THE BLACK WORKER DURING WORLD WAR II
Of the nearly 13 million blacks in the United States, more than 5 million were in the labor force in 1940. But compared with whites, Afro-Americans were disproportionately unemployed, even though the industrial boom which accompanied the defense build-up absorbed all the available white males. Soon employers were crying out for more workers, although the racial ban on blacks remained. By the end of 1941, sociologist Gunnar Myrdal ascertained that the “great bulk of the war plants did not have any Negroes at all among their workers.”95
Black protests brought little action. Therefore, A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, organized the March on Washington Movement. Randolph’s call for a protest march on the capitol spawned MOWM committees throughout the nation’s black communities from New York to San Francisco. The movement could not be ignored, and the nation’s key political leaders were unable to quash MOWM. Randolph demanded that President Roosevelt issue an executive order banning racial discrimination in war industries, and the movement leaders would accept nothing less. On June 25, 1941, Roosevelt succumbed and issued Executive Order 8802, which banned racial discrimination, and organized the Fair Employment Practices Committee to see that employers observed the decree.
The FEPC began to function on July 18, 1941. Hampered by a lack of funds, and segregationist politicians, the FEPC had the formidable task of inducing employers and trade unions to admit black workers. In March, 1942, two years after the start of the defense program, the FEPC reported that Negro workers constituted only 2.5 to 3 per cent of all workers in war production. By late 1944, that percentage had grown to over 8 per cent. This impressive gain was achieved despite the harassment of segregationist congressmen, and the recalcitrant opposition of employers and AFL trade unions. For example, in the West Coast shipyards, blacks bitterly complained that many companies would employ them only as laborers, if at all. Part of the reason was demonstrated by the discriminatory policies of such craft unions as the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, which organized blacks only into Jim Crow auxiliaries, and then tried to force the companies to fire those blacks who protested.
“Hate strikes” occurred in some cities where the FEPC ordered an end to discrimination. Tradition had long ruled that Negroes could be employed only in menial positions by the Philadelphia Transportation Company, and after the FEPC ordered the company to “cease and desist” from practicing discrimination in November, 1943, the company union informed the FEPC that it would ignore the order. A few months later, however, the workers voted in the Transit Workers Union (CIO) as its bargaining agent, and the TWU agreed to employ blacks as operators. When they showed up for work, however, a strike began which led to the intervention of the U.S. Army. By mid-August the Army had withdrawn, the strike was broken, and the blacks continued their instruction for becoming operators.
Perhaps the most important test of the CIO’s commitment to equal treatment came in Detroit with the United Automobile Workers’ strike to organize the Ford Motor Company in 1941. The UAW recognized that it had to develop a strong relationship with the black community if it were to prevail against the paternalism practiced by Ford. A number of blacks were employed as union organizers, and a committee was formed which included Negro community leaders. In fact, one of the most impressive aspects of the strike was the effort of black leaders, such as Walter White of the NAACP, and John P. Davis of the National Negro Congress, to convince the 17,000 black workers at Ford not to permit themselves to be used as strikebreakers. With such effective organization, Ford capitulated on April 11, 1941, after only eleven days. The victory would have been impossible without support from the black community, and that support would not have been forthcoming if the UAW had not convinced Negroes that the CIO’s policy against discrimination was more than rhetoric.