Intro to Afro-American Studies


Black Workers and the Labor Movement 

Toward a Paradigm of Unity in Afro-American Studies

LOGIC OF CHANGE Social Cohesion Traditional Africa - Slavery - Rural Life - Urban Life
Social Disruption - Slave Trade - Emancipation - Migrations -
UNITS OF ANALYSIS Ideology A1 B1 C1 D1 E1 F1 G1
Nationality A2 B2 C2 D2 E2 F2 G2
Class A3 B3 C3 D3 E3 F3 G3
Race A4 B4 C4 D4 E4 F4 G4

"I may not be a red," he said as he banged on the bar, "but sometimes I see red  '" 
"What do you mean?" 
"The way some of these people a man has to work for talks to a man, I see red. The other day my boss come saying to me that I was laying down on the job - when all I was doing was thinking about Joyce. I said, 'What do you mean, laying down on the job? Can't you see me standing up?' 
"The boss said, 'You ain't doing as much work as you used to do: "I said, 'A Dollar don't do as much buying for me as it used to do, so I don't do as much for a Dollar. Pay me some more money, and I will do more work!"
"What did he say then?" 
"He said, 'You talk like a red.' 
"I said, 'What do you mean, red?' 
"He said, 'You know what I mean - red, communist. After all this country has done for you Negroes, I didn't think you'd turn out to be a red: 
"I said, 'In my opinion, a man can be any color except yellow. I'd be yellow if I did not stand up for my rights.' 
"The boss said, 'You have no right to draw wages and not work.' 
                                   "I said, 'I have done work, I do work, and I will work - but also a man is due to eat for his work, to have some clothes, and a roof over his head. For what little you are paying me, I can't hardly keep body and soul together. Don't you reckon I have a soul?' I said.
 "Boss said, 'I have nothing to do with your soul. All I am concerned about is your work. You are talking like a communist, and I will not have no reds in my plant.' .... 
"'Well, if you fire me, I will be a red for sure, because I see red this morning. I will see the union, if you fire me,' I said. 
"'Just go and do your work", he said, and walked off. But I was hot, pal! I'm telling you! But he did not look back. He didn't want to have no trouble out of that union!' . 

Langston Hughes, "When a Man Sees Red:' 1940.

Deep in the gloom of the fire-filled pit 
Where the Dodge rolls down the line, 

We challenge the doom while dying in shit
While strangled by a swine.... 
For hours and years with sweated tears. 
Trying to break our chain.... 
But we broke bur backs and died in packs 
To find our manhood slain.... 
But now we stand for DRUM's at hand 
To lead our freedom fight, 
And now till then we'll unite like men 
For now we know our might.... 
And damn the plantations and the whole Dodge nation.... 
For DRUM has dried our tears.... 
And now as we die we have a different cry 
For now we hold our spears! 
UAW is scum.... 

Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, "Our Thing is DRUM," 1968 



     As we have consistently pointed out, the role of Black people since the beginning of slavery in the United States has been to work, to produce goods, and to provide services. This, of course, is the task forced on the vast majority of people in the U.S.A. - white, Puerto Rican, Chicano, Native American, various nationalities from Asia (Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, etc.), and Black people. As with other oppressed nationalities, Black people have worked under the double oppression of being exploited as workers and oppressed as Black people. For Black women, there has been a triple oppression: as a worker, as a Black, and as a woman. The most important social content of Black history reveals the struggle against these attacks. Finally, it is only when all of these aspects of the suffering of Black people are fought, when Black people and all oppressed and exploited people unite to overthrow all forms of oppression, that freedom, justice, and equality will be achieved by all people. This is the most important lesson to learn from Afro-American Studies.


The experiences of Black workers reflects the general trends of the overall U.S. economy. This means that up to the 20th century, most industries needed a great deal of workers, especially unskilled workers. For Black people, of course, this meant agricultural work until World War II. However, during the 1940s and 1950s, the use of tractors and other machines, the rural electrification program, and the use of chemical fertilizers meant that the need for agricultural labor was drastically reduced. While technological innovation was occurring in industry as well, it has not had the effect of significantly reducing the need for labor. Some writers use scare tactics and try to prove that industrial workers are obsolete and no longer needed because of automation. (For this view applied to Black people, see Sam Yette, The Choice, and Sidney Wilhelm, Who Needs the Negro.) But by examining occupational statistics, and by taking up discussions with working- class people, this view is easily proved absurd.



     We can generally date the origin of the Black industrial worker to the early 20th century, especially after the World War I migration to northern cities. By this time, some advances had been made by Black males in industrial employment. Particularly important are the struggles to gain employment in basic industry, like automobile and steel production, and the struggles to gain full membership in the trade unions. A significant difference exists in the experience of men and women Black workers. During World War II , Black women workers made a slight shift from domestic service household work into low-level clerical jobs and industrial factory jobs. After the war, both Black men and women faced the perennial experiences of Black workers, "the last hired, and the first fired'"

Black workers have been used in three main ways: as scabs to break strikes, as low-status labor for "shit work," and as a labor reserve.


A scab is a person who agrees to work on a job when the regular workers are out on strike. Workers strike (i.e., refuse to work) when they are not paid enough or when they don't have proper health conditions in the work place, retirement benefits, etc. At various times, especially during the working-class militancy of the early trade-union experience, Black ex-sharecroppers were used as scabs. The main force behind this was the economic necessity of getting a better job, and the fact that most of the working-class organizations were as racist as the capitalist factory owners. The history of the trade union movement is both positive and negative. While Black people have often gotten their start in an industry as scabs, once inside an industry the Black worker has become more of a trade unionist than the average U.S. worker.



"Shit Work" 

     Once hired, Black workers get assigned to the worst jobs. Most workers call undesirable jobs, dirty and dangerous jobs, "shit work:' This is particularly hard for Blacks since even these jobs are often the best jobs available for Blacks. The low status of Black employment is suggested by a list of over twenty-five jobs at least 15% -Black (i.e., jobs with a high concentration of Blacks). Table 11 is dominated by service jobs, indicating another mechanism that keeps Black workers in low-income levels.

Labor Reserve

     In response to a recurring imbalance between the demand and supply for industrial workers, capitalists try to keep a reserve of labor to call up when necessary. This labor reserve is the general source for scabs and people to do the shit work. In the meanwhile, the labor reserve is usually channeled into four main areas:

Armed Forces - In World War I and II, Blacks were discriminated against in the armed forces so they worked in jobs left open when white males went to war. However, the post-Vietnam period has radically reversed this trend. There is now a high concentration of Blacks in the armed services, as  indicated in Table 12.

Now, over one-third of those in the army are Black and over one-fifth of those in the armed forces are Black. But Blacks have been getting the same treatment inside the armed service as in the general society. They are underrepresented in the officer corps (i.e., leadership positions). Moreover, while in 1979 Blacks were 32.2% of the army, Blacks were 51.2% of the army prison population. Also, one can easily make the case that during the Vietnam War, Blacks were being used as cannon fodder until the Black liberation movement fought for change (see Table 13). The fact that Black soldiers reenlisted at more than three times the rate for whites (66.59% to 20%) after their first term of service might be explained by the difficulties Blacks have in finding employment outside the military.

Unemployment - This is the main context for the accumulation of the labor reserve, Since the end of World War 11, Black people have suffered with an unemployment rate twice that of whites (see Table 14). According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, during the first quarter of 1984, there were 1,949,000 Black people a majority of teenage Blacks out of work. Many will never hold a job unless major changes, occur.

Social Welfare - The government has a few programs by which people who qualify  receive a monthly government check. These are either to support someone  who has worked (social security, , health benefits, veterans benefits, etc.) or to protect those who can't find a job (unemployment compensation, aid to dependent children, etc.). Black people are disproportionately recipients of family/children support, as indicated in Table 15, but they are often cut out of others.


Table 11

Occupation % of Black and Other
Moderate household cleaners and servants 5304
Nursing aides, orderlies and attendants 28.8
Cleaning service workers 27.5
Laundry and dry cleaning operatives 25.6
Taxicab drivers and chauffeurs 25.3
Postal Clerks 24.2
Textile operatives 22.6
Key punch operators 21.8
File clerk 21.6
bus drivers 19.9
Sewers and stitchers 19.9
Fork lift and tow motor operators 19.4
Packers and wrappers (except meat and produce) 19.2
Freight and material handlers 19.0
Social and recreational workers 18.6
Cooks (except private household) 18.4
Vocational and educational councelors 17.7
Crane ,derrick and hoist operators 17.6
Farm laborers, wage workers 16.9
Guards 16.8
Construction laborers 16.6
Gardeners and groundskeepers 16.3
Childcare workers (except private household) 16.2
Cutting operatives 16.1
Machine operatives 16.1
Dressmakers and seamstresses (except factory ) 15.9
Assemblers 15.2
Source : US Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1981, pp. 402-404

Table 12


All services

Date Enlisted Officer Total Enlisted Officer Total
1942 6.2 0.3 5.8 - - -
1964 11.8 3.3 10.9 9.7 1.8 8.7
1972 17.0 3.9 15.0 12.6 2.3 11.1
1981 33.2 7.8 29.8 22.1 5.3 19.8

Source : Data derived from Martin Binkin, et al, Blacks and the Military,p.42

Table 13

Number of Deaths
Date Blacks Total % Blacks
1961-66 837 4,156 20.1
1967-72 3,163 26,435 12.0

Source :  Martin Binkin, et al, Blacks and the Military,p.76

Table 14

  Male Female
Year Black White Ratio B:W Black White Ratio B:W
1955 8.8 3.7 2.37 8.4 4.3 1.95
1967 6.0 2.7 2.22 9.1 4.6 1.98
1977 12.4 5.5 2.25 14.0 7.3 1.92
1978 10.9 4.5 2.42 13.1 6.2 2.11
1979 10.3 4.4 2.34 12.3 5.9 2.08
1980 13.3 6.1 2.18 13.1 6.5 2.02

Source: National Urban League, The State of Black America, 1983, pp103-104


John Reid reports in the  Population Bulletin 

 Nearly one of every five blacks is on welfare, according to figures derived from spring 1982 study of the nation's largest cash welfare program, Aid to families  with Dependant children. This study also indicates that some 40 percent of all black families with children under 18 are getting AFDC benefits, compared to 6.8 percent of white families with children

Prison - The average number of inmates in Prisons and jails is Over 50,000. About 26% of the overall Prison population is Black, but over 40% of the local jail inmates are Black.

In general this labor reserve, consisting of the poor recruits into the armed forces, the unemployed, the welfare recipients, and the prisoners, is used to support the economic system and to keep wages down. As the work force is threatened by economic crisis, tensions mount between employed workers and this labor reserve. However, it has been the history of organized struggle by the employed worker in trade unions that has      been at the heart of the working-class struggle for better living and working conditions. The main reason for this is that the employed worker is the productive source of wealth in the society. Workers constitute the logical source of resistance to how this wealth is distributed. 

    The oppression faced by Black workers has been met with struggle, both in the form of spontaneous rebellion and organized resistance. At times, this has been mainly the efforts of Black workers themselves. At other times, there have been efforts of workers united, Black and white, in trade unions or militant rank- and-file organizations of workers. The most advanced form of struggle occurs when the concrete economic issues that face all workers are united with the overall political questions that face all people in the society, and workers of all nationalities unite to lead the fight against all oppression. This requires an advanced form of political organization rooted in the working class. 

Table 15
(Aid to families with dependant children, 000's)

Year Number of recipients % black
1975 3,420 44.3
1977 3,523 43.0
1979 3,428 43.9

Source : U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1981, p. 346




Beginning in 1866, the working class in the United States has had a, national organization of one sort of another, as can be seen in Table 16. Even with these unions, there has been a long struggle for immigrants, women, and Blacks to be accepted as full-fledged union members. What follows is an abbreviated history of the major national unions and other labor organizations in terms of their relationship with Black workers.

Early National Unions: N.LU, CNLU, and the Knights

The first major national organization was the National Labor Union, founded in 1866. A. C. Cameron, one of the NLU organizers, attempted to confront directly the issue of Black workers in an address before the national convention by declaring that the

...  interests of the labor cause demand that all workingmen be included within its ranks, without regard to race or nationality; and ... the interests of the workingmen of America especially require that the formation of ... labor organizations should he encouraged among the colored race and that they be invited to cooperate with us in the general labor undertaking.

Table 16
Type of Organization Dates of Existence Name
"One Big Union" 1866-1872 National Labor Union
1869-1895 (1949) Noble Order of the Knights of Labor
1905-1920's (present) Industrial workers of the world
Craft Unions 1881-1955 American Federation of Labor
Industrial Unions 1937-1955 Congress of Industrial Organizations
Craft and Industrial Unions 1955-present AFL-CIO



But than convention failed to act upon this and others' advice. The best the NLU ever managed to do was later to adopt a resolution encouraging Black workers to organize separate unions that could be affiliated with the NLU. This policy of separate or dual unionism clearly was not designed to promote class solidarity or racial unity. Black workers were left to continue pushing for entry into the union on an equal basis or to form their own separate unions. They chose to do both.

In 1869, Black workers formed the Colored National Labor Union. Isaac Myers, the CNLU's first president summed up it's position:

Labor organization is the safeguard of the colored man. But for real success separate organization is not the real answers The white and colored ... must come together and work together... The day has passed for the establishment of organizations based upon color. 

While the CNLU was open to all workers, it fell into the reformist trap of believing that labor and capital could learn to live and grow together. In failing to see the irreconcilable conflict, the. CNLU sealed its fate. Both it and the NLU soon tell into decline. The radical organization of workers into a national organization

began with the Knights of Labor. Formed in 1869, the year that the CNLU called for the unity of workers "without regard to race or color," the Knights of Labor was initially committed to trans- forming this expression of solidarity into a reality. From the ranks of the militant Knights of Labor rang the slogan, "An injury to one is a concern for all." In many cities throughout the country, including the South, Blacks were a major part of the membership. The Knights also managed to conduct a number of mass campaigns and marches showing a militant solidarity between Black and white workers. William Z. Foster summed up the Knights of Labor in The Negro People in American History:

Despite the white chauvinist attitude of many of its officials, the Knights of Labor represented the highest stage of Negro-white unity yet achieved by the workers, as well as the most effective stand of the working class against the offensive of the employers. The organization began to decline after 1886'from a variety of causes. Among these were the destructive influence of the large influx of nonworking class elements - farmers, professionals, etc. - who came into the order; tendencies of the leadership to play down and even betray strikes and other militant working class actions; trends toward purely opportunist political activities; disruptive activities by ... anarchists, and involvement of the organization in the prevailing "cheap money" quackeries. Especially destructive, was the hostility of the rival national craft unions, which were strongly opposed to the organization form of the order. By 1895, after 10 years of its greatest activity, the K. of L. was no longer the key labor organization of the working class


Craft Unionization: AF of L 

For the bulk of the working class involved in unions, the American Federation of Labor, founded in 1881, replaced the Knights of Labor. The AF of L was a national federation of craft unions that proved to be an exclusive organization consolidating the most reactionary sectors of the working class. Though Samuel Gompers, its founder, initially declared that the AF of L did "not want to exclude any workingman who believes in and belongs to organized labor," the AF of L failed miserably in its practice. In the beginning, rather than rooting itself in the principle of solidarity, it took the position that Black workers had to be included because their exclusion would make it easier for employers to use them as strikebreakers. Its position did not improve as the years wore on. Ira De A. Reid summarized the AP of Us relationship with Black workers:

What then is the official position of the American Federation of Labor, toward the organizing of Negro workers? It comprises a number of resolutions urging organization against efforts of radicals at organization; segregated organization of Negro workers in certain occupations through local and federal labor unions; a few pleas for organization; the employment at various times of a few Negro organizers; and a total inability, if not unwillingness to compel international unions to remove from their constitutions Negro exclusion clause$, or Buffer expulsion from the Federation. 

Its preoccupation with the interests of white workers rather than the working class as a whole, and its concentration on organizing the skilled to the exclusion of the unskilled, meant that it failed not only Black workers but the entire working class.

"One Big Union": The Wobblies

The Industrial Workers of the World, founded in 1905, took a very different approach. As the ideological heir of the better aspects of the Knights of Labor, this was a major radical union that included all sectors of the working class. The ideological character of the class struggle was clearly put: "The working class and the employing class have nothing in common." The IWW (or Wobblies as they were generally called) was to be "one big union" of the working class, regardless of race, creed, color, or sex.



Philip, Foner indicates the IWW's relationship to the Black worker: no time in its history did the IWW ever establish segregated locals for black workers, even in the deepest South. Wherever it organized, members were brought together in locals regardless of race or color. In fact, the Industrial Workers of the World is the only federation in the history of the American labor movement that never chartered a single segregated local. 

It was just this kind of policy that led W. E. B. DuBois to write: "We respect the Industrial Workers of the World as one, of the social and political movements in modern times that draws no color line."

The Wobblies were perceived by the capitalist class as a major threat to their rule for several reasons. First, the Wobblies were syndicalists, a political position that workers can directly seize control of the state mainly through the use of the strike. Second, their policy of actively recruiting Black workers on an equal basis left open the real possibility that Black and white workers would unite to overthrow the capitalist class. The government thus set about to systematically destroy the Wobblies. At the height of the IWW's efforts to organize the waterfront in 1917, the government began moving in. It eventually arrested IWW leaders all over the country and imprisoned them, some for as many as twenty years. It was a move from which the Wobblies never really recovered. The mounting "Red Scare" and further governmental repression decimated the ranks of the IWW. By 1923, "the IWW was only the shell of an organization," as Foner put it. The government had successfully managed to stem the tide of organizing workers, especially Black workers, into industrial unions.

A National Black Union: 

The Brotherhood Not only did the Wobblies present a    threat during this period, but the possibility of an independent Black labor movement loomed large, particularly in the early 1920s when Black workers threatened to secede from the AF of L because of its continued indifference to their concerns. In 1924, A. Philip Randolph was able to capture some of this remaining impetus when he launched the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters at a public rally in Harlem, which at the time was hailed as "the greatest mass meeting ever held of, by and for Negro working men." The first organizing drive was in Chicago, but organizing efforts swept the




country as Black militant, porters rode the rails. It was eventually supported by the NAACP, the National Urban League locals, some churches, and the Colored Women's Economic Council, which formed auxiliaries to stage rallies and to aid porters who were harassed, beaten, and fired by the Pullman Company. Even some of the AF of L leadership supported the Brotherhood. As Foner has pointed out, "Worried about the influence of Communists in the Negro working class, they saw the brotherhood, whose leadership was bitterly anti-Communist, as a bastion against the American Negro Labor Congress!'

By 1928, the Brotherhood had sufficient strength that its members voted to strike Pullman. At the last moment, Randolph called off the  strike largely at the counsel of William Green the President of the AF of L. Randolph was roundly criticized by militants within and outside the Brotherhood, but he defended his position on the basis that the future of the Brotherhood lay with the AF of L. The following year the Brotherhood had its own convention and a constitution, and it went on to become the first successful national Black union. For many, it was the symbol of an important response to racism as well as a force of cohesion for Black workers in organized labor.

Radicalism: American Negro Labor Congress and Unemployed Councils

There were other, more radical forces at work. In 1925, the same year that Randolph was establishing the Brotherhood, the American Negro Labor Congress was organized to unite "Negro workers -and class-conscious white workers in a common struggle against racial, social and economic oppression." Its purposes were clearly stated:

The American Negro Labor Congress stands for a militant and uncompromising struggle against all forms of white ruling class terrorism: lynchings, etc. against the attempts of the employers to set one group of workers against the other in order to continue more easily their exploitation of both black and white workers. The American Negro Labor Congress stands for the right of workers to organize for self-defense. 

It called upon all workers to unite to form militant industrial unions and to fight against U.S. imperialism:

The Negro masses throughout the world are the victims of one of the most monstrous systems of exploitation the world has known. In Africa, the West Indies, the United States, etc. our lot is that of an oppressed and exploited

denial of education, are some of the methods used by the landowners and employers, in collusion with the banks, courts and police, to enslave the Negro masses. 

These terrible conditions, which face the Negro not only in the South but throughout the imperialist world, call for effective organization and militant methods of struggle on the part of the Negro workers and farmers, in alliance with the class-conscious white workers. 

It is futile to expect the wavering, treacherous middle-class Negro leaders to give militant leadership to the struggles of the masses. Such leadership can only come from the workers in the factories and shops who constitute the membership of the American Negro Labor Congress. Only through trained, intelligent and, courageous working-class leadership can the Masses resist oppression and achieve real emancipation. 

Every Negro worker And farmer should join the American Negro Labor Congress. Every class-conscious white worker should give it his support. 



Hailed by the Daily Worker, criticized by the Black press as Communist-inspired, and condemned by the AF of L, the American Negro Labor Congress received a great deal of public attention. It Was not, however, very successful in bringing large numbers of Black and white workers together in a united front against the segregated trade unions, much less against the capitalist class. By 1930, it was superseded by the League of Struggle for Negro Rights.

As the Depression deepened, Blacks and whites joined to set up Unemployed Councils to demand relief, unemployment insurance, and jobs. The policy of the Unemployed Council, as stated by Angelo Herndon was:

. . .to carry on a constant fight for the rights of the Negro people. We realize that unless Negro and white workers are united together, they cannot get relief The capitalist class teaches race hatred to Negro and white workers and keep it going all the time, tit for tat, the white worker running after the white worker, and the capitalist becomes the exploiter and the robber of them both. . . . It is in the interest of the capitalist to play one race against the other, so greater profits can be realized from the working, people of all races. It so happens that the Negro's skin is black, therefore making it much easier for him to be singled out and used as a scapegoat....

But the Unemployment Council points out to the Negro and white workers that . . . the solution can only be found in the unity and organization of black and white workers. In organization the workers have strength. 

Herndon, a Black Communist Party worker (the Unemployed Councils were mostly under the leadership of the CP though Communists and non-Communists alike participated in them), was arrested in Atlanta for leading a demonstration of the unemployed and was prosecuted for insurrection. At his trial, Herndon declared: 

But I can say this quite clearly, if the State of Georgia and the City of Atlanta think that by locking up Angelo Herndon, the question of unemployment will be solved, I say you are deadly wrong. If you really want to ,do anything about the case, you must go out and indict the social system. . . . There are thousands of Negro and white workers who, because of unemployment and hunger, are organizing. If the state wants to break up this organization, it cannot do it by arresting people and placing them on trial for insurrection, insurrection laws will not fill empty stomachs. Give the people bread. The officials ... know now that the workers are going to organize and get relief. 

The state's reaction was to sentence Herndon to life on the chain gang. Other prosecutions followed as the state moved to put down the working class.

Industrial Unionization: CIO and the Black Community 

The 1930s witnessed many other battles involving workers. One that was to have particular relevance to the future of Black workers was the battle over industrial unionism. The craft-trade union was the dominant form of organization inside the AF of L and had long served to effectively prevent Black workers from being unionized. Those who were unionized suffered from all forms of discrimination. There were, however, some industrial unions within the AF of L (e.g., the United Mine Workers and the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union) that had organized all workers on the worksite. A struggle emerged between these two trends, representing not only the two objectively based sectors of the working class (craft versus mass-production industrial workers), but also two basic political trends (reactionary narrow interests versus interests, for progressive social and political changes). The rift broke out at the 1935 convention, after which the dissident group formed the Committee for Industrial Organization as a minority bloc within the AF of L. After some struggle, they were purged and subsequently they set up the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1937.

     In a real sense, the radical wing of the labor movement was again given vitality in the early days of the CIO. The Communist Party gave leadership to the organizing effort. It led the working class in pitched battle against both the sell-out trade unionism pushed by the leadership of the AF of L, and the repressive practices of the capitalist class and its state during the severe crisis of the Great Depression. The old southern slander against the trade union movement again dripped from the lips of every reactionary in the country: "labor unions + strikes = communism + atheism + social equality with the Negro!" The CIO was not to be deterred however. The historical importance of this new organization of industrial unions is summarized by Philip Foner:

All workers gained substantially from the organizing drives of the CIO, but black workers perhaps gained the most. Before the establishment of the CIO barely 100,000 blacks were members of American trade unions; by 1940, there were roughly 500,000. Before the rise of the CIO, the presence of a black union official at union events was a rare occurrence; in 1939-40, it was commonplace. A body of militant black union officials had come into being. As spokesmen for hundreds of thousands of black union members, tlify occupied a strategic position in influencing union policies. 

At the same time the CIO was being formed, a number of prominent Blacks came together and created the National Negro Congress. "For the first time in the history of black Americans;' Foner writes, "a 'united front of all Negro organizations,' from old-line Republican to Communist, had joined together, rejected Red-baiting, and stood ready to help in solving the urgent problems of the Negro people, among which the organization of black workers stood foremost." Though it officially supported both the CIO and the AF of L, it actively sought an alliance With the CIO, which it saw as the best hope for fighting discrimination against Black workers.

The National Negro Congress, however, ultimately did not speak for the entire Black community. The Black community became split over the issue of unionization. One side was tied to capital and focused on racism in the unions to argue against unionization. The other side argued that since the advancement of Blacks was only possible in the trade union movement, whatever problems existed had to be fought rather than to jump in bed with capital. There are many examples of this kind of a split. The major industrial giants, like Ford in Detroit, contributed funds to local churches in order to gain the support of ministers to fight the efforts to organize Black workers into an industrial auto union. Also, local Urban Leagues  often took a pro-capital position because of the composition of their boards and the relationships they had  developed in fund raising for the League, though this local practice was in contradiction to the national policy which was hardly ever strongly anti-union.


Reactionary Forces: AFL-CIO Merger

     During the late 1930s and 1940s, despite the efforts of' the Nation al Negro Congress and others, reactionary forces operating in the interest of capital increased their attacks on the CIO. The most backward anti-Communist propaganda was directed at the CIO. This was made more complex by organized labor's positive relationship with Franklin D. Roosevelt and its support of his policy concerning World War 11.

     By 1948, there was a hardening of the right in trade union leadership, and a consolidation of the right-wing leadership in the CIO itself. After the war, the AF of L continued with blind patriotism to support the "cold war policies;" of the United States. The CIO was not far behind. In 1949, the CIO expelled eleven progressive unions, with almost one million workers, on the grounds that they were Communist-dominated.

     These expulsions smoothed the way for the merger of the AF of L and the CIO in 1955. With the leadership of the AFL-CIO in the hands of the "labor lieutenants of capital," this merger had serious repercussions for Black workers. Now there was no radical national trade union organization that took a clear and antagonist stand against capital. Black workers would have to depend on the militancy of rank-and-file workers or outside organizations to push for their rights.

Black Militancy

     Anticipating the reactionary direction the trade union leadership was taking, Black workers formed the National Negro Labor Council in 1951, amidst anti-Communist hysteria. The NNLC was dedicated to addressing the needs and rights of Black workers. It filled a void created by the absence of the National Negro Congress, which had ceased to exist after the war, and by the NAACP's failure to criticize labor leaders who were in the process of ridding the unions of their radical elements. From the beginning, the NNLC made it clear that its main purpose was to assist unions in bringing an end to job discrimination and racism within the unions. However, when the NNLC attempted to cooperate with union leaders, it was rebuffed. Black appeals to elect Black



officers were met with charges of "racism in reverse." The   ' NNLC conducted many important struggles, including militant strikes and campaigns to win jobs, to stop brutal police killings of Blacks, and to gain the right to use public transportation and facilities. In 1956, however, the NNLC was called before the Subversive Activities Control Board to defend itself against charges that it was a Communist-front organization. Faced with an enormous legal defense bill that it could not pay, the NNLC voted to dissolve itself. Thus the NNLC died, the victim of, as Foner put it, "intimidation, Red-baiting, and other kinds of political and economic pressure: Once again, the government, at the behest of the capitalist class, succeeded in repressing Black workers' at- tempts to organize themselves to fight against racism. While the NNLC failed to change the AF of L or CIO,. it did set, a new tone of Black militancy to inspire others.

On the heels of five years of experience with the AFL-CIO during which Black workers made very little progress, Black trade unionists were determined to assume a more militant role. After a particularly galling rejection of Black demands, Randolph went before the NAACP convention to ask for the creation of a national Negro labor committee. In May of 1960, the Negro American Labor Council was born. It was an autonomous organization of Black trade unionists working within the AFL-CIO to pressure it to take concrete action toward eliminating racism. 'Its efforts were hardly welcomed by the AFL-CIO. The following year, the AFL-CIO Executive Committee censored Randolph for creating, as George Meany (the president of the AFL-CIO) put it, "the gap that has developed between organized labor and the Negro community." Black response was quick to follow. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP summarized the position of the Black community: "If such, a  gap exists it is because Mr. Meany and the AFL-CIO Executive Council have not taken the required action to eliminate the broad national pattern of anti-Negro practices that continues to exist in many significant sections of the American labor movement . . "

     Black people were no longer content to wait for organized labor to act upon their demands. They were taking matters into their own hands. The NALC, with the -cooperation of the NAACP, - SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), and SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), led the 1963 March on Washington to demand jobs and an end to discrimination in industry and the unions (see Chapter 14). The Civil Rights Movement was in high gear, and promises of change were fast forthcoming from the unions. 


     The next years witnessed a closer relationship between Black people and organized labor as both struggled for the passage of the i964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But sharp divisions were occurring between more militant Blacks and white liberal labor leaders as organized labor's position hardened.

      In June 1966, "Black Power" came to national attention. While essentially  reformist in that it proposed no fundamental change in the U.S. political and economic system, "Black Power" did become the rallying cry for many. For some, it portended the beginning of a new revolutionary struggle.

In 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. was still calling for a closer union of labor and civil rights forces:

Today the union record in relation to Negro workers is exceedingly uneven, but the potentiality for influencing union decisions still exists. In many of the larger unions the white leadership contains some men of ideals and many more who are pragmatists. Both groups find they are benefited by a constructive relationship to their Negro membership. For those compelling reasons, Negroes, who are almost wholly a working people, cannot be casual toward the union movement. This is true even though some unions remain incontestably hostile.               ...

To play our role fully as Negroes we will have to strive for-enhanced representation and influence in the labor movement.... We allowed ourselves to accept middle-class prejudices toward the labor movement.... In shunning it, we have lost an opportunity. Let us try to regain it now, at a time when the joint forces of Negro and labor may be facing an historic task of social reform. 

But growing disillusionment, among civil rights activists and increasing hostility between unions and poverty-stricken Blacks, Puerto Ricans, and other minorities were leading many to the position that social reform was simply not enough. The riots that erupted in Detroit, Newark, Cleveland, and many other  cities in the summer of 1967 could not be blamed on Black people. The root of the problem was clearly economic and social conditions that could be changed only through revolutionary struggle and not by mere reform.



Black Revolutionary Union Movement: DRUM, the League, BWC

In 1968, the labor movement began to feel the full impact of this new revolutionary thrust when DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement) burst on the scene at a Chrysler plant in Detroit. Its revolutionary goals were made clear in its constitution:

We ... understand that there have been previous attempts by our people in this country to throw off this degrading yoke of brutal oppression, which have ended in failure. Throughout our history, black workers, first slaves and later as pseudo-freedmen, have been in the vanguard of potentially successful revolutionary struggles both in all black movements as well as in integrated efforts.... Common to all of these movements were two things, their failure and the reason why they failed. These movements failed because they were betrayed from within or in the case of the integrated movements by the white leadership exploiting the racist nature of the white workers they, led.... At this point we loudly proclaim that we have learned our lesson from history and we shall not fail. So it is that we who are the hope of black people and oppressed people everywhere dedicate ourselves to the cause of liberation to build the world anew, realizing that only a struggle led by black workers can triumph our powerful reactionary enemy...

We recognize our struggle is not an isolated one and that we have common cause with the black workers in this racist nation and throughout the world. For this reason it is incumbent upon us to foster, join with, initiate and lead other black workers in our common struggle. By being in the forefront of this revolutionary struggle we must act swiftly to help organize DRUM- type organizations wherever there are black workers, be it in Lynn Townsend's kitchen, the White House, White Castle, Ford Rouge, the Mississippi Delta, the plains of Wyoming, the tin mines of Bolivia, the rubber plantation of Indonesia, the oil fields of Biafra, or the Chrysler Plants in South Africa.

Needless to say, our line is the hard line. We are in a life and death struggle that has been raging savagely for 5 centuries. A struggle between master and slave, rich and poor, black and white, beast and prey, management and worker. A struggle which has shown no quarter to the black man and which we now wage and give no quarter. The ruthless land vicious nature of our enemy has brought us to a point where we are now prepared to be as ruthless and vicious, if not more so. All that the honkey has acquired, has been acquired through his exploitation of our people with his brutal tactics of murder, enslavement, mayhem, and rape. Our line is one of consistent struggle in which we support everything the enemy opposes and oppose everything the honkey supports. 

Within a year, DRUM was joined by similar Black caucuses, which eventually united to form the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. The league, which sought to unite Black workers, Black students and intellectuals, and unemployed Black youth, was to be "the vanguard of the liberation struggle in this country." The League believed that Black workers had to break the control of racist unions and form their own revolutionary caucus within each union, made up of unemployed Blacks as well as workers. The League became the symbol of not only Black-worker insurgency, but also radical politics on the shop floor for all workers. Not since the 1930s had workers organized with such radical politics against the capitalist factory owners. 



While the following incident occurred after the demise of the League, it was undertaken by former League members and reflects the general posture of League tactics. James Geschwender describes what happened:

Two workers, Isaac Shorter and Larry Carter, climbed a ten-foot wire fence, lowered themselves into a six-foot-square wire cage, and turned off the electricity --- stopping the assembly line at the Jefferson Avenue assembly plant for thirteen hours on July 24, 1973. Five thousand workers were made idle and the production of 950 cars lost. Shorter and Carter presented a, list of four demands, (1) Thomas Woolsey, utility superintendent, should be fired; (2) no reprisals; (3) this should be guaranteed in writing; and (4) the guarantee should be signed in their presence and in front of their fellow workers. These demands apparently struck a receptive chord -in a number of workers as a crowd gathered around the cage shouting encouragement and supplying, food and other forms of aid.... All accounts agree that a jubilant crowd carried Shorter and Carter off on their shoulders when they came out of the cage at 7:11 p.m. after winning all demands. Both management and UAW representatives had previously attempted without success to talk the two workers out of the cage. When all other efforts failed, Chrysler, capitulated 

Woolsey had been a subject of previous controversy. He had been transferred within Chrysler because of worker discontent, had been the subject of five grievances and had been accused of racism and abusive behavior stimulating an earlier work stoppage. Workers accused Woolsey of abusing workers and using racist epithets, for example, calling a man a "black son-of-a-bitch.' . . 

Woolsey had about 300 workers, 90 percent of whom were black, under his jurisdiction. Workers had collected 214 signatures on a petition demanding that Woolsey be fired. After four months of ineffectual protest, Shorter and Carter resorted to direct action. Shortly after the shutdown began the United Justice Caucus (UJC), rank-and-file caucus within UAW Local 7, spread the word about what was happening and helped to rally supporters.... 

     Isaac Shorter and Larry Carter addressed a victory celebration sponsored by UJC on July 29. Shorter did most of the talking and announced that he was a socialist who was "working to change the total structure of the capitalist system by scientific socialism        He expressed the need for a vanguard party to lead the workers and indicated that the union was a part of the problem rather than a vehicle for its solution. He received an ovation in response to his statement that "Workers of the world must unite."

     The practice of the League inspired a new optimism in the radical movement - at that time called the "New Left" - and led to broader efforts to organized in working-class centers of employment. But the League did not survive the 197'Os due to organizational problems of leadership, their differences over political orientation, and the limitations of 'being located in only one city, Detroit. This organizational thrust led directly into the Black Workers' Congress, a national organization building on the experience of the League and including radicals from the former student group, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. This led to a greater Black presence in the left (see Chapter 16), but not a great deal of organizing took place among Black workers.


     In the working class, the dramatic results of the league, and of similar efforts around the country by the small but militant Black caucus movement, were to increase the number of Black workers in certain industries. There also was an increase of Blacks in positions of responsibility, including Black foremen and Black union stewards. Blacks became part of the system, co-opted into low-level leadership positions in both management and the trade unions.

The Contemporary Scene 

The increased gains of Blacks in the trade union movement, energized by the mass mobilizations of Black people during the 1960s, led to a new organization of Blacks within the trade union movement. The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) was organized in 1972. Sparked by the refusal of AFL-CIO leadership (especially George Meany) to oppose the election of Richard Nixon, Blacks in the trade union movement united in the CBTU "to focus the, influence and bring to bear the power of the nation's three million Black workers, both in national politics and in union affairs." The specific grievances were: (1) underepresentation of Blacks in top leadership positions in the trade unions; (2) discriminatory hiring practices that keep Blacks in insecure employment; (3) discrimination on the job without protection from the trade union officials; and (4) failure of trade union leadership to take seriously the policy concerns of their Black members.

     But the CETU was definitely within the trade union movement. The major leader of CBTU, William Lucy of APSME, is very clear on this:

We are not a separatist organization. We are not negativists. We are still trade unionists. We're not interested in civil rights. Other people are taking care of that. We're not interested in changing people's attitudes. This has nothing to do with right and wrong, with sin and evil. Power is what creates equals and demands respect. 

CBTU membership comes from over forty unions, inside and outside of the AFL-CIO structure, including steel, auto, meat cutters, teamsters, government employees, and a variety of other service workers.

     This historical sketch of Black workers and trade unions is an extremely important part of the Black experience, but it is usually not included in general texts in Afro-American Studies. The same omission is frequent in American history and world history courses. Since most Black people have been working people at every historical stage, it is necessary and appropriate to spend a chapter dealing with this subject. Further, since white people are also workers, the discussion of the Black experience in the trade unions is an important part of the overall American experience.

     Blacks have participated in trade unions more than any other organization, except the Black church. Trade unions were designed to improve the standard of living and working conditions facing workers, even though this has seldom been done adequately for Black workers. This chapter should be read in relationship to Chapters 14, 15, and 16. 


 Caucas  Social welfare 
Craft unions vs. industrial unions  Strike 
Labor reserve  Unemployment 
Last hired, first fired  Unionization 
Scab  Working class 


1. Discuss the negative experiences Black workers have to suffer. How are these similar to or different from the experiences of white workers?

2. Have trade unions ever taken a strong position against racism and segregation in support of Black workers? Give concrete examples.

3. What are the main lessons for today that can be drawn from worker struggles of the 1930s? 1960s?

4. Discuss the pros and cons of separate Black organizations in the trade union movement. Give concrete examples. 


1. Harold Baron, "The Demand for Black Labor." Radical America 2 (March/April, 1971): 2-6.

2. James A. Geschwender, Class, Race, and Worker Insurgency: The League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Cambridge: Cam- bridge University Press, 1977.

3. William H. Harris, Keeping the Faith: A. Philip Randolph, Milton P. Webster, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 192537. Urbana: University of Illinois -Press, 1977.

4. John F. Keller, Power in America: The Southern Question an .  the Control of Labor. Chicago: Vanguard Books, 1983.

5. Sterling D. Spero and Abram L. Harris, The Black Worker. The Negro and the Labor Movement. New York: Atheneum, 1968.


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