their reactionary leaders in the union, who have misled them for so many years. They are not stopping with this victory, but are pushing forward for a rank and file union and for an East Coast Federation!
Daily Worker, April 18, 1936.
Outstanding Leaders of Negro People to Talk at Mass Meeting
Joe Curran, leader of the seamen’s strike strategy committee, the Rev. William Lloyd Imes and Thyra Edwards, outstanding Negroes, will head the list of speakers at a mass meeting in support of the striking seamen Jan. 14, in Harlem.
The meeting, scheduled under the auspices of the Harlem Citizens Committee to Aid the Striking Seamen, will take place in St. James Presbyterian Church 141st Street and Edgecombe Avenue at 8 P.M.
Other speakers will be: Frank R. Crosswaith, chairman of the Negro Labor Committee, and Lester Granger of the Urban League, vice-chairman of the Citizens Committee.
Lodie Biggs, secretary of the Citizens Committee said yesterday that the meeting was for the purpose of “increasing support of the Negro people for the thousands of Negro and white seamen fighting for a decent living.
Officers of the Committee are Benjamin McLaurin, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, chairman; the Rev. A. Clayton Powell, treasurer; Ben Davis, Jr., Daily Worker editorial staff, publicity.
Among the members are: Dr. Arnold Donawa, D.D.S.; James Baker, National Negro Congress; Ted Poston, Negro newspaper man; Manning Johnson, Cafeteria Union, Local 302; Frank R. Crosswaith; Lillian Gaskins, member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union; the Rev. David N. Licorish; Ashley Totten, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Cecil Marquez, M.D.; and Dr. William Lloyd Imes, pastor of St. James Presbyterian Church.67
Daily Worker, January 5, 1937.
Citizens Committee to Hear Speakers on Thursday Night
The Harlem Citizens Committee to Aid the Striking Seamen, beginning today, will enter an intensive campaign preparatory to its meeting Thursday evening, Lodie Biggs, Negro bacteriologist and secretary of the Committee, stated yesterday.
The meeting will take place at the St. James Presbyterian Church, 141st St., and St. Nicholas Ave., at 8 P.M. Among the speakers are the Rev. Wm. Lloyd Imes, pastor of the church; Vito Marcantonio, progressive labor attorney and former Congressman; Joseph Curran, leader of the Seamen’s Strike Strategy Committee and others.
Miss Biggs said that 200 additional Harlem leaders, representative of all phases of the community’s life, would be asked to endorse the meeting.
She announced also that the Greater New York Federation of the National Negro Congress had officially endorsed the rally. James H. Baker, Jr., and Thyra Edwards, prominent leaders of the Congress, have been invited to address the meeting.
Lester Granger, of the National Urban League and vice-chairman of the Committee, is now writing a popular folder on the five seamen who died of pneumonia due to exposure on the picket line. Several thousand of these are to be distributed in Harlem early this week.
Fifty-three Harlem churches have been circularized by the Committee requesting a special collection for the Seaman Jan. 16. Heading this phase of the work is the Rev. David N. Licorish, young Harlem pastor.
The week’s activities of the Harlem Committee will be climaxed with full cooperation with the downtown Seamen’s Aid committee which holds a city wide tag day on Jan. 16–18.
Daily Worker, January 12, 1937.
Unions to Meet in Two-Day Conference on Friday, Saturday
The city’s most progressive unions and organizations will meet in an unusually important two-day conference, sponsored by the Greater New York Federation of the National Negro Congress, Friday and Saturday, Feb. 5 and 6, at the Harlem Y.M.C.A., 180 West 135th St.
The attention of the gathered delegates will be centered upon, “The Stake of the Negro in the Maritime Strike.” The Eastern and Gulf seamen’s strike was concluded over a week ago, and was the first real united front of Negro and white workers in the maritime industry in the East.
Among the sponsors of the conference are:
James H. Baker, Jr., chairman, Greater New York Federation of the National Negro Congress, and leader in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Miss Louise Cothran, National Youth Administration; Henry K. Craft, secretary, Harlem branch Y.M.C.A., Thyra Edwards, National Chairman, Women’s Section, National Negro Congress, James W. Ford, outstanding leader of the Communist Party; Lester Granger, Workers Bureau, National Urban League; T. Arnold Hill, industrial secretary, National Urban League; Local 149, Household Mechanics Union; Benjamin A. McLauren, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Cyril Phillips, Committee on Aid to Ethiopia; William Pickens, National Association for Advancement of Colored People; Philip Randolph, national president, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Miss Lucille Spence, of the Teachers Union; Ashley T. Totten, national secretary, Sleeping Car Porters; Upper Harlem Council of the Progressive Womens Councils; Max Yergan, national secretary, Y.M.C.A. Work in Africa.68
All progressive organizations and trade unions have been asked to send delegates.
Daily Worker, February 4, 1937.
By Ferdinand C. Smith69
The constitution of the National Maritime Union guarantees to all its members equal rights, privileges and opportunities, regardless of color, creed or political belief. The Constitution of the United States contains similar guarantees. Both make fine reading for comfortable liberals—but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Negroes and other minority groups have recently found the winters long and tough, with pudding at a distinct premium.
The seamen wrote their equal rights policy in their constitution not simply because they were a group of impassioned liberals. Bitter experience had taught them a lesson—that the broadest unity and cooperation is necessary to win any kind of struggle, whether it be a war, an election, or a decent standard of working and living conditions.
Under the old A.F. of L. Maritime labor setup, in which trade-unionists were organized by crafts into white and colored locals, the International Seamen’s Union had for years waged a losing struggle against the pressure of change. The working conditions of the seamen were taking the same nosedive as the stockmarket. The seamen were divided, demoralized; but the dues collectors—as the International Seamen’s Union officials were known—went on collecting their tribute. They did little to draw the seamen together under a constructive program; in fact, they apparently aided and abetted disunity, playing one type of seamen, and one race, against another.
The New Deal came along and other workers enjoyed its fruits, but the seamen remained on the toboggan slide. By 1936, maritime workers on the East Coast were pretty well fed up with the labor fakers who professed to speak in their name on the one hand and sold them down the river to the lowest bidder on the other. They revolted, and after a series of strikes, were successful in giving their officials the “bum’s rush.” In May, 1937, a new union was formed—the National Maritime Union—and a new constitution was written for the seamen.
Their experience with disunity in the International Seamen’s Union, and their strikes—in which Negroes played a recognized role—convinced the seamen that only a united organization of vast scope could hope to gain their objectives. Under the ISU setup, the sailors, firemen, and stewards—the three departments on a ship—had been placed in separate and distinct unions. When one of these unions took action to win improvements, it could never be sure that the others would support it. The National Maritime Union decided not to make this fatal mistake. It organized ships industrially, taking in all the crew except the licensed officers and engineers. In two and half years this progressive industrial policy has proved itself dozens of times.
The International Seamen’s Union had avoided a knotty problem by dividing white and Negro workers. They had kept white seamen and Negro seamen segregated on different ships. More and more of the ships formerly manned by Negroes had been laid up or their crews replaced by white ones, but that had never seemed to bother the ISU officialdom.
The National Maritime Union met the problem of racial prejudice head on. It wrote into its constitution a provision that all members must be shipped through Union halls in a rotary system. When a seaman leaves a ship for any reason, he must register on the shipping list at the Union hall in whatever port he may be. He gets a number and is put on the bottom of the list. As jobs are called, the men on the top of the list, those who registered earlier, have the choice of accepting or refusing the job. Gradually those ahead receive employment until finally the man who was on the bottom of the list rises to the top and gets first choice for a job in his rating.
This rotary system must be adhered to strictly in order to be effective. Any discrimination is therefore strictly forbidden.
This sounds fine on paper, but in practice the new system had to buck a century of prejudice instilled into the minds of workers by those forces which profit when labor is divided. Certain white crews wouldn’t accept a Negro shipmate. “We don’t object to being in the same union with him; he’s a good guy and a good union man, but we don’t want him on our ship,” they would say. Sometimes the same thing would happen on a ship manned by white sailors and firemen and Negro stewards, if the hall sent a Negro sailor or fireman as a replacement.
Such incidents soon began to throw the rotary shipping system out of gear. Most Negro members of the Union recognized that the problem was one that couldn’t be solved overnight, especially by a union whose membership constituted the merest fraction of the population of the country. However, as in all groups and organizations, there is always a small clique ready to create disunity, either for personal or pecuniary reasons. In the National Maritime Union, on several occasions, this clique, using a few self-seeking Negroes, was able to raise dissension on several occasions on the question of this or that case of discrimination.
The problem of discrimination had become complicated by increasing unemployment among Negro members through no fault of the Union or their own. As Joseph Curran, President of the NMU, in his report to the Second Biennial Convention of the Union last summer, pointed out: “Since the formation of the National Maritime Union in May, 1937, at least 1,000 Negro members of this Union have lost jobs . . . in Atlantic Coast steamship and tanker companies. How many jobs have been lost by them on Gulf (of Mexico) ships has not been estimated. . . .”
Contributary causes of this unemployment were: ships were laid up, companies employing Negro seamen were going out of business; the transfer of ships from a company employing Negroes to one which did not; changes in the classification of ships in a given trade; and the refusal of certain ships’ crews to accept Negro replacements for jobs.
With unusual energy the new union met the problem. By now it has pretty well solved it. First of all the group of disrupters, paid labor spies and shipowner stooges, who had been plaguing the Union since its inception, were either expelled for just cause or rendered harmless. This clique had kept the membership in a turmoil for a long time and was behind much of the prejudice against Negroes. When they went, most of the prejudice went with them.
Secondly, educational efforts among the members were redoubled. The problem was discussed at numerous meetings and proposals and counter-proposals were submitted. Committees were elected to deal especially with the problem. The entire membership finally realized that something had to be done.
Something was done. It was decided that Negro members were to remain aboard ships which they manned entirely, and no other but Negro replacements were to be sent to them. Strong measures were taken to adhere to the rotary system of shipping, and where companies allowed the hiring of Negroes, such members were sent to the ships. Unless objections of the crew were overpowering, they had to accept Negro shipmates. In many instances the iron fist didn’t have to be used because, through education, white crews lost much of their prejudice.
A further policy of the new union is to place Negro crews on new and laid-up tonnage put into operation again. The Union has also been successful in putting Negro stewards aboard several round-the-world liners. When the Neutrality Act put a curb on shipping to North European ports, many seamen, including Negroes, were thrown out of work. The Union succeeded in getting some of them work-relief jobs.
Within the National Maritime Union, at present, the Negro is entitled to all the benefits of membership, such as protection of wage, working and living conditions; he votes; he voices his opinion at meetings and in the union’s paper—the Pilot—and he holds office.
In the port of New York alone, seven Negroes are officers of the union, one is National Secretary; a second heads the Stewards’ Department. There are two Negro organizers, one in the New England area and another in the Middle Atlantic area.
In two years the new union has boosted wages 36 per cent and improved conditions on the ships accordingly. Negro members got these benefits along with their white shipmates; there is only one scale and it holds for all members of the Union.
Negro delegates go aboard ships manned by white crews and help settle their complaints against company officials. Negro officials have had the unique privilege of serving on negotiating committees representing the entire union.
When the European war broke out, certain companies which served the North Atlantic routes chartered ships from other companies to cash in on the rush of American tourists and expatriates to get home. Some of these ships were manned, up to 60 per cent, by Negro crews sent out from the Union hall.
The last traces of prejudice in the minds of the Union’s membership are being burned out under the powerful light of education. The program of education has taught Negroes as well as white seamen. It has shown them that their destiny is linked up with all other workers, that their problem is not separate and apart from the broader problems of society, that they must fight patiently and intelligently side by side with other workers, and not behind them, to win a future of dignity and freedom.
The National Maritime Union is just one sector in this struggle, but it is a leading and shining one. It hasn’t yet completely won its own particular fight. But with the National Maritime Union to help them, the prospects for Negro employment in the maritime industry at respectable wages and conditions can be made bright, if all the Negro seamen get together in one organization and pull together in a common cause. The European war has cleared the decks of American ships of many aliens. The Maritime Commission is building many new ships. The union is agitating for the establishment of new American trade routes and for the government to take over those abandoned by warring nations. All this combined will make room for more jobs, including work for Negroes in the industry.
Opportunity, 18 (April, 1940): 112–14.
(Brother Paul Robeson arrives and is greeted with a tremendous ovation).
THE CHAIR: At this time we will suspend the regular order of business. A privilege that we have long been waiting for has been accorded us now. Everybody here has been waiting since the Convention opened for this moment. I particularly am glad to be able to present our guest because we come from the same town in New Jersey. We grew up together in the same town.
So it is a great honor for me to be able to present to you a man, who is not only one of the greatest singers in the world today, but a man who is also known as one of the greatest fighters for civil liberties, democracy and trade unions throughout the country as well as throughout the world. (Applause) And one who has never failed to give of his time and his great voice in the cause of democracy and civil liberties.
I give you at this time Brother Paul Robeson.
(The delegates rose to their feet and thunderously applauded and cheered Mr. Robeson. It was some time before the demonstration ceased).
Joe Curran and fellows and brothers: I needn’t say how happy I am to be here, because I am here, I don’t come as a singer of importance or anything like that. I come today because I feel very close to the maritime unions. I remember coming on a ship with Mr. Brown from abroad after the war began. I remember stepping on an American ship and after being on board a couple of hours a delegation came up to me and said: “Paul, we know who you are, and anything we can do for you we shall surely do.” I remember later singing for them below and having a great time.
I know the whole background of your Union, and I would like you to know that among the colored people of this country your Union stands among the foremost for giving complete equality and for the advancement of the colored people. I just want to tell you. (Applause).
I remember when I was going through school—I had a brother I lived with out in Westfield, N.J.—he went to sea and I went to sing, (laughter) while working my way through school. I used to go down to the docks. My brother worked on the Fall River Line. And then I learned how to sling hash in one of the hotels.
I come as one who has worked very hard in the early part of his life, and I still work very hard for the things in which I believe. I don’t feel a stranger; I know Joe and Ferdy Smith, and one of my best friends is here. Revels Cayton from out in San Francisco. But more than personal friendship, I know that we are all one in the things for which we stand. Here at home, of course, for complete rights for labor, for complete equality for the colored people of this country, and for a right to a better life for every worker in this land of ours. (Applause) Further than that, I know that we spread out and we stand not alone, but we stand for mankind wherever it may suffer and wherever it may be oppressed. (Applause)
I have had the opportunity to work with refugees from Austria, Germany, for the Spanish people and for the Chinese people, and I saw very clearly how all of our problems come together, no matter whether we may be black or white or yellow. As long as we are struggling for a better life we have one cause, and I don’t know about you, but I feel awfully happy today and awfully optimistic now that fascism has come to grips with a power that will show it no quarter. (Applause)
I have been in the Soviet Union and I know that the people of the Soviet Union know who they are fighting, why they are fighting and for what they have to fight. I know that this Union with its militant background, will come to a decision to urge the government to give the Soviet Union all aid possible in its fight against fascism, for the Soviet Union is standing four-square for the cause and the rights of all the oppressed peoples of the world.
This is my first time among you. And whenever your next convention comes—I see by the papers it may be in 1943—I will be back again. (Extended applause)
(Mr. Robeson then sang the following songs requested by the audience). Bill of Rights, Water Boy, Joe Hill, Fatherland, Old Man River, Jim Crow, It Ain’t Necessarily So, Spring Song, Song to Joe, Ballad for Americans.
THE CHAIR: I know he would like to sing all day. He sings because he loves to sing, but we have to be sure that a voice like his must be saved so that all can hear him. So though we would like to hear more, we must think of preserving his voice.
I would recommend that we give consideration to extending to Paul Robeson for the work he has done in all fields of endeavor, an honorary membership in the National Maritime Union. (Extended applause)
M/S/C To extend to Paul Robeson honorary membership in the Maritime Union.
(The Convention again rose amid a demonstration of applause as Paul Robeson left the hall).
Proceedings of the Third National Convention of the National Maritime Union of America, Cleveland, Ohio, July 7–14, 1941, pp. 56–57.
Detroit Labor Leader to Speak as Official Representative of Lewis—Chicago A.F. of L. Donates Radio Time—Funds Needed
By Milton Howard
CHICAGO, Ill., Feb. 6.—Powerful and influential trade union leaders of Detroit and Chicago yesterday joined in support of the National Negro Congress which will open its historic three-day sessions here on Feb. 14 at the Eighth Regiment Armory, 34 South Giles Street.
Frank X. Martel, president of the Wayne County (Detroit) Central Labor Council, wired to John P. Davis, executive secretary, his acceptance of an invitation to address the opening sessions, and John Fitzpatrick, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, pledged to send an official speaker from the Federation.
The acceptance by Martel is given added importance by the fact that he will come to the National Negro Congress as the official representative of the Committee for Industrial Organization of the American Federation of Labor, the group of powerful trade unions fighting for industrial unionism, and also as the personal representative of John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers of America.
Preparations for the Congress which will bring together more than 1,000 Negro delegates and sympathetic observers from all parts of the country, are proceeding rapidly. The committee announced today the following schedule: Sessions on Saturday, Feb. 15, 10:30 A.M., 2:30 P.M. and 7:00 P.M., for Sunday, Feb. 16, 2:30 P.M. and 7:00 P.M., Monday Feb. 17, 10:30 A.M., 2:30 P.M., and 7:00 P.M.
A dance and ball has been arranged for Saturday evening, February 15, at the Armory with Tiny Parham’s Cotton Club orchestra providing the music.
Many local unions have already pledged to send delegates.
Mr. Davis emphasized today the urgent need for funds. “We have the responsibility and the honor of having to pay for the scores of poverty-stricken sharecroppers who will come to Chicago from the plantations and the Cotton Belt,” he said, “These brave people are practically penniless. They are facing all kinds of obstacles in their efforts to come with their message from the deep South. In addition, we have large expenses for rent, office help, printing, etc. I appeal to every friend of the Negro people to come to our aid with contributions right now. Every dollar will help some sharecropper to reach this great national congress of his people, a congress that affects the welfare also of the entire country. Please send your contribution to the Negro National Congress, 4401 South Park, Chicago, Ill., care of John P. Davis.”
Daily Worker, February 7, 1936.
The National Negro Congress held in Chicago on February 14–16, and which brought together more than 900 delegates representing hundreds of organizations of Negro people and their friends built a living monument to the great Negro Abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.
Perhaps the outstanding factor together with the energetic and capable work of John P. Davis, influencing the success of the Congress was the participation of A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The speech of Brother Randolph gave a clear line for the Congress to follow. His words on the united front, trade unions and the Labor Party represented a new change within the ranks of the Negro people, viz, first, the maturing of the Negro working class, its willingness and readiness to fight determinedly against oppression; and secondly the realization on its part of its power, force and leadership in the Negro liberation movement. We are printing in an abridged form the speech of Brother Randolph.
Greetings and felicitations upon this great Congress. Though absent in the flesh, I am with you in the spirit, in the spirit of the deathless courage of the 18th and 19th century black rebels and martyrs for human justice in the spirit of Frederick Douglass and Nat Turner, of Gabriel and Denmark Vesey, of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.70
With the economic affliction of nation-wide joblessness stand the liquidation of the farmers, the small shop owners, the middle class, the poor sharecrop and tenant farmers and farm laborers, the foreclosure of hundreds of thousands of mortgages upon the homes of the workers and the lower strata of the middle class, with no prospects of permanent rehabilitation by the hectic, sketchy, patchy, and makeshift capitalist program.
But economic insecurity, though baffling, is not the only challenge to the American workers, black and white and the middle classes. There is also political and civil insecurity. Even the most credulous can sense an existing grave danger to our democratic institutions and constitutional liberties.
This danger is fascism—Fascism which seeks the complete abrogation of all civil and political liberties in the manner and method of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. It is a menace to America.
And war is the twin evil sister of Fascism. Its coming is not now improbable. It is a danger.
But this congress is called to attempt to meet the problems of blacks, they are a hated, maligned tenth of the population. While this is true, it is also true that the problems of the Negro peoples are the problems of the workers, for practically 99 per cent of the Negro peoples win their bread by selling their labor power in the labor market from day to day. They cannot escape the dangers and penalties of the depression, war or Fascism.
However, our contemporary history is a witness to the stark fact that black America is a victim of both class and race prejudice and oppression. Because Negroes are black, they are hated, maligned and spat upon; lynched, mobbed, and murdered. Because Negroes are workers, they are brow-beaten, bullied, intimidated, robbed, exploited, jailed and shot down.
No Union Card
Thus, voteless in 13 states; politically disregarded and discounted in the others; victims of the lynch terror in Dixie, with a Scottsboro frame-up of notorious memory; faced with the label of the white man’s job and the white man’s union; unequal before the law; jim-crowed in schools and colleges throughout the nation; segregated in the slums and ghettos of the urban centers; landless peons of a merciless white landlordism; hunted down, harassed and hounded as vagrants in the southern cities, the Negro peoples face a hard, deceptive and brutal capitalist order, despite its preachments of Christian love and brotherhood.
War Brings Change
What has brought us to this, is the insistent question? The answer in brief lies in the World War, the sharpening and deepening of capitalist exploitation of the workers of hand and brain, the acceleration of a technological revolution creating a standing army of unemployed, the ripening and maturing of monopoly capitalism thru trustification rationalization and the rapid march of financial imperialism, and the intensification of racial and religious hatreds, together with increasingly blatant and provocative nationalism.
But the war itself was the effect of a deeper cause and that cause was the profit system which provides and permits the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many, allowing two per cent of the people to own ninety per cent of the wealth of these United States, a condition not much different in other capitalist countries, and also makes for the robbery and oppression of the darker, and weaker colonial peoples of the world.
“Of the Remedies”
But the diagnosis of the causes of social problems such as wars, economic depressions and Fascism is only designed to enable the victims to seek and find a remedy. Before dealing with some of the remedies, however, let me speak briefly of what are not remedies:
First, the New Deal is no remedy. It does not seek to change the profit system. It does not place human rights above property rights, but gives the business interests the support of the state. It is no insurance against the coming of Fascism or the prevention of war or a recurrent depression, though it be more liberal than the Republican Tories.
Second, the restoration of Republican rule is no solution. It was during the rule of the Grand Old Party under which the depression came. Negroes have watched themselves disfranchised and lynched under both regimes, Republican and Democratic.
Third, the Townsend Plan is no panacea. While an adequate old age pension should be fought for, a pension far greater than that offered by the New Deal Security legislation, the Townsend Plan is well nigh impossible of execution, and if executed would not achieve its aim.71
Back to Remedies
But back to remedies. At the top of the list of remedies I wish to suggest the struggle of the workers against exploitation of the employers. Next, the struggle of the workers against Fascism and for the preservation of democratic institutions, the arena in which alone their economic power may be built.
Third, the struggle to build powerful Negro civil rights organizations. Fourth, the struggle against war which wrecks the organizations of the workers, and stifles and suppresses freedom of speech, the press and assembly. Fifth, the struggle to strengthen the forces of the exploited sharecrop and tenant farmers. Sixth, the struggle to build mass consumers’ movements to protect the housewives against price manipulation.
Instrumentalities for Action
But the struggle to apply the aforementioned remedies can only be achieved through definite social, economic and political instrumentalities. Thus the fight against the economic exploitation of the workers can only be effectively carried on through industrial and craft unions, with the emphasis on the former.
The industrial union is important in this stage of economic development because modern business has changed in structure and assumed the form of giant trust and holding companies, with which the craft union can no longer effectively grapple.
Moreover, the craft union invariably has a color bar against the Negro worker, but the industrial union in structure renders race discrimination less possible, since it embraces all the workers included in the industry, regardless of race, creed, color or craft, skilled or unskilled.
Must Fight Color Bar
Thus, this congress should seek to broaden and intensify the movement to draw Negro workers into labor organizations and break down the color bar in the trade unions that now have it.
The next instrumentality which the workers must build and employ for their protection against economic exploitation, war and fascism, is an independent working class political party. It should take the form of a farmer-labor political organization. This is indispensable in view of the bankruptcy in principles, courage and vision of the old line parties, Republican and Democratic.
They are the political committees of Wall Street and are constructed to serve the profit making agencies.
The fight for civil and political rights of the Negro peoples can effectively be carried on if only those organizations that are pushing the struggles are broadened and built with a wider mass base. Those organizations that are serving on the civil rights front effectively for the Negro are the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the International Labor Defense.
It needs to be definitely understood, however, that the fight in the courts for civil and political rights cannot be effective except when backed by a broad, nationwide, of not international mass protest through demonstrations in the form of parades, mass meetings and publicity.
But the fight for civil and political liberties for the Negro peoples, while it has been brilliantly waged by the N.A.A.C.P. and the I.L.D., the gravity and complexity of the problems of civil and political liberties, accentuated and widened by the evil of fascist trends in America, demands that new tactics and strategy be employed to meet the situation.
The maneuvering and disposing of the forces of Negro peoples and their sympathetic allies against their enemies can only be effectively worked out through the tactics and strategy of the united front. The task of overcoming the enemies of democratic institutions and constitutional liberties is too big for any single organization. It requires the united and formal integrating and coordinating of the various Negro organizations, church, fraternal, civil, trade union, farmer, professional, college and whatnot, into the framework of a united front, together with the white groups of workers, lovers of liberty and those whose liberties are similarly menaced for a common attack upon the forces of reaction, backed by the embattled masses of black and white workers.
The united front strategy and tactics should be executed through methods of mass demonstration, such as parades, picketing, boycotting, mass protests, the mass distribution of propaganda literature, as well as legal action.
The united front does not provide an excuse for weakness or timidity or reliance by any one organization upon the others who comprise it, but, on the contrary, it affords an opportunity for the contribution of strength by each organization to the common pool of organizational power for a common attack or a common defense against the enemy. Thus the Negro peoples should not place their problems for solution down at the feet of their white sympathetic allies, which has been and is the common fashion of the old school Negro leadership, for, in the final analysis, the salvation of the Negro, like the workers, must come from within.
The power and effectiveness of the united front will be developed by waging the struggles around definite, vital and immediate issues of life and living.
These issues should be obvious, clear and simple, such as prevention of stoppage of relief, cuts in relief allotments, lay-offs, of relief workers, of workers in any industry, discrimination in the giving of relief, exorbitant rents, evictions, rent increases, police brutality, denial of free assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of speech to unpopular groups, denial of civil rights to Negroes, such as the right to be served in hotels and restaurants, to have access to public utilities and forms of transportation, such as the Pullman car.
Wage struggles around war upon Ethiopia by the fascist dictator Mussolini, strikes and lockouts of black and white workers, the amendment to the federal Constitution of the adoption of social legislation such as the Retirement Pension Act for railroad workers, fight for the freedom of Angelo Herndon, the Scottsboro boys, the Wagner-Costigan anti-lynching bill, the violations of the Wagner Labor Disputes bill, etc., American Liberty League, William Randolph Hearst and the Ku Klux Klan, and supporting the movement of John L. Lewis for industrial unionism.72
Such is the task of Negro peoples. This task comes as a sharp and decisive challenge at a time when new atrocities and nameless terrorism are directed against black America and when the workers, black and white, are being goaded by oppression and intimidation, to resort to general strikes such as took place in San Francisco and in Pekin, Ill., as well as national strikes such as the textile workers, the miners, and the workers’ revolts in Minnesota and Toledo.
To meet this task, the Negro people, pressed with their backs against the wall, must face the future with heads erect, hearts undaunted and undismayed, ready and willing and determined to pay the price in struggle, sacrifices and suffering that freedom, justice and peace shall share and enjoy a more abundant life.
Forward to complete economic, political and social equality for Negro peoples. Forward to the abolition of this sinister system of jim-crowism in these United States! The united front points the way. More power to the National Negro Congress! The future belongs to the people!
Daily Worker, March 1, 1936.
By Ben Davis, Jr.
The militant program of the National Negro Congress puts another nail in the coffin of the capitalist theory that Negroes are “naturally docile.” It showed that the Negro people are ready to struggle against the monopoly of wealth, which has brought them the grossest misery, poverty and oppression; secondly, they are ready to struggle jointly with all their allies against lynching, jim-crowism and for their national rights. Frederick Douglass, the great Negro abolitionist, would have been proud of this history-making gathering!
Nor did the delegates at the Congress fail to see the necessity of carrying out this program. They set up a permanent organization—a federation of organizations—comprising a national council, a small, readily assembled executive committee, and 15 regional heads for every section of the country. Represented among these individuals are Republicans, Democrats, Communists, Socialists, Church folk, trade unionists, sharecroppers and virtually every type of organization active among the Negro people.
Recognizing the pressure of this newly formed weapon for Negro liberation, the sedate and aloof “Nation” begrudgingly yielded the following comment in its March 11, issue: “The National Negro Congress at Chicago . . . presented a united front against a reactionary world.”
But the “Nation” did not stop there. It makes a profoundly insignificant and hair-splitting criticism—from the left! It uses the trick of quoting out of context to attack the resolutions adopted by the business and church sections.
It snatches from the church program the following:
“We still feel that the Negro church is the most potent agency to be used in the further progress and advancement of our people,” (Emphasis ours).
Omits Vital Proposals
It thus entirely omits the proposals of the resolution which commit the churches to devoting every fifth Sunday to the Congress; to working unitedly with non-Christian groups; to urging ministers to preach “social and economic as well as spiritual gospel.” Nor does it consider the fact that the church division supports the program of the Congress in every other field.
Would that the “Nation” used its influences among white church people to commit them even as far along this road!
Here is how the “Nation” deletes the resolution pertaining to business:
“Whereas the development of sound and thriving Negro business is most indispensable to the general elevation of the Negro’s social and economic security, therefore, be it resolved, that all Negroes consider it their inescapable duty to support Negro business.”
Neglects Union Issue
Again the “Nation” “forgets” to mention the proposals of the resolution which include: the establishment of producers and consumers cooperatives; that Negro business and employers employ only union labor. Unable to see the Negro people as an oppressed nation, the Nation does not understand that the fight against segregation, jim-crowism, and oppression includes the struggle for Negroes to set up and maintain their businesses free from imperialist discrimination.
The Nation pooh-poohs the idea of union labor in Negro business as a “pious wish,” conveniently ignoring the Amsterdam News strike and the fact that its success opened the way for unionization in thousands of Negro businesses.
The united front or federated character of the Congress leaves each organization free to do its work independently. The Communist Party, as always, will continue—yes, strengthen—its independent activity among Negro people in and out of the Congress, constantly clarifying them on such issues as the church and Negro business.
Notwithstanding the excellent beginning made by the Congress, there were certain serious weaknesses which should be corrected before the next Congress convenes in Philadelphia in May, 1937.
The most glaring weakness was the absence of sufficient representation from the South—where eight million Negroes are subject to the most barbarous lynch oppression. Only fifteen delegates come from extreme southern states. More delegates should have come from the Southern church and uplift groups and economic as well as social and religious activities. Three fourths of the delegates came from four states—Illinois, New York, Indiana and Pennsylvania. In the South the Congress must have its deepest roots—among the sharecroppers, poor farmers, and the disfranchised Negro population.
The trade union representation from 80 unions—most of which were affiliated to the A.F. of L.—was weak though the group as a whole was very advanced.
Such unions as the International Ladies Garment Workers, the United Mine Workers of America, and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers should have had large Negro delegations. Clearly the trade unions must form the solid base of the Congress.
It remains to be seen whether Frank Crosswaith, prominent Negro Socialist and head of the Harlem Labor Committee, will continue to sabotage the Congress as he did before it met, or whether he will conform with the growing sentiment for this powerful new weapon for Negro rights.
Barred From Unions
In view of the number of Negro churches—where the bulk of the Negro people are organized and women’s organizations, these delegations were also too small. It is in the hundreds of small churches throughout the country that Negro workers barred from trade unions by discriminatory policies of the A.F. of L. leadership congregate.
The next Congress must represent an even larger cross-section of the Negro people—but with a decidedly firmer trade union base.
The enthusiastic reception given the addresses of James W. Ford, and A. Philip Randolph is a mandate for further efforts to popularize the Farmer-Labor Party among the Negro people.
In the final article, we shall deal with the democratic procedures of the Congress, and the immediate tasks before it.
Daily Worker, March 16, 1936.
National Negro Congress Labor Committee Promised Full Support of Cleveland Metal Trades Council
CLEVELAND, Ohio, April 16.—A request to organize the Negro workers of Cleveland into trade unions was favorably received by the Metal Trades Council at its last meeting, Monday.
A delegation of four, representing the Negro Labor Committee of the National Negro Congress and Local 610 of the Paint and Varnish Makers’ Union, was accorded a good reception by the Metal Trades Council when it appeared before the meeting. Their spokesman, Miss Maude White of Federal Teachers’ Union Local 448, made the following requests of the Metal Trades Council:
Endorsement of the Philip Randolph resolution urging the unionization of Negro workers;
Inclusion of the organization of Negroes in the present organizational drive conducted by the Metal Trades Council;
A public statement of their stand on the organization of Negroes, to be released through both the white and Negro press.
Following the presentation of Miss White, delegates at the Metal Trades Council rose to speak in favor of the proposals.
Joel Faith, international vice-president of the Moulders’ Union, urged strong support to the organization of Negro workers into the trade unions.
Steel Union Pledged
George Haas, secretary of the Moulders’ Union, spoke in similar vein. J. Casey of the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers promised the assistance of his union to this aim. He stated, that their union was taking in Negroes and would continue to do so in the future.
Ray Bomby of Local 18946 of the Laborers’ Union also stated that their union was accepting Negroes.
James McWeeney, president of the Metal Trades Council, asserted he would do everything he could to help the organization of Negro workers.
The Negro Labor Committee of the National Negro Congress is energetically promoting the trade unionization of the Negro workers. It has received the endorsement of Painters’ District Council, which had sent out the following letter to all labor unions in the city:
“To all District Councils and Local Unions:
“Painters’ District Council takes this means of affirming our policy of accepting membership of all qualified mechanics in our respective trades, black or white, without discrimination. We urge all trade unions to do likewise as the true spirit of unionism would then be carried out.
(Sgd.) CHARLES COLVIN,
District Council Secretary”
The Labor Committee of the National Negro Congress is planning to visit every local union in the city to secure endorsement of the Randolph resolution and promote the trade unionization of Negroes.
A conference of all organizations interested in economic and social justice for Negroes will take place this Sunday at 2:30 in the afternoon at Bethany Baptist Church, Seventy-first and Kinsman Streets, to hear the reports of the National Negro Congress.
Daily Worker, April 17, 1936.
By Lester B. Granger
It is a paradoxical fact that the National Negro Congress held in Chicago last February provided a powerful impetus toward national racial unity, while at the same time it has stirred up more bitter controversy than any gathering of Negroes since the days of Marcus Garvey’s “provisional presidential incumbency.”73
It was not the first time in recent years that a truly national meeting had been attempted. The Equal Rights Congress at Washington during war days, the Negro Labor Congress of 1925, and the more recent “Sanhedrin” were all attempts to produce a racial gathering from all parts of the country to take counsel on racial problems. Because of previous failures the National Negro Congress was opposed by many sincere persons who felt that this latest ambitious attempt was foredoomed likewise to failure.74
Not all opposition came from those who feared its failure, for there were many individuals who saw in the possible success of this movement a future crippling of national organizations already serving the economic and social welfare of Negroes. Still others suspected undue radical influence in the Congress leadership, while in the same breath suspicions were openly voiced that it was a gigantic anti-New Deal effort financed by the Republican Party or the Liberty League.
Now that the Congress has been held and is over, some of these criticisms are lost, while others have been magnified and intensified. A prelate of the Negro church participated until the closing moments of the final session, then stamped out in high dudgeon, denouncing the entire Congress as atheistic. A Republican national committeeman protested throughout the Congress that it had been sold out to the Democratic Party, and later went back to Washington branding the meeting as Communistic. Various Walter Winchells and Lippmans of the Negro press failed to attend, but deplored the entire proceeding as “pitifully futile” or as “a remarkable waste of time and money.” Meanwhile the Congress delegates went back to five hundred and fifty-one organizations to report on what actually took place in Chicago. Increased racial unity will grow out of the public’s reception of these reports, even though that unity grows amid acrimonious dispute.75
It is unfortunate that practically all criticism has been aimed at an assumed malign influence in the Congress leadership, or at presumed secret ambitions on the part of its promoters. Almost no critics have analyzed the actual program of the Congress, or enumerated its many virtues, or specifically pointed out its weaknesses—which there were many. This article is an attempt, not to answer the critics of the Congress, but to interpret its real significance and to point out its possible usefulness to the people in whose service it was called—five million wage earners and heads of Negro families.
To understand the meeting itself, one must know its background. The Congress grew out of a conference on the “Economic Condition Among Negroes” held at Washington, D.C., in May, 1935, under the combined sponsorship of the Joint Committee on National Recovery and Howard University’s Department of Political Economy. That conference produced disturbing evidence showing that depression and “recovery” trends are forcing Negroes into an even lower economic and social position than they now occupy. Immediate action was indicated as imperatively needed to combat these trends, but it was also recognized that such action must be preceded by a wide education of Negroes in the techniques of group action.
A small meeting after the Conference made plans for calling a national congress to initiate this education and to plan action. Here was the birth of the National Negro Congress, under the organizing genius of John P. Davis, a meeting to include all types of Negro organizations and to devise a platform which would unite them on a program of fundamental issues involving their economic, social and civil security. It was to be a Congress which would cut across political lines and philosophies; it was to be a realistic gathering dealing with bread-and-butter problems; it was to be an interracial meeting giving whites as well as Negroes a chance to help attack a problem which is the problem of all America.
With this background, it was to be expected that the Congress would produce a stranger assortment of delegates and a varied conglomeration of political and economic philosophies. Negroes in every walk of life were there—ministers, labor leaders, business men—mechanics, farmers, musicians,—housewives, missionaries, social workers. Many whites were present—trade unionists, church leaders, and lookers-on drawn by curiosity. There were representatives of New Deal departments and agencies; old line Republican wheel horses and ambitious young Democrats exchanged arguments; Communists held heated altercations with proponents of the Forty-Ninth State Movement, and Garveyites signed the registration books immediately after Baha’ists.76
The Congress produced an amazing attendance past even the most optimistic expectations of its promoters. In the middle of the worst winter in fifty years, the delegates traveled through sub-zero weather by train, bus and auto, paying their own way or financed by poverty-stricken club treasuries. Nevertheless, 800 delegates proffered credentials from 551 organizations in 28 states, including California, Florida and Massachusetts. On the opening night five thousand men and women jammed the drill hall and balconies of the Eighth Armory, filled the standing space, and remained from eight in the evening until past midnight. They came back next day at nine and left at midnight. On the closing day they sat from early afternoon until nearly midnight, scarcely leaving their chairs, intent on the reports of committees and the final speeches.
Here, it seems to this writer, is the inner significance of the Congress—a significance which has been missed by its critics. Such a gathering, such enthusiasm, such sustained interest are indicative of a deep-rooted and nationwide dissatisfaction of Negroes that rapidly mounts into a flaming resentment. It is idle to attempt its dismissal as “a Communist gathering.” All the Communists in America and Russia could not have inveigled the great majority of those delegates into that trip last winter unless something far deeper than inspired propaganda were driving them. As a matter of fact, delegates were plentiful from the very states where radical parties are weakest.
The Congress was significant, moreover, of the growing importance of labor leadership and of the power of the labor movement. Delegates were present from 80 trade unions, as opposed to only 18 professional and educational groups. The trade union section was the most largely attended and hotly discussed—so much so that it starved the attendance at other important sections. A powerful youth group was present, articulate and aggressive. The church militant was represented on platform and discussion floor, expounding the new social gospel of justice for the underdog.
Criticism of the mechanical operation of the Congress can be most easily justified, for here was evident the committee’s lack of promotional funds and the haste of its last-minute preparations. Difficulties were further increased by the armory’s inadequate convention facilities and the unstable attitudes of its officials, to say nothing of the mutual suspicion with which rival and dissenting groups regarded each other. Then there was the unpardonably stupid threat of local authorities to close the armory on the opening night because of the discovery of Communist delegates. On the other hand, criticism was freely made that the speakers who were scheduled did not sufficiently represent the different points of view among the delegates.
The true test of the Congress, however, lay in the quality of the resolutions adopted and its plans for making these resolutions effective. The resolutions were uniformly of a high order. To be sure, those on the Church were for the most part full of vague generalities, with the exception of an insistence upon an economic and social, as well as a spiritual gospel. Likewise those on Negro business fell into grievous errors of contradiction with resolutions on labor. It is manifestly inconsistent to urge that “all Negroes consider it their inescapable duty to support Negro business by their patronage,” without first exacting a pledge that business men will in turn support labor by paying adequate wages, encouraging union organization and following the spirit of other resolutions passed.
Still, these inconsistencies were surprisingly few in view of the intense speed with which the resolutions committee worked during its few hours of existence. Thoroughly sound positions were taken by the Congress for the most part. There can be no quarrel with resolutions that condemn lynching, exploitation of sharecroppers, civil and social discrimination, and the vicious endorsement of racial equality in trade unions, organization of Negro workers into unions and cooperatives, and support of the Urban League and the N.A.A.C.P.
Plans for continuance of the Congress seem at this writing completely sound. The local sponsoring committees that sent delegates to Chicago are to be continued as follow-up groups. It is to be their task to sell to the Negro public the fundamental correctness of the resolutions passed at Chicago, and to encourage organizations to incorporate these resolutions into their programs. Sectional chairmen are appointed; labor, youth and church committees are to be formed; a National Council of seventy-five members will meet in June to follow up the work that remains to be done after Chicago. There is nothing in the program that implies supplanting or curtailment of any existing organization that fights the Negro’s battles; rather is the race urged to support these organizations all the more effectively.
Two dangers exist in the future that must be prepared for in the present. One is the tendency of praiseworthy enthusiasm to grow tired or go off on a new tangent. There is the possibility that in many instances the original sponsoring committees may lose their earlier zeal and local racketeers take over the Congress idea, to the detriment of its program. This has often happened, for instance, in “Don’t Spend Your Money Where You Can’t Work” campaigns. The National Council must be prepared to discover such deviations from policy and to break itself—the natural desire of any organization to perpetuate itself. To do its job properly the Congress must extend over at least a few years and must grow in size and influence. Yet, the older it grows and the larger it becomes, the more it will be exposed to the danger of political control and corrupt bureaucracy—evils which are totally absent today. Definite commitments should be made at once, that the Congress will deal not with political parties but with economic and civil issues, just as was the case at Chicago. Definite goals should be set, capable of achievement within two or three years, and it should be agreed now that when these are arrived at, the Congress will close up shop and disband. By taking these or similar precautions the National Negro Congress, which is already a noteworthy gathering in our racial history, has the opportunity of completing a really constructive job and cementing its place in the brilliant annals of racial progress.
Opportunity, 14 (May, 1936): 151–53.
Transport, Gas, Food Legislation Drives Are Discussed
PHILADELPHIA, Pa., Sept. 26.—John L. Lewis, chairman of the Committee on Industrial Organization, yesterday sent “warm greetings” to the forthcoming Second National Negro Congress and commended Negroes for the able part they are “playing in the CIO’s march to bring a better life to American workers.”
The CIO leader’s message was contained in a letter to John P. Davis, executive secretary of the Congress, at the convention headquarters in the O. V. Catto’s Elk Lodge, 15th and Fitzwater Sts. The three-day sessions of the Congress will take place Oct. 15–17.
Earlier the CIO had already endorsed the Congress and last Thursday night the Philadelphia Council of the CIO followed suit after a stirring address by John P. Davis.
Lewis’ letter in full declared:
“Please convey my warm greetings to the delegates of the National Negro Congress.
“The Negro people have a great role to play, not only in the American labor movement, but in the American nation itself. The Committee for Industrial Organization welcomes this Congress of American men and women to weigh the problems of the Negro people.
“I want to extend the CIO’s gratitude, too, for the able part that Negro men and women are playing in the CIO’s march to bring a better life to American workers. I am convinced that the share of the American Negro in our labor movement will be even greater in the future.
Signed: “JOHN L. LEWIS.”
Daily Worker, September 27, 1937.
Sessions to Open in Philadelphia October 15—Will Mark Anniversary of John Brown’s Raid—Preparations Are Speeded
PHILADELPHIA, Pa., Sept. 9.—As this city began to hum with preparations for the second annual convention of the National Negro Congress, John P. Davis, national secretary of the Congress, announced today that the Committee for Industrial Organization had endorsed the forthcoming convention. The Congress will meet here October 15–17.
Davis, who arrived in the city a few days ago to take charge of preliminary work, made the announcement from the local convention headquarters in the O. V. Catto Elks Lodge Building, South 16th and Fitzwater Streets.
In addition, the young Negro leader stated that Lieutenant-Governor Thomas J. Kennedy of Pennsylvania and Mayor S. Davis Wilson of Philadelphia would address the Congress during its three-day session here next month. A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and of the Congress, will also speak.77
To Speak For CIO
Lieutenant-Governor Kennedy will be the principal speaker representing the CIO and Mayor Wilson will address the opening session which will be in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.
The first session’s program will begin with exercises at Independent Hall, culminating in a huge mass meeting in Convention Hall which 15,000 people are expected to attend.
“The Second National Negro Congress will be larger, more representative and more successful than the first,” Davis said today.
“It will carry forward the historic beginnings which were made at the first Congress held in Chicago in February, 1936. Since the Chicago meeting the Congress can record many important victories in behalf of Negro rights in both the social and economic fields,” Davis pointed out.
“At the opening session, in connection with the program commemorating the anniversary of the constitution, we hope to stress particularly the enforcement of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, and also the fight for passage of the federal anti-lynching bill, sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,” he explained.
Praises Local Group
A call to the Congress, entitled “Negro America Faces a Crisis,” has been sent to hundreds of Negro labor, civic, religious, fraternal and to all “who are willing to fight for economic and social justice for Negroes,” Davis revealed. “And there have been scores of responses supporting the Congress and promising participation,” he stated.
“Just as our first Congress in Chicago met on the anniversary of the birthday of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, so this one will have equally historic significance.
“The second day of the Congress—October 16—will be historically important because John Brown’s raid struck the first blow at chattel slavery on that same day in 1851,” Davis continued.
At the First National Negro Congress held in Chicago in February 1936, approximately 600 delegates participated representing a half million Negroes.
Additional information on the Second National Negro Congress can be secured by writing to the Congress, permanent headquarters at 717 Florida Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., or to the convention headquarters.
Daily Worker, September 10, 1937.
Davis Attacks Tories’ Use of Klan Issue in Case of Justice Black
By Ben Davis, Jr.
METROPOLITAN OPERA HOUSE, PHILADELPHIA, Pa., Oct. 18.—A stirring appeal for “one powerful and united labor movement marked the closing session of the 3-day Second National Negro Congress, which was attended by a predominantly Negro audience of more than 4,500 persons here last night.
The call for a “healing of a breach in the labor movement” came in a series of some 174 resolutions which were adopted unanimously by the Congress’ final business session. Other resolutions sharply condemned the curtailment of WPA, stressing the discriminatory firings of Negroes throughout the country, and upheld the Congress’ original policy of a united front for Negro rights and against war and fascism, adopted in Chicago last year.
Earlier in the evening John P. Davis, national executive secretary of the Congress, received wild applause when discussing the controversy over the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black, declared:
“We condemn the deplorable Klan past of Justice Black. But at the same time, we cannot forget that it is the Liberty League and Hearst forces of reaction in the nation which are today backing Klanism, Black Legionism, and lynch terror against the Negro people.”78
The final session was “Richard Allen Night”—in honor of the founder of the Negro Methodist Church 107 years ago and the first Negro who organized a Negro Congress.79
The group of noted Negro leaders who spoke included: Walter White, secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who made a brilliant plea for enactment of the Federal anti-lynching bill, Vito Marcantonio, president of the International Labor Defense; Dr. Charles Wesley, professor of History at Howard University; Pres. F. D. Patterson of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama; Crystal Bird Fauset, Negro woman leader of Philadelphia; and Charles W. Burton a prominent lawyer of Chicago.80
Among the highlights of the convention were: an address by Lieutenant-Governor Thomas J. Kennedy, of Pennsylvania, and secretary-treasurer of the United Mint Workers of America, who spoke as an official representative of the CIO; a speech by James W. Ford, Negro Communist leader; a special youth session; and a symposium on war and fascism.
The “war and fascism” symposium was featured by an address of “Collective Security” by Clarence Hathaway, editor of the Daily Worker, who received a tremendous ovation after attacking a previous speech by Norman Thomas, Socialist leader. Thomas argued that collective security “might lead to war.”
The Congress reelected A. Philip Randolph, Negro labor leader, as president; John P. Davis as executive secretary. Gladys Stoner, young trade union leader, was elected financial secretary, and U. Simpson Tate of Washington, treasurer. Arthur Huff Fauset of Philadelphia, Max Yergan, director of the International Committee on African Affairs, and Rev. William Jernagins, of Washington, D.C., were elected vice presidents. The Congress also set up a national executive committee, and made other changes in its organizational form and structure.
In addition to greetings from President Roosevelt, the Congress received greetings also from Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, candidate for re-election on the American Labor Party ticket in New York.81
“Since its origin fifty years ago, the UMWA has had an enforced policy of admitting all workers into its membership without regard to creed, color or nationality. We must have legislation against discrimination of every sort—but we must also have powerful organizations to see that this legislation is enforced.
“You’re going to get those things that are yours only if you take them. See that you’re organized and united in such Congresses as this to get those things.”
In an impassioned appeal for unity of Negro and white workers, Lieut. Gov. Kennedy said:
“If the Negro people of this nation are completely organized in industrial organizations—joining with their white brothers for progress on every front—the very lessons of unity learned here can be spread into other avenues. This will aid the solution of other problems which confront Negro people. It will open the door of opportunity to the Negro in every other walk of life, and solve other problems which spring from economic sources.”
One of the most impressive ovations of the convention was given to Ford, who was greeted with cheers and whistling as he arose to speak. The ovation soared to greater heights when he finished a masterful address with the stirring and historic words, “John Brown’s Body Marches On.”
Other addresses set a high point in the growing political development and solidarity of all sections of the Negro people.
Among them were speeches by Edward E. Strong, outstanding young leader of the national youth division of the Congress, and leader of the Southern Negro Youth Conference of Richmond, Va.; Max Yergan, director of the International Committee on African Affairs, of New York, who blasted to smithereens the Japanese militarist theory, that “Japan is the friend of the darker peoples of the earth;” the Rev. Marshall Shepherd, Negro Pennsylvania legislator, who pointed out the identity of interest between the Negro church and the progressive trade union movement. The session was presided over by Arthur Huff Fauset, regional vice-president of the Congress, and outstanding Negro author and leader.
Calls For New John Browns
“John Brown symbolized the unity of Negro and white people against slavery and reaction of his day. The times call for New John Browns, Abraham Lincolns, Frederick Douglasses, and Sojourner Truths, and modern abolitionists. Our people are not lacking in modern figures of this type,” Ford stated amidst resounding applause.
“Thousands of Angelo Herndons are rising among our people. There are John Browns and many Douglasses. The fighters for Twentieth Century Americanism are growing throughout the land.
The National Negro Congress has set its imprint upon our people and the country. Under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, John P. Davis, and Edward Strong and their collaborators in trade unions, in mills, factories, in schools and colleges, and among the young people generally, and in the churches, fraternal organizations, we are marching forward. We are marching forward with the support of our sympathizers among white workers, intellectuals, and middle classes,” Ford declared.
In the session on war and fascism, Clarence Hathaway won the day with an unanswerable appeal for the policy of collective security against war and a caustic trimming of Norman Thomas who echoed the fascist argument that collective security means war.
Speakers at the symposium included: Dr. Harry P. Ward, chairman of the American League against War and Fascism; Louise Thompson, Negro woman leader who reported on the recent Paris conference against Anti-Semitism and racialism, which she attended as a Congress delegate; C. S. Chang, Chinese leader and outstanding figure in the American Friends of the Chinese people; the Rev. Wm. Lloyd Imes, New York Negro minister, and chairman of the United Aid for Peoples of African Descent; Dr. Malaku E. Baven, of the World Ethiopian Federation, and personal representative of Emperor Haile Selassie to America; William L. Patterson, who explained the peace policy of the Soviet Union; and Harris Harwood, chairman.
Norman Thomas’s speech was marked by thorough-going condition and a doctrine of abject surrender on the part of the peoples of the world to the fascist warmakers. “The main danger to the people is not so much fascism, but capitalism,” said Thomas before a conspicuously silent audience.
The Socialist leader asserted—again amidst noticeable silence—that collective security “might lead to war.”
Calmly, cooly, the Daily Worker editor tore Thomas’s argument to shreds.
“We face reality,” Hathaway began. “There is war and there is fascism. Concretely our tasks are how to stop them from spreading throughout the world. All the pretty speeches will not make any difference, unless backed by clearheaded action. That means that we must use all the forces at our disposal today to stop these two main evils. Ultimately the decisive anti-war force is the peace-loving people of the world, but every force against war must be united now to stop the present reality of growing war and fascism.”
Putting the question of immediate action, Hathaway aroused a veritable storm of applause when he said with rapier-like thrusts:
“We have advocated for years—even as now—the unity of the Socialist and Communist Parties as a basic force in the fight against war and fascism. We have advocated and still advocate the unity of the trade union movement. Already the action of the CIO and the A.F. of L. supporting the boycott movement against Japan show the real potentially effective force which the labor movement can be in an anti-war, anti-fascist movement.
Calls for Boycott
“Mr. Thomas is an opponent of collective security. I am an advocate of it,” Hathaway declared amidst another burst of applause.
The Daily Worker editor called for a boycott against Japanese goods—and Nazi and Italian fascist products as well. He called for support of the American League Against War and Fascism as the type of mass organization which can materially aid in stopping the fascist aggressors, who now “butcher the Spanish, Ethiopian and Chinese peoples.”
Chang, who urged the unity of the Negro people with the people of China in the fight against Japanese militarism, received a tremendous ovation, bespeaking the sympathy of the Negro people with the Chinese people.
In a well-reached correction of Dr. Imes, who had urged the theory of the “darker races” as against the white races, Chang stated:
“How can Japan be called the friend of the darker races and at the same time be the friend of Mussolini, the butcher of the Ethiopian people, and Hitler, the fascist persecutor of the Spanish and German people. We know people by the company they keep.”
Dr. Ward said any idea of the “isolation” of the United States was a “myth.”
“The United States is already in the present world conflicts up to her neck,” the distinguished religious leader asserted.
Because we can’t trust capitalist governments, he said, we must use our pressure to force them to do what they should. That means that the United States must be forced to lift the embargo against Spain, and place one against Hitler and Mussolini, he continued.
Daily Worker, October 19, 1937.
A. Philip Randolph is president of the National Negro Congress which will hold its second national convention in Philadelphia, Oct. 15–17. He is also International President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor, and one of the outstanding labor leaders of the country.
His article below was written exclusively for the Daily Worker.
By A. Philip Randolph
The Negro people hail the second annual meeting of the National Negro Congress!
The liberal and progressive people of the country without regard to race or color, creed or nationality, all hail the Congress. The Second National Negro Congress comes at a crucial period of transition in the life of the world and the Negro race. Problems of the gravest import challenge the progressive forces of modern society. All groups are faced with the necessity of taking decisive action on the significant and vital trends of social forces, for war is abroad in the world and fascism is rampant.
The Negro is confronted with the task of holding on to the liberties he already has and fighting to secure those he is entitled to in these United States in particular, and the world in general. Different from other groups in the country, the Negro people have never secured the elementary civil and political rights that come with the establishment of democratic government, following the overthrow of the slave regime.
While the right to vote, to be voted for, and to have an economic stake in the country, and to secure an education are the natural rights and privileges that come with the transition from an autocratic slave system to the creation of a democratic republic, the Negro race has never enjoyed these rights and privileges, especially in the Southern states. Because he has never participated in the fruits of a bourgeois revolution which was achieved partially by the Civil War, Negroes have the problem of completing their incomplete political and civil emancipation.
It is a notorious fact that in the Southern states, grandfather clauses are invoked against Negroes seeking to exercise the right to vote vouchsafed them by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. When grandfather clauses fail fully to bar Negroes from participating in national, state and municipal elections, the new device of the “lily white primaries” was invented and thrown into the balance against them.
But the Negro people are awakening. They are becoming more conscious of their rights as American citizens. They are also sensing their power. They are turning their backs on the old Uncle Tom type of leadership which counsels “let well enough alone.” They are courageously beginning to demand their place in the sun.
This new spirit is expressed in the Second National Negro Congress as it was expressed in the first. While there are many Negro organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People which are ably fighting the battles of the Negro on the civil and political fronts, none has been able to rally the mass support of the Negro people, upon any vital and pressing issue. However, without the support of the Negro masses, the battles of the race cannot be won. The masses possess the power. This is the supreme job of the Second National Negro Congress.
Now, the tactic and strategy of the National Negro Congress is to stir, mobilize and rally the masses in the development of a united front. The united front means the unity of all of the various and varying Negro organizations, together with liberal and progressive movements among the white population upon a minimum program. Because of the menace and threat of lynching to black Americans, all Negro organizations, regardless of their differing philosophies on religion and politics, are of one mind in their desire to wipe out this disgrace in America.
The right to vote and to be voted for and the abolition of disfranchisement through grandfather clauses and lily-white primaries, together with enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment is the demand of all Negro people, alike. Peonage, too, a form of involuntary servitude which is a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution is also assailed and condemned by Negro leaders and movements in all camps.82
In Labor Unions
The right to work and to join labor organizations that increase the power of the Negro people to improve their standard of living are, too, an important objective of the race. Adequate relief and the securing of justice in the courts provoke no differences of opinion among Negroes so far as their interest in obtaining these results are concerned.
To the end of fusing and cementing the forces in Negro life together for the purpose of realizing the aforementioned demands, the Second National Negro Congress is called. The church, school, fraternity, sorority, fraternal lodge, home, trade union, social club, art guild, and all of the various agencies that express Negro thought and action will be embraced in this Congress. Resolutions and proclamations bearing upon the consolidation of the Negro liberation movements will be presented and discussed in the various sections to provide the directive and driving forces in the Negro struggle for emancipation.
Trade union and industrial organization for Negro workers, will occupy an important place on the agenda. The great drive to organize the mass production industries by CIO has had its appeal for the Negro masses. Hundreds of thousands of Negro workers are embraced in these industries. They are ready for organization. They demand it. They are willing to pay the price along with their white brothers in struggle, suffering and sacrifice, to achieve labor solidarity to protect and advance their rights. Thus, they are pouring in large numbers into the CIO unions that are organizing these industries. They are not only becoming members, but they are playing a significant and constructive role in the work of organization itself.
Play Big Role
Some of the most aggressive and effective organizers in the Committee for Industrial Organization are Negro workers. They have done a great job in the steel mills, in automobile and rubber factories, and throughout the far flung mass production industries of the country. Participation in this momentous organization struggle is bringing a new prospective to the Negro people. They are realizing that they constitute an integral part of the working class of America and that they will rise or fall with this class. They are beginning to see that their hope lies in increasing their bargaining power so as to raise the price or wage of their labor. They are recognizing that this cannot be done alone, merely as Negro workers but only as a part of organized labor.
Thus, in unions, affiliated with the American Federation of Labor or the Committee for Industrial Organization, Negroes are seeking membership if they are workers in industries covered by these labor movements.
The National Negro Congress will throw its weight behind the drive to organize Negro workers in all industries, mass production and otherwise. It will urge Negro workers to join hands with their white brothers and fight for trade union solidarity and democracy. It will counsel Negroes to turn their backs on the company union and participate in the bona fide, trade and industrial unions of America affiliated with the CIO and A.F. of L. according as they are in industries that are covered by these two sections of labor.
Fight on Lynching
The brilliant and significant fight waged against lynching through the effort to enact the Wagner-Gavagan Anti-lynching Bill, by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will receive the support of the Congress.
Negro business enterprises, especially of the co-operative form will also receive the interest and attention and support of the Congress. The youth movements among the Negro people will constitute one of the outstanding sections of the Congress and serve as a powerful force in calling the Congress to the struggle of the Negro in the South to achieve the status of manhood.
Within the period of a few weeks, the Second Congress, whose headquarters are established in Philadelphia, and whose sessions begin Oct. 15 and extend through the 17th under the able and vigorous direction of John P. Davis, national secretary, has caught the imagination and interest of the wide masses of Negro people. It is eminently timely that the Congress makes its second bow to the American public in historic Philadelphia where the Declaration of Independence and the Federal Constitution were framed and adopted. The Negro people through the Congress will assert their right to the Constitution on its hundredth and fiftieth birth year. They will demand that the basic principles of the Constitution be enforced to preserve democratic institutions and traditions in America and to complete their emancipation.
Daily Worker, September 28, 1937.
1106 Connecticut Avenue, N.W.
September 22, 1937
National Negro Congress
Please convey my warm greetings to the delegates of the National Negro Congress.
The Negro people have a great role to play, not only in the American labor movement, but in the American nation itself. The Committee for Industrial Organization welcomes this Congress of American men and women to weigh the problems of the Negro people.
I want to extend the CIO’s gratitude, too, for the able part that Negro men and women are playing in the CIO’s march to bring a better life to American workers. I am convinced that the share of the American Negro in our labor movement will be even greater in the future.
(Signed) John L. Lewis
In the letter reproduced above John L. Lewis, Chairman of the Committee for Industrial Organization, pledged the support of the unions affiliated with the committee to the National Negro Congress which opens soon in Philadelphia. In the letter Lewis hailed the militancy of the Negro members of the CIO unions and praised their activities during the recent strikes in the Midwest.
Daily Worker, September 28, 1937.
Randolph Gives Local Developments His Closest Attention—Gaulden, Other Leaders Give Time for Organizing Problems
Harlem’s leading organizations and trade unions were placing their best talent at the disposal of the preparatory activities of the local council of the National Negro Congress, it was learned this morning.
A. Philip Randolph, international president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and president of the National Negro Congress, is following local developments with close attention and urging trade unions to participate in the congress in Philadelphia, Oct. 15, 16, and 17.
Headquarters were opened a few days ago at 189 Lenox Ave., with A. W. Berry, organizer of the Upper Harlem Section of the Communist Party, in charge as chairman of the action committee.
Crosswaith a Delegate
William Gaulden, national organizer of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employes Union, is devoting much of his time in speaking to trade unions, urging them to take a leading role in the Philadelphia proceedings.
In discussing the situation, Mr. Gaulden stated:
“We are especially pleased over the report that Mr. Frank Crosswaith, chairman of the Negro Labor Committee, will be a delegate to the Philadelphia Congress.”
It is expected that the Negro Labor Committee will officially endorse the congress, thereby laying the foundation for a firm trade union base in the congress proceedings.
Among other Harlem leaders who have donated their services to the local preparations of the congress are: Gladys Stoner, ERB employe; Rev. A. Clayton Powell, Jr., pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church; and many others whose names will be announced later.
The most heartening feature of the congress preparations is the widespread response of CIO and progressive A.F. of L. unions to John L. Lewis’ recent call read in part:
“The Negro people have a great role to play, not only in the American labor movement, but in the American nation itself. The Committee for Industrial Organization welcomes this Congress of American men and women to weigh the problems of the Negro people.”
Present indications are that an unprecedentedly large trade union delegation will go to the congress. To facilitate transportation, a special train has been chartered to leave New York, at the Pennsylvania Station on the afternoon of Friday, Oct. 15, 3:30 P.M. The cost of a round-trip for each delegate will be $2.80
Daily Worker, October 4, 1937.
800 Delegates Attend Sub-Sessions on Trade Unions
By Ben Davis, Jr.
PHILADELPHIA, Oct. 17.—Meeting with the encouragement of a telegram of “best wishes” from President Roosevelt, the National Negro Congress today entered the third day of piercing discussions of all phases and walks of Negro life as they form part of the main current of American progress.
President Roosevelt sent a telegram of greetings to the opening session of the Congress Friday night, which brought forth deafening applause when read by John P. Davis, brilliant young national secretary of the Congress.
“I am glad to extend greetings to the Second National Negro Congress,” the President’s telegram read. “It seems to me that participation of delegates from the United States and foreign countries in a discussion of such pertinent and major issues as housing, education and employment cannot but be significant and productive of tangible results. Please accept my best wishes for the success of your deliberations.”
More than 4,000 Negroes packed the Metropolitan Opera House here at the opening session Friday night when A. Philip Randolph, president of the National Negro Congress, sounded a powerful call for unity in the fight for Negro rights and scathingly denounced the “fascist governments who have enveloped large areas of the world in the flames of war.”
John P. Davis National Secretary of the National Negro Congress, told an audience of more than 3,000 delegates and visitors this afternoon, that one of the “biggest unfinished jobs of the Congress is to clean out jim-crowism against Negro workers in the massive railroad industry.” Davis’ speech was followed by open discussion from the floor.
Making his annual report before a business session of the congress, Davis evoked repeated applause as he described the “inspiring achievements” of the congress and declared:
“Of course, we have made mistakes—but these have been the mistakes arising out of the growth of our congress. The congress was born more than a year ago out of the united desire of the Negro people for liberation. To that task it is dedicated—and with out combined and united strength, its opportunities for carrying forward the fight for freedom of Black America are today greater than ever before.”
Secretary Davis cited the assistance of the congress in the CIO campaigns, declaring that the congress had distributed 250,000 pieces of trade union literature.
“It has also established the southern conference representing 250,000 Negro youth, the gut of the Negro to take his place beside the peace-loving people of the World.”
“We hope in the immediate future to aid in the organization of a world congress of Negro people which will register a solid phalanx against fascism, war and to aid the liberation of the peoples of Africa, America and the oppressed everywhere.”
Just before Davis spoke the congress passed a resolution condemning a neighborhood restaurant, the Rural, located on Broad St., which discriminated against a Negro delegate, John McNeil. It elected a committee which is to “force a public apology” from the owner and throw a picket line around the store. Chas. Wesley Burton, Negro leader of Chicago was chairman of the business sessions.
Scottsboro Mother Speaks
The keynote of the various sessions, whether they were directly concerned with labor or not, was the organization of the Negro worker in the present surge of organization sweeping the United States.
Throughout the various sessions the words which were most frequently heard were “CIO” and “organize the unorganized.”
A note of tragedy crept into the Civil Liberties division yesterday when Mrs. Ada Wright, mother of Andy Wright of the five imprisoned Scottsboro boys, brought the audience to tears with a touching description of how her son Andy is now in danger of losing his right arm due to prison mistreatment.
As she spoke, tears trickled from eyes. Ruby Bates, star Scottsboro defense witness and Olen Montgomery and Roy Wright, two of the freed Scottsboro boys sat in the audience.
“We must hasten every bit of help we can give to the Scottsboro Defense Committee, in the fight to free my son and the other boys before they are dead,” the world-famous Scottsboro mother stated.
The convention has been divided into the following sub-sessions, covering practically every field of Negro life: Trade unions, cultural, fraternal, church, youth, women, war and fascism, unemployment, civil liberties, housing, and others. These sub-session discussions, in which the trade union section played the leading role, have taken place in the morning and afternoons.
Richard Moore, Negro ILD leader, made an eloquent appeal for the Scottsboro Boys, and later introduced a resolution for the freedom of the boys which was adopted by the session.83
In addressing the Civil Liberties session late this afternoon, Angelo Herndon, receiving a tremendous ovation, said:
“The right to freedom of assembly is still jeopardized by the reactionary United States Supreme Court which only freed four of the Scottsboro boys and myself because of the united mass pressure of the Negro people and their white supporters. Yes, the words of Chief Justice Taney that the ‘Negro has no rights which a white man is bound to respect’ is today a cardinal principle of the Supreme Court with its dictatorial power to thwart the will of the people.”
Trade Union Session
The trade union session which is held in the orchestra of the giant hall and is attended by an average of 800 delegates—mostly Negroes—continues to occupy the center of the attraction. Meanwhile, the rest of the congress revolved into encroachments of reaction upon all phases of Negro life.
The Wall Street-Liberty League tories were assailed as the main enemies of the Negro people in culture, women’s, youth, church, and the trade union sessions alike.
As one Negro artist in the cultural session put it: “We are artists, but can we continue to be unless we eat, have jobs and a place to live? It seems to me that our interests lie with all those who have to struggle for the right to live decently.” It appeared certain that the cultural session would pass a resolution calling for endorsement of H.R. 8239, for a Federal Permanent Arts bill.
Leading Writers Speak
Rex Ingram, famous Negro actor and screen star, urged the Negro theatre “to develop plays with social content, expressing the hopes and desires of the Negro people and how to win them.” He suggested plays on such historic Negro leaders as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and great fighters during the pre-Civil War days who “acted in real life the drama of the underground railway,” which liberated many Negro slaves.84
Loren Miller, brilliant young Negro writer and Attorney of Los Angeles, in addressing the cultural session said:
“The Negro artist must understand the trend of world events so that we know best how to break down the jim-crow ghetto in which we live.”85
Among others who addressed the cultural session were Gwendolyn Bennett, young Negro representative of the Harlem Artists Guild, Dr. Alaine Leroy Locke, head of the Department of Philosophy of Howard University, and Sterling Brown, distinguished young Negro poet and author.86
Speakers at the trade union session this afternoon included William Gaulden, prominent Negro leader in the Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Lillian Gaskins, Negro woman member of Local 22, of the powerful International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, CIO, Henry Johnson, Negro organizers of the CIO in the steel and packing house workers and executive secretary of the Chicago Negro Congress, B. D. Amis, Negro CIO organizer of Philadelphia and A. W. Berry, Negro member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.
Columbus Alston, 24-year-old Negro CIO organizer of tobacco workers in Virginia, received an ovation this morning upon organization of 4,000 Negro tobacco workers in Richmond.
The congress will close its three-day session here tonight, when the Resolutions and Presiding Committees will report and national officers are to be elected.
Other greetings came from: John L. Lewis, CIO leader, the Toledo Ohio Industrial Council of the CIO, the Marconian Ethiopian Association of Paris, France, the New York division of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Ben Gold, president of the Fur Workers Union and Communist leader, the National Committee of the International Labor Defense, the Connecticut Methodist conference, the Workers Alliance’s, federal writers local of New York, and the Club Obrero Espanol.87
Receiving a standing ovation as he rose to speak. Randolph discussed virtually every major national and international issue as they affect the Negro people. A spontaneous outburst of cheers and applause interrupted his address when he said: that “the Czar of all Russia was relegated to oblivion by the new Soviet Union.”
Woman Leader Speaks
Preceding Randolph’s address, the audience was swept to dramatic heights by the speech of Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Negro woman president of Palmer Memorial Institute of North Carolina.
Her voice marked by a tremulous but unfaltering tone, Mrs. Brown reached the high point of her address when she said;
“Until this intelligent Negro links up with this ignorant Negro—who must even be taught what you’re talking about—we cannot win freedom. And let me tell you not all the ignorant Negroes are below the Mason-Dixon line. Our freedom to eat, live, and even sleep as decent human beings—must be obtained at a great price. But I say to you in the words of Patrick Henry: ‘Give us liberty or give us death!’”
The audience leaped to its feet and it was several moments before the Negro woman leader could resume her eloquent speech.
“The constitution was a compromise document,” declared Randolph, whose controlled passion made his delivery all the more impressive, “but the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were placed there to assure the full rights of citizenship for the Negro people.
“Victory for the Negro people is not yet complete, for peonage of Black America—economic, and social, remains.
Daily Worker, October 18, 1937.
PHILADELPHIA.—Three thousand delegates to the second annual convention of the National Negro Congress, to be held October 15–18 in this city, will hear Lieutenant-Governor Thomas J. Kennedy of Pennsylvania; Senator Robert M. LaFollette, Jr.; Mayor S. Davis Wilson, of Philadelphia; and A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Pullman Porters, as principal speakers.88
The convention has been endorsed by John L. Lewis, chairman of the Committee for Industrial Organization.
The delegates, who represent more than 600 Negro workers’ organizations, will hear Lieutenant-Governor Kennedy discuss “The Committee for Industrial Organization and the Negro People.” The congress has been active during the year and a half of its existence in promoting Committee for Industrial Organization activities among Negro workers in steel, mining, tobacco, maritime and a number of miscellaneous industries.
United Mine Workers! Journal, October 1, 1937.
WASHINGTON.—Delegates from 20 states and 30 organizations heard John Brophy, CIO director, denounce lynching as a weapon of anti-labor employers at the conference of the National Negro Congress on the anti-lynching bill held this week in Washington.89
“The crime of lynching has a definite economic base,” Brophy told the delegates. “Unscrupulous elements in the south and elsewhere have used it for generations as a device to split white and Negro workers.”
“It is as much a weapon in the arsenal of anti-union terror as clubbing, tear-gassing and other ways of breaking picket lines and destroying union organization,” he declared.
“Behind every lynching is the figure of the labor exploiter, the man or the corporation who would deny labor its fundamental rights.”
Support Anti-Lynch Bills
Brophy explained that the CIO supported anti-lynch legislation as part of its program for the organization of all workers, regardless of race, nationality or political belief. The AFL, he pointed out, had a long record of discrimination against Negro workers, which was a serious factor in its failure, after 50 years of existence, to organize industrial workers.
Brophy cited the record of the CIO in organizing Negro workers, pointing to the large numbers elected as officers of their local unions, and quoted the stand of the CIO at its Atlantic City conference against lynching and all types of terrorist acts on the part of employers.
Labor’s Non-Partisan League promised its full support for the anti-lynching bill, stating that voting records of Senators and Congressmen were being closely watched for their action on this and all similar progressive labor legislation.
CIO News, March 25, 1938.
THE CIO NEWS presents in abridged form, the text of CIO Pres. John L. Lewis’ speech to the Natl. Negro Congress at Washington on April 26:
I appreciate deeply the honor of being invited to address this assembly of American citizens. The Negro people have a growing importance and place in American life. The great contributions which have been made by Negro leaders to American life to the past and the even greater contributions which will come in the future emphasize the significance of your fine gathering. I am glad to have this opportunity to pay tribute to these accomplishments.
It is fitting indeed that you asked to appear before you a representative of organized labor. Most of the Negro people in this country are wage earners. Many of them are members of the CIO, active and effective in their union membership. They are American workers, and, as such, they have a common stake in the growth and power of organized labor. Within the CIO all American workers have equal rights, as the CIO Constitution says, “regardless of race, creed, color or nationality.”
Not Yet a Fact
You know full well, some of you from bitter experience, that these rights are not yet a fact in our nation. You know that the iniquities of the poll tax have held from millions of American citizens their right to cast their vote. In this great capital city today, many of those who are in the forefront of the fight to strike down the rights of labor and the common people are men who have been sent to Washington by a small minority of citizens in their states, men who would not be here in Washington if the citizens whom they are supposed to represent could cast a vote.
I have publicly urged the President and the Attorney General of the United States to instruct the Civil Liberties Bureau of the Department of Justice to bring into the Federal courts of this country a judicial proceeding to attack and strike down the cowardly restraints inflicted upon the citizens of the Southern states by poll tax laws. There has been no reply. Nothing has been done.
Last week the chief of our national police force frightened a hall full of elderly ladies with immoderate and fantastic stories of plots against our country by foreign powers. Let him turn his face to cabins where American people are being lashed by white-robed riders. Let him look to cities, where American workers who seek their right to organize are cruelly maimed and killed. Let him seek the dark night trails of lynching parties, who thrust aside the fundamental principles of American justice.
Let those who are responsible in this country rout out these evils. So let them use this influence and high office to enact Federal anti-lynching legislation, so long delayed by the cowardly tactics of those who would knife it behind the scenes. We will not need to fear the plots of foreign powers if our people have faith in their government.
Save America First
There are people in this country who want to get us into war. They are growing bolder. Mark you, soon they will have worked up their courage to talk about going to war to save Iceland and Borneo. We must not go to war.
If it is our mission to save Western civilization, then let us begin by saving it right here in our own country. Our responsibility is to preserve American civilization. We will defend our country—let no one doubt that the sons of American working men and women will be the first in line should the integrity of our nation be attacked. We must not send them to die in foreign fields. There is work to be done at home.
There is an ancient and dishonorable formula well known to the practitioners of politics, through all the centuries of recorded history, which teaches that the failure to solve domestic problems can often be obscured by the excitement of a foreign war. Somehow it is easier to interest the rich and the powerful in sending other people’s sons to Borneo than it is to get them to concern themselves about providing jobs and education for other people’s sons.
Some politicians tire too quickly of wrestling with the knotty questions which are attendant upon getting full employment and decent security for our people. They recoil from the necessity of thinking and acting in new ways. How much easier it is for them to forget these troubles, to mount a reviewing stand and wave a silk hat while other people’s children march off to the sound of a military band.
The temptation is strong to forget the hard difficulties of unemployment, of the aged, of ill health, of housing and dream of the rule of saviours of the world. Only the voice of the American people lifted unceasingly against war can keep politicians from dreaming these dreams.
The CIO office has a staff which follows very closely the journals of trade and industry. They tell me that increasingly these papers report that economic recovery depends upon the outbreak of more deadly, more destructive war abroad. I do not believe for one minute that the majority of American business men want to make profit out of war. I know too many who have told me of their horror of such commerce. Yet our failure to determine upon and to take domestic measures that will bring internal prosperity leads them more and more to cast their eyes abroad.
We Cannot Forget
We cannot forget the years between 1914 and 1917, when the economic powers of this country became persuaded that American prosperity was dependent upon the European war. We cannot forget that the few in this country enriched themselves on the basis of foreign debts to our government, debts which were never repaid and now lie against the account of this United States as a bar to expenditures for our unemployed, our ill and our aged.
The Way to Stay Out
There are almost 12 million unemployed today. But even this startling figure includes only the outside boundaries of the real problem. Unemployment cannot be measured alone by those who are completely out of work, but must also encompass those whose incomes do not provide a livelihood.
Leaders of CIO unions have just been engaged in presenting a series of notable statements to the Temporary National Economic Committees proving that it is now the trend of American industry to throw out upon the streets hundreds of thousands of workers replaced by machines each year. In steel alone within three years the automatic strip mills will have thrown out more than 80,000 workers, leaving ghost towns and gutted homes in once prosperous cities. I could tell the same story in the coal industry, and in the auto industry, in textiles and many others.
We in labor have cried aloud during the past two years asking that the President of these United States call together in this city a working conference of the nation’s leaders in industry, in government in labor and in agriculture. We have asked them to lay before that committee this problem of unemployment and tell them that they must sit about a table until they can agree upon proposals. We are sincere about this proposal. We believe it is an honest and sensible American way to proceed. Yet we have had no reply.
Let me read you a statement: “We believe that unemployment is a national problem, and that it is an inescapable problem of our government to meet it in a national way. . . . where business fails to supply . . . employment, we believe that work at prevailing wages should be provided in cooperation with the state and local governments on useful public projects, to the end that the national wealth may be increased, the skill and energy of the worker may be utilized, his morale maintained, and the unemployed assured the opportunity to earn the necessities of life.”
That is taken from the platform of the Democratic Party in 1936. Most of us supported that party, that platform, in 1936. We believe that the party should meet its obligations as set forth in this platform. Yet at no time since 1936 has even this obligation to the unemployed been fulfilled. And right now the provision of work through WPA and PWA for the unemployed is lower than at any time since 1936 and it is going down.
A recent poll in a national magazine of some repute indicated that the American people wanted money first spent for work to end poverty and unemployment. That is a common plank upon which we as American citizens can join.
I know the problems of the men and women who work for a living, and I know only too vividly how great is the terror that lies in their hearts when they think of the day when they are old and can no longer work for their bread.
But as yet the best that unemployed old people can hope for is an average of $10 to $15 a month for single people, and $15 to $20 a month for married couples at the age of 65. What a pittance! It cannot be dignified with the name of old age security. The CIO calls upon the government to set up at least a minimum system of old age security to pay $60 a month to all over 60 years of age and $90 a month for each married couple.
Program for Youth
In the same way we speak for a real program to give jobs and education to young people. Out of the 12 million unemployed more than five million must be young people between 16 and 25 years of age, most of whom have never had the chance to lay their hand to work in industry.
It is on the basis of such principles that we of labor call upon other groups of American citizens interested in the common welfare to join in demanding that the political leaders of the nation stand by and deliver or give way to those who can.
It is not sinful to ask for security. Those who cry aloud that security is an unworthy aim have never known insecurity.
No group in the population feels more heavily the burden of unemployment and insecurity than the Negro citizens. Among the unemployed and among the low income families the proportion of Negroes is far greater than that of any other group. The denials of civil liberties lie with heavy discrimination upon Negroes. Only when these economic and political evils are wiped out will the Negro people be free of them.
In this same hall in February, I extended an invitation to the American Youth Congress and the millions of young people affiliated with it to make common cause with Labor’s Non-Partisan League for the promotion of a just and sensible program for public welfare. To the National Negro Congress and to your affiliates I would extend that same invitation to affiliate with or to reach a working agreement with Labor’s Non-Partisan League that our common purposes may better be attained.
CIO News, April 29, 1940.
By C. W. Fowler
WASHINGTON, April 26.—Labor in America will not rest until unemployment, the threat of war, and the injustice of the poll tax and lynch law are wiped out and all Americans enjoy equal rights, John L. Lewis told a cheering audience today of more than 2,500 at the Natl. Negro Congress here. His speech, which was the main event of the meeting, was broadcast over a national radio hookup of the Natl. Broadcasting Company.
Lewis’ speech contained an invitation to Negro organizations to “make common cause with Labor’s Non-Partisan League for the promotion of a just and sensible program for public welfare.”
Lewis praised the “great contributions made by Negro leaders” and the work of the Natl. Negro Congress, pointing out that many thousands of Negro wage earners are “active and effective” members of the CIO, where they enjoy equal rights with all other workers.
He hit sharply at the Administration and the Dept. of Justice for its failure to do anything about the particular oppressions felt by the Negro workers, in the poll tax and in the teror waged against them by lynchers and “white robed riders.” He reminded his hearers that he had called on the President and the Department to outlaw the un-American poll tax and upon Congress to pass the anti-lynch bill, but, “There has been no reply. Nothing has been done.”
He accused Chief G-Man Hoover of frightening “a hall full of elderly ladies with fantastic stories of plots against our country by foreign powers,” while ignoring Ku Kluxism and vigilantism.90
“Let him turn his face to cabins where American people are being lashed by white-robed riders,” he said. “Let him look to cities where American workers who seek their rights are cruelly maimed and killed. Let him seek the dark night trails of lynching parties, who thrust aside the fundamental principles of American justice.”
Hits Poll Tax
Lewis was equally sharp in attacking the poll tax used to disfranchise Negro and white workers in eight Southern states, which he described as a means for perpetuating the rule of a handful of Southern Bourbon Congressmen and Senators.
“In this great capital city today, many of those who are in the forefront of the fight to strike down the rights of labor and the common people are men who have been sent to Washington by a small minority of citizens in their states—men who would not be here if the citizens they are supposed to represent could cast a vote,” he said.
War Monger Bolder
Politicians who want to get us into war are growing bolder, Lewis declared, as they turn away from knotty domestic problems they are unwilling to solve by the “dishonorable formula of a foreign war. Mark you, they will soon have worked up their courage to talk about going to war to save Iceland and Borneo,” he warned.
“The best way to stay out of war, and the best defense against external or internal attack is to create within our borders a prosperous, happy nation. That is labor’s answer to those who want war.”
No. 1 Problem
Unemployment is still the “first problem” of all Americans, he declared, with 12,000,000 out of jobs, yet to date the leaders of Government have refused to reply to the CIO request for a national conference of government, labor, business and farm representatives to work out a solution.
“It is not sinful to ask for security,” Lewis said, in urging adequate care for the aged, the unemployed, and the disabled. “Those who cry aloud that security is an unworthy aim have never known insecurity.”
CIO News, April 29, 1940.
By Lester B. Granger
With A. Philip Randolph refusing to stand for re-election as president of the National Negro Congress, with the Congress voting to consider affiliation with Labor’s Non-Partisan League, with National Secretary John P. Davis winning a roar of applause from the delegates with his praise of the Soviet Union, what is the future of the Congress as an important national organization?
It would take a real political seer to predict the eventual fate of the Congress, in view of the stormy proceedings that took place on April 27th as the third biennial Congress met in Washington. On one fact, however, general agreement will be reached, both by those who read the press accounts and by those who attended the sessions and managed to maintain an objective viewpoint. It will be agreed that the meeting marked the passing of the Congress from any effective role as a coordinating agent serving the Negro population on a national basis. Instead, it has become a source of arguments among Negroes similar in bitterness and content to those caused among American liberals by the Soviet conquest of Finland.
Perhaps the change of role is a good thing, in the interest of defining more clearly the issues that face American Negroes during these critical days. Perhaps it was an unrealistic and dangerous plan to set up a national organization that tried to cover the whole front of the Negro’s battle for economic and social emancipation. Certainly there is no reason for undue surprise over the Washington developments, since the very nature of the organization made them predictable. Such developments were foreseen at the first Congress four years ago in Chicago, and many who helped to organize that meeting urged the adoption of preventive safeguards. This writer, then a national vice president, pointed out to Opportunity in May, 1936, the certainty that one or another of the political parties would try to gain control of the Congress, becoming the political tail that wags the organizational dog. It was this writer’s belief, expressed then as now, that a National Negro Congress should not be a permanent organization, but should be a delegate body convening annually only to formulate and publicize a body of social, economic and political principles which the average Negro organization could be brought to support.
It would have been surprising if these suggestions had been willingly adopted by those at the helm of the new organization. Power and prestige are a heady drink for most of us. Mix these with a dramatic and moving cause, put them into an organization representing a thousand groups with hundreds of thousands of individual members—and there are few leaders able to resist the intoxicating appeal. Thus the dangers of organizational permanency were laughed off at Chicago as the fears of over-timid souls.
Besides the danger of capture by a political party—or disruption through political factionalism—there were other threats to a long-time usefulness of the Congress. One was the difficulty of sticking to its original program. Set up originally as a coordinating agency, the National Negro Congress was designed as a rallying point for counsel and exchange of opinion on problems facing the Negro. It aimed at swinging public support to specific causes, while educating the American public on matters pertaining to the interests of Negroes. It was specifically promised that the Congress would not wander all over the map, would not duplicate efforts of existing organizations, would not desert its coordinating role for a functional one. This promise, of course, would have been difficult to keep, with the best of intentions. Public education is a slow and painstaking process, and program coordination is generally a thankless task. The temptation is always strong for any organization working in these fields to stray from its appointed path into more dynamic fields of activity. Especially is this true of a new organization that feels it must “make a showing” in its bid for public support.
The Congress’s empty treasury provided another danger, for salaries must be paid, traveling expenses provided and literature produced. Both of these dangers were related, so it was natural that the Congress fell into both at almost the same time. Less than a year after Chicago the national secretary appeared in Pittsburgh to endorse in the name of the Congress, the campaign of the Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee to unionize the steel industry. He also offered the Congress’s services to raise $1,000 toward the campaign fund in the Birmingham area. It was a generous offer, but it gave pause to many supporters who were even then trying to build local units of the Congress in their own communities. Not only was the treasury resoundingly empty; but the endorsement and pledge were both given without consultation with the national executive committee or the national trade union committee. This oversight was all the more serious in view of the fact that the national secretary was officially supporting a CIO organization against the A.F. of L., with several A.F. of L. unions extremely active in the Congress membership. The chairman of the national trade union committee was himself an officer of an A.F. of L. union in New York City.
With this early departure from a coordinating function, further deviation was increasingly easy for the Congress. Major organizations frequently reported that their local or national programs were ignored, blocked or embarrassed by the over-zealous activity of local or national Congress officers. An example was seen in 1938 when the Congress called an anti-lynching conference in Washington “to place public support behind the anti-lynching bill.” The conference was called in spite of strong disapproval by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which looked with disfavor upon an independent anti-lynching program and considered a conference at that particular time a hindrance to its current lobbying activities.
As organizations with well-established programs began more and more to regard the Congress as an interloper and nuisance, if not as a rival for public support in their own spheres of activity, they tended to develop resistance to such interference. Their supporters reflected this resistance and there was a continuing difficulty in obtaining financial backing for the program of the Congress. It was sometimes necessary to seek out “angels” to make up budget deficits. But angels often have dirty faces, and when they drop something into the treasury they keep tight hold on the strings of influence attached to their donations. It may have been this fear of hidden controls that prompted President Randolph’s public condemnation of secret gifts to the Congress and his demand that Secretary Davis make public the sources of support. Though Mr. Randolph’s objections were partly based on opposition to Communist backing, they would have been equally valid had contributions appeared from the war chests of Republicans or Democrats. It is a dangerous thing for an organization like the Congress to accept any contributions from “interested groups,” for it is hard to set a limit on such acceptance. Certainly, if contributions are to be accepted, Communists have the same right as Socialists or Republicans to bring their “free will offerings.”
Mistakes such as those referred to above are to be expected as part of the growing pains of a new organization. Less to be expected and more serious in its effects, was the Congress’s action in regarding favorably the bid of John L. Lewis to join forces with Labor’s Non-Partisan League.
If the Congress moves into Lewis’s political camp, it moves away from that 90 per cent of Negro voters who are either pro-New Deal or committed to the Republican opposition. Few Negroes trust Lewis as a political leader, whatever feeling they may have for his skill, as a labor leader. The political label that the Congress will apply to itself will be far more damaging than the “Red” label which unfriendly critics have attempted to apply ever since it was organized. The Negro community does not excite itself unduly over so-called “communistic influences,” but it does take its politics very seriously. Especially will this be true in a Presidential election year. For its influence with the Negro population, it would be better for the Congress to choose the New Deal or the Republican banner. Any choice of political allegiance, however, will be fatal in that the support of political dissenters will immediately be lost.
Thus the Congress finds its future functions may be stripped down to two principal activities: political action in behalf of the Lewis group and a possible third party, and progressive action in the labor movement. It is possible that this stripping down process represents an increase in the usefulness of the Congress. Few rival organizations will oppose a Congress program for increasing the participation of Negroes and decreasing racial discrimination in the trade union movement. There is no more important program operating at this time, in view of the rising strength of the labor movement, the growth of pro-labor legislation and the increase of closed shop agreements in industry. It is a program that can be put across only through the kind of mass organization which the Congress offers; it calls for close cooperation of whites with Negroes. It is a job for which the Congress’s machinery is well-suited, provided that radical ideology of any type is kept sternly out of the picture.
Its activities along the political line will be comparatively unimportant, for as long as CIO unions at their national conventions are regularly refusing to follow the Lewis march out of the New Deal camp, the National Negro Congress will have difficulty in persuading any considerable number of Negro voters to go along. And yet, the Washington vote has a certain nuisance value, even after the discounting reckoned above. It has served notice on leaders of both major political parties that a considerable group of Negroes is dissatisfied with both Democratic performances and Republican promises.
The Congress still has a place in the picture of Negro progress—a place that can become larger or smaller according to the way in which Negro organizations represented in its membership do their own thinking and plan their own action. The much advertised Communist influence has been important only because non-Communist groups have been satisfied to do the flag-waving while someone else plans the program. It would be well for the Congress to drop all pretense at coordinating generally the national programs for improvement of the Negro population. It has an important job to do in a specific field, a field in which it can actually function without opposition or repudiation. It would be unfortunate for the Congress, in its present role, to claim spokesmanship for the general Negro population, except in those interest fields wherein the Congress program operates. It would be equally unfortunate, however, for Negro leadership openly to repudiate the Congress. It has a vitally important job to do in the field of labor’s education. Until other organizations are ready to move into this field and show at least as much accomplishment as the Congress can point to, their criticism of the Congress’s effort is in some wise a criticism of themselves.
In the meantime, A. Philip Randolph deserves the congratulatory thanks of those who have for a long time wished for a clearer definition of the Congress’s functions and policies. His courageous and thoughtful speech brought the issues clearly into the open where they could be voted upon and where they could be understood even by persons not in actual attendance. The fact that his position was voted down is not necessarily cause for disappointment. Some of the opposition was no doubt ideologically inspired; some of it may have been the thoughtless enthusiasm of inexperienced delegates swept along in the hysteria of a mass meeting. Some of the opposition, however, was thoughtful enough and honestly arrived at, growing out of some delegates’ conviction that the Congress has a job to do in the field of political and labor action. It is to be hoped that the future will see such thoughtful and honest leadership reflected in the Congress’s policies and achievements.
Opportunity, 18 (June, 1940): 164–66.