From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 40, 4 October 1943, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for MIA.
Labor is meeting in conventions these days. Every convention discusses its own problems in the framework of the general situation of labor In the country. Both in public discussion or private conference, the Negroes’ position in the labor movement will continually crop up. These discussions and conferences will do well to bear in mind exactly what has been revealed at the recent hearings, organized by the Fair Employment Practices Committee, on discrimination against Negroes on the railroads.
The facts themselves are familiar. Yet labor, which faces great battles for its existence in the coming turbulent years, cannot afford to let scores of Negro newspapers, like, for instance, the Chicago Defender, September 25, say things like the following:
“The testimony tended to prove beyond any doubt that the railroads have refused to hire or upgrade Negroes, ignored their seniority rights, maintained their unfair differentials in wages paid Negroes for identical work as done by whites ... refused them employment or promotion to jobs as locomotive engineers, flagmen, cabinmen, boiler-makers ... trainmen ...”
and a long and impressive list of discriminations.
Labor as a whole cannot afford this sort of thing because, first, the wages and conditions of all workers are the concern of all labor; and, secondly, the railroad companies are saying that it is not their fault, it is the result of agreements arrived at with railroad labor. They are excusing themselves and saying the fault is labor’s.
The railroad companies present made no defense. They cross-examined no witnesses. But the railroad brotherhoods made no defense either. Yet Sydney S. Alderman, who made a statement for all the railroads except the Union Pacific, showed the company’s main line of defense to be: it is not our fault, it is labor’s.
Listen to this: “The agreement with labor organizations (openly approving discriminatory exclusions of Negroes) placed before this committee have been arrived at by processes under the Railway Labor Act and earlier controlling United States labor laws, often with governmental assistance and approval.”
See his emphasis. The LABOR unions agree, under LABOR legislation. The government too approved. Why blame us?
When the railroad companies have a disagreement with the government they shout loud enough. When they want to attack labor’s wages or living conditions they mobilize, hit hard and fight long. But now they shrug their shoulders and say: “Labor is responsible.”
Next comes Dr. Northrup for the government. He is a member of the National War Labor Board. This bureaucrat condemns the Railroad Act. But why? Because
“under it the National (Railway) Mediation Board must often designate, as exclusive bargaining agent for Negroes, a union which excluded Negroes or confines them to an inferior auxiliary status ... It has refused to take the racial policies of unions into consideration in determining appropriate bargaining units.”
Was there ever such impudence and disgusting hypocrisy?
Very wisely the CIO sent a representative to the hearings, Myers of the National Maritime Union. Myers testified that the NMU, by a referendum among its 50,000 members, had condemned discrimination. It was “particularly proud,” said Myers, that his union had abolished discrimination among seamen in the South, where, as he pointed out, it was generally believed “it cannot be done.” Said Myers:
“Negro and white seamen work side by side, eat together in the same messroom and are quartered together in the same fo’csle.”
Myers mixed up this fine record with a lot of pro-war talk which had nothing to do with the case.
Most important testimony of all came from L. Abner, a white man and former fireman of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. He said that promotions of Negroes would NOT lead to disruptions of service. He said that there would be some grumbling. But “seniority plays a great place in a railroad man’s life, and he isn’t going to do anything in the line of violence to challenge it.”
There spoke the very voice of the ordinary progressive worker. Today that type is in the majority in the labor movement.
The capitalist press for the most part boycotted the hearings. This proves quite clearly that the railroad companies wish the discrimination to continue. The capitalist press does not advocate the wishes or express the sentiments at labor. The situation is therefore clear. The government and capitalism as represented by the railroad companies have been forced to recognize the discrimination publicly. The responsibility is basically theirs.
They and their press are the great teachers, upholders and practitioners of Jim Crow and discrimination in this country. But they want to smear labor with it. And the railroad unions, by maintaining the discrimination, are not only weakening their union, but are disgracing themselves before the general public, antagonizing the Negroes and opening labor as a whole to damaging blows by capital and its state, just when American labor needs to show the country and the world as a whole that it is the only really powerful force for democracy in the country.
The railroad unions cannot remain silent any longer. They should not allow their reactionary constitutions with its discriminatory practices to remain. But we do not want the government meddling in this. The rank and file in the railroad unions, the people who think as Abner should say to their leaders: “Put an end to it.”
And the CIO unions and the labor movement as a whole, as they all meet in convention, should express themselves to their railroad brothers, in clear terms:
“This is no time to continue such practices. You owe it to yourselves and to all of us to take the lead. Discrimination and Jim Crow are vices of the boss class. We are not waiting now for big business to lecture us. There, as in all other fields, labor must take the lead.”
Last updated on 10 July 2015