From: TheHistoryMaker, Fighting from Within and Without: African Americans and the Labor Movement (September 4, 2020) (Pictures Omitted) (Website)


Laborpicture001Labor Day represents the end of summer with students returning to school while others return to work. In fact, Labor Day weekend is often our last leisurely time to gather and have fun as summer transitions into fall. Hairstylist James Harris recalled: "Labor Day, you spent together… in a family cluster… we always went to a place called City Point [South Boston, Boston, Massachusetts]… [there] was a beach… And the black people sat around the bandstand because that's where the trees were."[1] Similarly, NASA aerospace engineer Woodrow Whitlow, Jr. remembered: "Labor Day… going to the park and… just the chance to see all the family… my father would… pride himself on how well he could barbecue."[2] For Judge Ann Claire Williams, a Labor Day picnic was a chance to gather and have fun outside: "Labor Day, we would get up about 4 or 4:30 in the morning and go to one of the beautiful parks in the suburban areas… it was a first come-first serve basis… and I would go with my cousin and her family… And we would go and save the site and we would get a big site with four or five picnic tables and have everything ready. And then the rest of the family would eventually come and everybody would get there by noon."[3] Law professor Larry Gibson shared the perspective of young people not wanting the summer to end: "Labor Day… we had to go back to school soon, so I didn't like Labor Day. I liked school but even so, that was the significance to me of Labor Day is school's ready to start."[4]

But all this belies the fact that the start of the Labor Day holiday in 1894 was rooted in the historically complicated relationship between the government and labor unions who excluded the African American community.

The early 1900's saw the migration of African Americans to the north in search of industrial jobs. With conflict in growing in Europe during World War I, there were less immigrant workers coming to the United States. Yet, at the same time, the war created "demand for product from munitions and weapons manufactures. This gave unions more negotiating power, and wages were inching up, so employers started recruiting black workers from the south as strike breakers and replacement workers. About a half-million black workers moved to Chicago, Detroit, Ohio, Philadelphia and St. Louis between 1910 and 1920."[5] This created significant racial tension, resulting in feuds such as in 1917 "when the Aluminum Ore Company brought in African American workers [to St. Louis] to break a strike, 3,000 white union members marched in protest. The marchers morphed into a mob, attacking random black residents on the street… roving white mobs rampaged through black East St. Louis, burning homes and businesses, and assaulting men, women and children. Between 100 and 200 black working people died and 6,000 were left homeless."[6]

Unions made it difficult for African Americans to join and advocated for legislation that favored contracts for the white-dominant unions. For example, "the Railroad Administration created new regulations in 1919, one of which said ‘Negroes are not to be used as conductors, flagmen, baggagemen, or yard conductors.' This was seen as a handout to the Trainmen's Union."[7] Charles Johnson (1909 - 2006), recounted his work for the Illinois Central Railroad Company: "The only jobs that blacks had up north was red caps, train porters, cooks and waiters, track workers. No supervision, no brakemens… whites down South didn't want to work hard, never did. So they didn't want to shovel that coal, so that's why the Negros was on there… they [black workers] couldn't belong to the union… had it in their constitution that you had to be of a Caucasian race to belong to the union. People didn't know that, but it was there until 1950 something before they changed it."[8]

Other discriminatory laws were passed, including the still in place Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, which, as the "Father of Affirmative Action" Arthur Fletcher (1924 - 2005) pointed out, this act "looked to prevent African Americans from working on federal construction projects through price controls. Under Davis-Bacon, federal construction contracts could only be given to employers who paid their workers the ‘prevailing wage' of that region. African American workers often charged less than the government determined ‘prevailing wage' making them ineligible to receive government contracts."[9] At the same time, though, African Americans were organizing. By 1940, for instance, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, led by A. Phillip Randolph, was the largest and most powerful black union in the country. Pullman porter Arthur Burton, Sr. (1903 - 2005) remembered the impact of unionizing: "Before we go the union, that job, boy… looked like something to kill you… cause the guys would work you like that, and you wouldn't get no sleep… They wasn't paying you nothing… when we got Randolph [A. Philip Randolph] to come in and take the union over… That was our salvation."[10]

African Americans continued fighting for labor protections and rights within and outside the union. Richard G. Womack, former assistant to American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization President John Sweeney, explained: "There is discrimination because if you look at the heads of most of our unions, it's still white males basically running things. Now… we're gaining entrance into a lot of these positions within these unions, there's no question about that; we're making inroads, but… it's been a battle… all along."[11] Art collector Paul Jones remembered the labor unions in his town and how African Americans joined in response to the poor working conditions in the mines and the lack of benefits for the family in case of a miner's death. He recounted the segregation of the unions: "I joined the union, used to go into the unions, which were very interesting in those days. They go into one hall the blacks were sitting on one side, the whites were sitting on the other. They'd have a white president and black vice president. They'd have a black assistant secretary, and a white secretary, a white treasurer, and a black assistant [treasurer]. And that was the beginning of it. It was interesting."[12] Still, as early as the 1950s, African Americans began penetrating management positions within labor unions, including Reverend Addie Wyatt (1924-2012). She described becoming the first African American woman elected international vice president of a major labor union, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union, in 1954: "I was still working within the local context, but it was at an international convention [of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America, AFL-CIO] that I attended… And the [United Packinghouse Workers of America] union had a very difficult situation in that some of our members from the South had walked out of the union because they were forced to respond in a just way to the black field representative… The report that I gave, I, never knew at that time how valuable it was and how hot it was… when I moved for the adoption of the report, the unanimous group voted. And therefore, this group got up and walked out of the convention. And it was the way that we read it… that was moving to many of our leaders and our members. And so I was appointed… to serve as an international representative for the union… I not only had my plant to negotiate for, but I had up to as many as thirty other plants to negotiate for."[13]

This discrimination fueled the black trade unionist movement which, as Reverend Willie T. Barrow (1924 - 2015) explained, African Americans were fighting for basic accommodations: "The major labor issue was workers and getting adequately paid, and getting vacation time and hiring women."[14] This did not curb the violent resistance, though. Radio host Bev Smith spoke passionately about the work of her father and how it was often fraught with danger: "My father was one of the organizers of the black union here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Local 11 [International Hod Carriers' Building and Common Laborers' Union of America Local 11]. The rules and everything were written on the paper on the table in my kitchen. And my father was asked to go testify before Robert Kennedy in Washington, D.C. when he was the attorney general, about corruption in the predominantly white construction union. And my father got on the train here in Pittsburgh at the Pennsylvania Station, and he went into Washington, D.C., and there were some hoodlums waiting for him. They beat him. They beat him terribly. I can close my eyes and see my father. And they told him he was not to go near Robert Kennedy, and they put him back on the train. My father came home, he changed his clothes. My mother [Isabelle Jones Sloan] mended his wounds. Two of… my uncles, Uncle George [George Sloan] and Uncle Ernie [Ernest Sloan], got their guns, and my father went back to Washington, D.C. He could not testify before Robert Kennedy, because the hearing was over. But he had a private meeting with Robert Kennedy."[15]

Strikes were often held when demands for fair wages and benefits were not met, including the well-known Memphis, Tennessee sanitation workers strike, which started after the workplace deaths of sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker. William Lucy, the first African American president of Public Services International and co-founder of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, recalled coming up with the infamous slogan for the strike that 1,300 African American men from the Memphis Department of Public Works participated in: "Somewhere during the early days of the strike… the mayor [Henry Loeb] had made some comment… about the workers… And Jim Lawson [James Lawson] at a community meeting… says that when the mayor or some person tells you what you're gonna do, and you must do it, that's not treating you like a man; that's treating you like a child… And the essence of racism is when you treat a man… as if he's not a man... So we came up with that, those four words, ‘I Am a Man'… I'm standing up for my rights; I will speak out; I am speaking back to someone who I have historically held fear of; and I'm, I'm confronting the system. And I'm, I'm not asking for a whole lot, just to be treated with respect and dignity… it sent a statement to the broad community… it was their sort of fight back statement."[16]

This fighting spirit held strong, and African Americans eventually began penetrating highest level office in the U.S. The Honorable Alexis Herman recalled being appointed the first African American U.S. Secretary of Labor in 1997 by President Bill Clinton: "The unions were initially supporting the candidacy of Harris Wofford, who was a great senator from Pennsylvania and, and a great friend of organized labor… But I had some good friends in, in labor, and I had worked closely in the labor movement, going all the way back to my days with Mr. [A. Philip] Randolph and Bayard Rustin… But my support that I received from the civil rights community, Dorothy Height was sort of my campaign manager de facto. The business community was very supportive of my candidacy. Faith-based communities were very supportive of my candidacy. It was interesting… everything that was ever wrong with the Clinton White House got caught up in my nomination… everything that was swirling around our White House, whether it was fundraisers, or the Lincoln bedroom, or White House coffees, you name it, somehow Alexis Herman had something to do with it. And so my confirmation process became the vehicle through which all of these issues got raised."[17] Strides have certainly been made in improving the labor relations of African Americans, but, former Cook County, Illinois Commissioner Jerry Butler still pointed out in his 2005 interview: "You had the Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Brotherhood of Carpenters… And so because of the racism that existed and the fact that [they] didn't want African Americans as brothers, they kept them out of the unions… even today when we look at the contractors and the builders you don't find that many African Americans in those trades."[18]

As we enjoy the long weekend and this day set aside as, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, a "dedication to the social and economic achievements of American workers,"[19] we must remember the heightened struggles African American laborers endured for centuries and continue to face. Without their perseverance, we might not have the same fond memories of the holiday concluding sweet summertime.

[1] James Harris (The HistoryMakers A2007.241), interviewed by Adrienne Jones, August 28, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 15, James Harris remembers family holidays.

[2] Woodrow Whitlow, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2012.070), interviewed by Larry Crowe, May 3, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 2, Woodrow Whitlow describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood.

[3] The Honorable Ann Claire Williams (The HistoryMakers A2000.042), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, June 20, 2000, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 8, Ann Williams shares cherished family memories.

[4] Larry Gibson (The HistoryMakers A2004.093), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, September 20, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 1, story 6, Larry Gibson recalls holiday traditions from his childhood.

[5] "A Brief History of Labor, Race and Solidarity," Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice, accessed September 3, 2020.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Chris Prandoni. "The Ugly, but True, History of Labor Day," Americans for Tax Reform, September 9th, 2009, accessed September 3, 2020.

[8] Charles Johnson (The HistoryMakers A2003.003), interviewed by Larry Crowe, January 13, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 5, Charles Johnson describes his experience working for the Illinois Central Railroad Company.

[9] Chris Prandoni. "The Ugly, but True, History of Labor Day," Americans for Tax Reform, September 9th, 2009, accessed September 3, 2020.

[10] Arthur Burton, Sr. (The HistoryMakers A2002.069), interviewed by Larry Crowe, May 18, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 11, Arthur Burton describes what it was like being a Pullman Porter before the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

[11] Richard G. Womack (The HistoryMakers A2005.155), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 29, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 3, Richard G. Womack talks about African Americans' exclusion from unions.

[12] Paul Jones (The HistoryMakers A2003.195), interviewed by Jodi Merriday, August 16, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 9, Paul Jones remembers labor organizing in Bessemer, Alabama including a miner's strike that resulted in several deaths.

[13] Reverend Addie Wyatt (The HistoryMakers A2002.096), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, June 1, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 4, Addie Wyatt becomes influential in labor politics at the national level.

[14] Reverend Willie T. Barrow (The HistoryMakers A1999.001), interviewed by Adele Hodge, August 19, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 8, Willie Barrow discusses her involvment in major labor and civil rights movements in the 1960s.

[15] Bev Smith (The HistoryMakers A2014.154), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 9, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 9, Bev Smith talks about her father's labor activism.

[16] William Lucy (The HistoryMakers A2008.001), interviewed by Larry Crowe, May 1, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 12, story 3, William Lucy describes the creation of the labor movement slogan, 'I Am a Man'.

[17] The Honorable Alexis Herman (The HistoryMakers A2003.087), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 15, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 3, tape 12, story 1, Alexis Herman describes the nomination process to become President Bill Clinton's Secretary of Labor.

[18] The Honorable Jerry Butler (The HistoryMakers A2002.070), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, June 11, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 1, Jerry Butler talks about the racism of some labor unions.

[19] "History of Labor Day," U.S. Department of Labor, accessed September 3, 2020.