W.F. Carlton

Union Labor Must Lead
the Fight for Negro Rights

(16 August 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 33, 16 August 1943, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for MIA.

The racial tension in the country steadily gets worse. In areas widely separate from each other, outbursts have already taken place or people live in daily fear of them.

The recent demonstration by the Negroes in Harlem is of exceptional significance, because New York is one of the areas where relations between races are better than they are in most other places in the United States. But if it can happen in New York, it can happen anywhere.

Labor Action has repeatedly drawn the attention of the labor movement to the danger of this situation for labor. Once more we call their attention to the fact that it is necessary to act now.

The ruling class is already acting. Attorney General Biddle proposes to prohibit Negroes from going into industrial areas such as Detroit. Elsewhere in this issue Labor Action deals with this dangerous order, aimed not only at the Negroes but at labor and the people as a whole, regardless of race, nationality or creed. We mention it here merely to emphasize that racial tension and racial upheaval are not merely the concern of the Negroes and of the government.

Negroes and the Labor Movement

Labor cannot content itself by being sympathetic to the Negro. It has to take responsibility for the defense of the Negro people against the violence of their persecutors. But it must do more. It must take responsibility also for assisting the Negroes in their struggle for their legitimate rights as citizens of the United States.

The CIO, all things taken into consideration, has recognized the importance of white and Negro solidarity in the labor unions. In the course of the last six years Negro labor has made more progress toward its complete integration into the labor movement than during the the preceding sixty years. This is not to give a blanket endorsement to all policies and procedures toward Negro labor in the CIO. But the general trend can best be illustrated by the results of a poll recently taken among 10,000 Negro people by the Pittsburgh Courier.

Asked if Negro workers should seek closer cooperation with organized labor, 96.4 per cent of them replied “Yes.” Only 2.4 per cent said “No.” And 1.2 per cent were uncertain.

It is clear that the sentiment of the majority of the Negro people has changed tremendously from that of the old days, when so many Negroes looked upon white workers and organized labor as their bitter rivals for the favors of the employers.

Labor worked hard to achieve this measure of success. The racial upheavals will break up solidarity between white and Negro labor and undo all the good work which has so patiently been performed during the last few years.

Unions Must Take the Lead

One of the most striking features of the recent disturbances in New York and Detroit is the fact that in the factories white and Negro labor continued to work side by side, not only in solidarity but anxiously discussing together the fighting and the agitation in the streets. One of the leaders of the UAW in Detroit has reported that during the disturbances many workers called upon the leadership to take steps to put an end to what they felt instinctively was a danger to the union and a disgrace to American democracy. These workers were absolutely correct in their demand.

They were correct because the situation cannot continue as it is. If the fighting between whites and Negroes in the streets continues, sooner or later it will affect the relations in the factories. It will affect the relations in the unions. Unscrupulous employers are not going to miss the opportunity to encourage provocation leading to violence. They know that this must ultimately have the effect of creating bad blood between different sections of their own workers and recreating the situation which existed before the CIO.

One of two things must take place. Either the white and Negro solidarity in the factory must take upon itself the task of putting an end to the violence and division outside. Or the violence and division outside will continue until it starts to undermine the solidarity inside the factory.

What Defense Means

Workers in the factories asked their leaders to take steps, against the rioting, to do something. One reply was that nothing could be done, because the labor unions had to be on guard against forming what would be called vigilante bands. This makes no sense at all.

If unionists, Negro and white, make it officially known to the whole public that they do not intend to have racial disturbances undermining the solidarity of their unions; if they state also that since the government and the police show that they are either unable or unwilling to protect the Negro people and to keep order they intend to do so, how in the name of heaven could anybody call such organizations “vigilante bands”? At best, the argument is stupid. At worst, it is an excuse for inaction. In view of this situation, it is necessary for the unions to establish union and workers’ defense guards against reactionary fascistic bands.

We go further than this.

Nothing is so certain to make would-be rioters and persecutors of the Negroes think twice before they start anything as the fact that labor, organized labor, white and black together, has determined that racial persecution must stop.

But labor has a still greater responsibility. It has the good will of the Negro people more than ever before. It has within its ranks hundreds of thousands of Negro workers devoted to the union. The Negro community, as the Harlem demonstration showed, has reached a stage when it is demanding its rights as citizens. It is determined to have these rights.

The government practices Jim Crow in every field. It shows no intention whatever of doing anything else except making a few gestures.

Labor’s Grand Opportunity

This is labor’s opportunity. Labor must realize that its future place is at the head of the American nation. Labor must realize that if economic crises, fascism and imperialist war are to be conquered, then they can be conquered only by a fighting labor movement gathering around itself all the poor, all the oppressed, all the persecuted, making them see in labor their shield against oppression and the fighter for their rights.

The exploited tenant-farmer, the old people whom industry has used and cast aside, the small shop keepers and the white collar workers on whom the burdens of capitalism increasingly fall – all these groups, the Negroes and other minorities, are looking for a way out of the perpetual capitalist crisis and the crimes and barbarism of capitalist society.

Labor must teach all these people to look to labor. By taking upon itself the defense of the Negroes, labor will not only protect its own organization. It will take a long step toward its place as, the leader of American society.

Last updated on 12 June 2015