THE CONGRESS OF INDUSTRIAL ORGANIZATIONS AND THE BLACK WORKER, 1935–1940
In 1935, President Roosevelt signed into law the National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act). It gave workers the right to vote for the union of their choice, outlawed certain unfair labor practices used by employers against unions, and created the National Labor Relations Board with powers of enforcement. Black leaders tried to have written into the Wagner Act a clause barring racial discrimination by unions, but American Federation of Labor spokesmen let it be known that with the clause included in the bill, they would rather see the entire measure defeated, and the Wagner Act was passed without the clause.
The emerging industrial unions of the CIO did not oppose the antidiscrimination clause, and most of the AFL unions which founded the CIO already accepted the premise that there should be no racial discrimination in the labor movement. Therefore, the CIO had a distinct advantage in its rivalry with the AFL for enlisting black workers in the mass-production industries where they were concentrated, especially in steel, auto, rubber, and meatpacking.
Beginning in 1936, the CIO conducted the most massive organizing campaign in American labor history, and from the beginning the CIO opened its doors to all workers without regard to race. At first, black community leaders were suspicious, but it soon became clear that the CIO industrial unions would be beneficial for black workers, and the initial skepticism of race leaders soon changed to general support. What was true for the national leadership did not always prevail at the local level, of course, but as black workers were organized, local black resistance diminished.
The impact of this open door policy soon became apparent in the steel industry. In 1936, the CIO’s Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee (SWOC) undertook to organize the nation’s steel workers, 85,000 of whom were black. The two key leaders, Philip Murray and William Mitch, were both officials in the interracial United Mine Workers of America, and they determined to follow the UMA model of interracialism in steel. Numerous black organizers were put into the field, and by the eve of World War II the steel industry was under CIO control. The same course was pursued in other industries. For example, in the Richmond, Virginia, tobacco factories, the AFL affiliated Tobacco Workers’ International rejected aid to black strikers in 1917. Therefore, several thousand black tobacco workers were organized into the Tobacco Stemmers’ and Laborers’ Industrial Union who then marched en masse into the CIO fold. Similarly, black seamen on the East Coast had suffered discrimination from the AFL’s International Seamen’s Union. Therefore, in 1937, when the CIO’s National Maritime Union was formed, it followed a policy of racial equality, and its black membership soared. Black seaman Ferdinand C. Smith, who had helped found the NMU, became its first secretary and vice-president.
Much of the CIO’s success resulted from the active participation and support of black organizations such as the National Negro Congress. Founded in 1935, the NNC took as its major objective the organization of those hundreds of thousands of unorganized black workers, and over the next few years it fashioned an alliance with the CIO. The NNC assisted the CIO in tobacco, auto, steel, and other industries by contributing volunteer organizers who carried the campaign deep into the black community.
When the AFL expelled the CIO in March, 1937, the CIO had grown to thirty-two international unions, and many blacks believed that perhaps a new day had finally dawned for organized labor.