Unions and Racism

The following is a snippet from a paper I wrote on The Wire and organized labor.


Unions have a pervasive historical problem with racism. (Addressing this history by recounting it is problematic in itself: labor historians, in their work, also have a complicated relationship with race. Labor historians have informed, and been informed by, union attitudes towards race.)

The very early labor historians, like John Commons and Selig Perlman, approached the existence of black workers as obstacles for labor unions. Commons believed in “race differences” that separated white workers from workers of color, such that “labor unions were only necessary for Caucasians, that the backward non-white races were lazy, could not compete and did not need unions.”[1] Perlman himself believed that “the most important single factor in the history of American labor” was the exclusion of “Mongolian labor” via the Chinese Exclusion of Act of 1882, which Herbert Hill called “the first racist immigration law in American history.”[2] These historians and those that followed their work “regarded Asian and black workers as racially inferior and unworthy of membership in labor unions.” Whether this informed the practices of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) or was informed by the AFL is not clear—either way, these views corresponded with the exclusionary polices and practices of the AFL. Until the 1930s, black workers were mostly excluded from most of the official unions (although there are many instances in which black workers organized themselves independently, starting as early as the end of the Civil War).[3] Indeed, in 1909, white unionized firemen in Georgia called a strike with the aim of forcing the railroad company to fire black workers, replace them with white workers, and bar black workers from being employed in the future.[4]

By the mid-1930s, thanks to a deliberate push on the part of the NNC (National Negro Conference), the CIO began to “conduct organizing drives committed to enlisting all unskilled workers, regardless of race, in key industries with large numbers of black workers such as steel, meatpacking, and automobile manufacturing.”[5] Between 1940 and 1946, a partnership between the NAACP and the unions led to the rise of a large cross-constituency in both organizations. Half a million black workers join CIO-organized unions, and the NAACP itself saw its membership go from 50,000 to 450,000.[6]

But this increased integration was more “ambivalent solidarity” rather than “principled racial egalitarianism.”[7] Although there were some notable exceptions, like the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (the West Cost union for dockworkers) and the Packinghouse Workers, which engaged in active outreach to black workers and took issue with discriminatory hiring practices, for the most part, unions had an “ambiguous practice when it came to race and the black worker.”[8] AFL unions ignored black workers, and would collaborate with discriminatory employment practices in order to advance their white male members’ interests,[9] to the point of being called “explicitly racist” in the literature.[10] CIO unions were thought to be the leftist counterpoint to the AFL unions. But although they sought to tap into the black community in strengthening its base, but the CIO did not commit to addressing racist discrimination in the workplace. “The net result was a paradox: an increased living standard for the thousands of black workers who formed and joined unions, while at the same time a freezing of discriminatory hiring practices into place.”[11]

In the late 1940s, union support for black workers took a hard hit as unions that had been their strongest advocates were expelled from the CIO for their unrepentant communist leadership.[12] This included the ILWU, led by “Red” Harry Bridges, who had actively recruited workers from the African American community, often speaking at churches and social gatherings throughout the “Big Strike” of 1934.[13] The ILWU was considered an explicitly “anti-racist” organization with a “radical pedigree”—indeed, Harry Bridges promised African American workers: “Our union means a new deal for Negroes. Stick with us and we’ll stand for your inclusion in [the] industry.”[14] But even the ILWU in the 1930s and 40s is a case study in discrimination, harassment, and systematic white supremacy.

A paper by Jake Alimahomed-Wilson documented the experiences of black longshoremen in southern California, belonging to the ILWU Local 13. While the ports of southern Californian were not Harry Bridges’s home base of San Francisco, it was certainly close enough to where the explicitly racist practices of the local are a shocking contrast to Bridges’s anti-racist rhetoric. Black longshoremen began to work in the ports in the 1940s as white longshoremen left to fight in World War II. But as the white workers returned, Local 13 deregistered 500 longshoremen (most of them black) from their membership. The local claimed it was because of their “lack of seniority”; but the black workers’ lack of seniority was due to being locked out of the union on racist grounds. The unemployed 500 brought an appeal to the local, but it was denied.[15] After a long and bitter lawsuit, the workers were reregistered.[16]

Through the 1950s and 60s, these black longshoremen continued to fight racism in their own union. Despite collecting clear and extensive evidence of discriminatory practices, the claims of the southern Californian black longshoremen were denied by both the local and the Fair Employment Practices Commission. In fact in the 1950s, the FEPC refused to even look at the case, because the ILWU was explicitly “anti-racist” on paper.[17] Thus, the radical posturing of the ILWU ended up shielding itself from scrutiny.

The efforts of the black workers of Local 13 were happening against a backdrop of a nation-wide movement to address union racism. In 1955, upon the merger of the AFL and CIO, the organization announced several major goals, including the elimination of racism within the trade unions. But in 1960, Herbert Hill, labor secretary of the NAACP, reported that efforts to eliminate discriminatory practices had been “piecemeal and inadequate.”[18] In Hill’s own words, such practices were not “simply isolated or occasional expressions of local bias against color workers, but rather, as the record indicates, a continuation of the institutionalized pattern of anti-Negro employment practices that is traditional with large sections of organized labor and industrial management.”[19] Hill identified AFL-CIO unions as practicing “outright exclusion of Negroes” as well as having “segregated locals, separate racial seniority lines in collective bargaining agreements” and excluding black workers from “apprenticeship training programs controlled by labor unions.”[20]

The alienation of black workers was evident in their voting patterns in union certification elections (black workers would often vote in blocs against unions, probably because it was well-known within the black community that the union in question was racist).[21] (Indeed, the Ku Klux Klan often held their meetings in union halls).[22] Hill identified huge numbers of segregated locals in both Northern and Southern cities (sometimes over a hundred segregated locals in a single union),[23] and clear evidence for a extensive patterns of discrimination. For Hill, the unions were complicit in generating economic inequality.[24]

The southern Californian longshoremen of the ILWU also blamed their union local—not the employer—for perpetuating racial inequality among the workers. Although they continued to admire Harry Bridges, and never blamed him for the behavior of their local, their own accounts indicate that in a toss-up between black workers and the local, the local would win. According to Elbert Kelly Jr., “Bridges was sympathetic with us and made it clear he couldn’t do anything. He didn’t want to destroy the union. He asked us to take it to the International Board but there was probably not a lot they could do.”[25]

Throughout the 1970s, black members of the Local 13 were locked out of the crane operator jobs (the highest paying job on the dock). Although the longshoremen believed that the employers were certainly complicit in the discrimination, “the primary group responsible” was actually union local leadership.[26] In fact, “[r]acial conflict over systematic job discrimination continued through the 1980s and 1990s and remains an obstacle to African American longshoremen.”[27]

[1] Hill, Labor History, at 318.

[2] Id.

[3] Fletcher, at 45

[4] Steven Reich, Organized Labor and the Civil Rights Movement: Lessons from a Troubled Past, 18 New Labor Forum 60 (2009), at 61.

[5] Id. at 64.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 66.

[8] Fletcher, at 45.

[9] Id. at 44.

[10] Alimahomed-Wilson at 42.

[11] Id. at 45.

[12] Id. at 46.

[13] Id. at 43.

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at 43-44.

[16] Id. at 44.

[17] Id. at 445.

[18] Herbert Hill, Racism Within Organized Labor: A Report of Five Years of the AFL-CIO, 1955-1960, The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Spring 1961), at 109.

[19] Id. at 109.

[20] Id. at 110.

[21] Id. at 111.

[22] Id.

[23] Id. at 111-12.

[24] Id. at 118.

[25] Alimahomed-Wilson, at 47.

[26] Id. at 47-48.

[27] Id. at 48.

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