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International Socialism, Summer 1994


Lee Sustar

The roots of multi-racial labour unity in the United States


From International Socialism 2:63, Summer 1994.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Eric Arnesen
Waterfront Workers of New Orleans: Race, Class and Politics, 1863–1923
New York and Oxford 1991, £32, $45

The idea that white workers in the US have historically benefited from racism is widely accepted on both the academic and political left. Even those who hesitate to draw such conclusions concede that a class analysis is insufficient to explain the persistence of racism in the US. Thus historian Alexander Saxton, author of the important book The Indispensable Enemy: Labour and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California, argues for an ‘ideological’ rather than ‘economic’ analysis of racism and American labour:

... Democracy eventually destroyed slavery, yet retained the doctrine of white supremacy as keystone in its new legitimising synthesis. Upon that democracy rose an industrial capitalist order. As labour power assumed its characteristically capitalist form of commodity, economic theory might have predicted that racial characteristics would lose their relevance in the labour market. From what socio-economic nutriments in the era of modernisation, did the ideological component, racism, draw its sustenance?
The question is crucial. It cannot yet be answered adequately, since no systematic explanation for the differential treatment of racial minorities has been developed for Jacksonian, or Gilded Age or Populist America – let alone for America of the progressive or New Deal or Cold War periods. Nor has the ideological analysis been applied to such historically baffling phenomena as the shift of federal policy with respect to race and racism after the Second World War, or the cult of ethnicity and the beginning of neo-racism in the 1960s and 1970s. [1]

For socialists in the US the question of the ‘socio-economic nutriments’ of racism is a matter of practical politics. The persistence of racism cannot be accepted as a ‘baffling phenomenon’, but is either explicable in terms of the class struggle, or, if race can be proven to be a more fundamental social division than class the struggle for workers’ power in the United States is sheer utopianism.

Previous articles in this journal have taken up the relationship of race and class in general and racism in the US in particular. [2] Therefore there is no need here to recount the theoretical debates on the centrality of class. Rather this review article will attempt to show how multi-racial workers’ unity could take root in seemingly the least likely context: the segregated 19th century South. It will argue that whites did not benefit from the exclusion of blacks from the ranks of organised labour, but that such divisions were disastrous for black and white workers alike.

Further, despite white supremacy, black workers North and South often rejected alliances with the small, but influential, conservative black middle class to make common cause with white workers in trade unions and socialist organisations. It will conclude by arguing that the struggle against racism in the US working class is above all a political question that cannot be resolved within the economic framework of trade unionism. Rather it must be rooted in the struggle for socialism and black liberation.

Forging inter-racial unity among New Orleans workers

In 1882 the Central Trade and Labor Assembly of New Orleans, Louisiana, celebrated its first anniversary with a parade. The editor of the local black paper wrote:

To gaze upon these representatives of every trade, and of every shade of colours, following each other, each division sandwiched between the other, in its proper place, and marshalled by white and coloured officers, with positions according to official rank, without discrimination on account of race or previous condition, was very gratifying ... God bless the Central Trade and Labor Assembly of New Orleans. May it live a long and happy life of usefulness. [3]

The workers’ inter-racial trade union alliance was incomplete. The black and white workers who marched side by side belonged to separate, segregated unions. Yet, as Eric Arnesen points out in his excellent Waterfront Workers of New Orleans, the cotton handlers, longshoremen (dockers) and others on the levee set a standard for inter-racial unity not only for the South, but for the entire US. They defied the odds in an increasingly white supremacist, anti-labour political climate to achieve genuine unity in struggle. Besides the Central Trade and Labor Assembly they had created bi-racial union federations such as the waterfront workers’ Cotton Men’s Executive Council. The council shared out jobs among black and white workers and black and white delegates negotiated jointly with the employers to maintain uniform work rules and rates. [4]

The unity of the New Orleans waterfront workers is all the more remarkable given the character of Louisiana politics, which were deeply reactionary even by the standards of the former Confederate slave states. Black and white waterfront workers had struck together at the close of the civil war in 1865, but the white bricklayers striking soon afterwards banned blacks from joining their union and went down to defeat. [5] The depression of 1873 further undermined trade unions in New Orleans and white supremacist Democratic Party politicians took advantage of the situation. Seeking white workers’ votes, the party of the ex-slaveholders urged employers to ‘give preference to white over black labour’. [6] In 1874 an armed insurrection by white supremacists failed only because federal troops kept the bi-racial Republican government in power. The Republican Party, as the ‘party of Lincoln’ and anti-slavery, had been the vehicle for freed blacks and radical whites in the struggle for political democracy in the ‘Reconstruction’ government of the post civil war South. [7]

The end of Reconstruction in 1877 – the withdrawal of federal troops from the former Confederate states – led to the return of the Democrats to power and saw a steady increase in racist violence. In 1881, the year the Central Trades was founded in New Orleans, 16 black people were lynched. One black man accused of cattle theft was tied up and put in the carcass of a cow with only his head sticking out, so that buzzards and crows could pick out his eyes. Between 1882 and 1903, 285 people were lynched in Louisiana, 232 of them black, and many of the rest immigrant workers. White landlords and bosses, not white workers or farmers, were the instigators. According to one historian, most anti-black violence was committed by ‘men of some substance’ and ‘contemporary sources make it clear that the poorer whites were not involved in a majority of cases reported.’ [8]

Indeed, the most extreme racist violence was reserved for organised labour. An 1887 strike in the sugar parishes (counties) organised by the Knights of Labor brought out between 6,000 and 10,000 strikers, 90 percent of them black. At least 30 were killed and hundreds were wounded when state militiamen fired on strikers with a Gatling machine gun. [9]

Despite this tide of reaction the New Orleans working class was emerging as a vanguard of the US labour movement. Following the example of the waterfront workers, workers across the city organised bi-racial unions – and sometimes even joined the same unions. Between 2,000 and 3,000 black and white teamsters, packers and scalemen – those who handled non-cotton cargo headed for the waterfront workers – struck in a ‘Triple Alliance’ in November 1892 for recognition of their unions, which affiliated to the new American Federation of Labor (AFL). A new city wide central labour body, the Workingmen’s Amalgamated Council, assumed control of the walkout and called for a general strike that brought out virtually the entire workforce, from musicians to railway workers. [10] John M Callahan, the AFL general organiser and the Cotton Yardmen’s union delegate to the ‘committee of five’ running the strike, wrote to AFL president Gompers on 7 November:

There are fully 25,000 men idle. There is no newspaper to be printed, no gas or electric light in the city, no wagons, no carpenters, painters or in fact any business doing ... I am sorry you are not down here to take a hand in it. It is a strike that will go down in history. [11]

Yet Callahan’s own union and the other waterfront cotton unions stayed aloof from the general strike. Although three members of the committee of five men directing the strike were delegates of cotton unions – including a black longshore leader – they refused to jeopardise their stable relationship with the Cotton Exchange and the shipping companies. Callahan explained:

The stopping of the cotton trade would, in my opinion, in no manner, shape or form benefit those on a strike, as they handle freight which the cotton men are never called upon to handle. We can sympathise with and assist them financially, but we should not oppress our friends because our enemies oppress us. [12]

The strike collapsed after 11 days with the threat of military intervention. But in fact it was not repression that led to defeat. Nor was there any eruption of racial violence among the workers. The general strike was lost because the cotton union leaders refused to squeeze the city’s economic jugular. The strike, which AFL president Samuel Gompers referred to as ‘one of the largest and most general strikes that ever occurred in this country’, could have been won. But black and white cotton union leaders alike had become conservative as a result of their role as negotiators with the city’s business elite. Eric Arnesen sums up the consequences of the defeat:

Unable to defeat a united capitalist class in a period of relative economic prosperity, New Orleans workers fared considerably worse several years later during the economic depression. The New Orleans trade union movement received a drastic setback during the 1890s, and the prospect of bi-racial unionism in the city’s trades fell victim in the economic crisis and the rise of virulent racism. [13]

Yet Arnesen understates the enormous political significance of the New Orleans strike for Louisiana and the rest of the South. In state elections in April 1892 the state Democratic and Republican Party organisations had both split under pressure from the Populist agrarian revolt. What is more, the New Orleans working class was influential in the Louisiana chapter of the new People’s Party. Half the delegates to the party’s inter-racial state convention in October 1891 were from Orleans Parish, the county surrounding the city. The platform of the Louisiana People’s Party read in part:

You coloured men ... you must now realise that there is no hope of any further material benefit to you in the Republican Party, and that if you remain in it you will continue to be hewers of wood and drawers of water in the future as you have been in the past ... Democrats ... The spectre of negro supremacy has been used to keep you in the toils of the scheming machine politicians as effectively as the voodoo is employed to terrify the credulous negroes themselves. [14]

The Populists officially got 6 percent of the state vote for governor in an election marked by massive vote fraud. Still, this avowedly inter-racial challenge in the countryside was enough to scare the conservative ‘Bourbon’ Democrats. Elections to Congress in November 1892 saw another Populist challenge, prompting one Democratic editor to openly advocate dictatorship as the best form of government for Louisiana. Facing certain ballot rigging, the Louisiana Populists opted for an electoral pact with the Republicans – which succeeded only in alienating their radical base. [15]

Seen in this context, the pivotal role of the New Orleans general strike becomes even clearer. A victory by a racially united New Orleans working class could have begun to provide rural Populism with a pole of attraction towards struggle rather than electoral deals with the two capitalist parties. Politically, it could have opened the way for a leadership independent of the Democrats and Republicans and increased the influence of the significant socialist currents in the labour movement.

Instead the strike’s downfall signalled the beginning of a major employers’ offensive. As Arnesen notes, the ruling class in other Southern port cities was keenly aware of the importance of the strike. According to the Savannah, Georgia, Tribune, the Amalgamated Council, the New Orleans labour central ‘was the most ambitious labour movement of the kind ever attempted in this country and [it] very nearly succeeded’. The Mobile, Alabama, Daily Register declared that the ‘colossal failure of the strike means that the backbone of the unions is broken and the American Federation of Labor is out of business in this state’. In New Orleans black and white workers alike denounced the strike leaders for ‘treachery’ and withdrew from the labour central. [16]

The workers’ defeat made it far easier for the ex-slaveowners of the planter class to turn back the Populist revolt. In elections over the next several years Louisiana Populists veered between alliances with dissident Republicans and Democrats before collapsing at the turn of the century. To prevent any revival of the alliance between white and black farmers, Louisiana Democrats stepped up their programme of disfranchising blacks. By 1900 a property qualification for voting allowed only 5,320 black voters to remain on the rolls in the state, while a ‘grandfather clause’ allowed poor people whose relatives voted before Reconstruction (i.e. ‘native’ whites) to vote. [17] By 1904 that figure had dropped to 1,342. In Louisiana, as in the rest of the country, the Populist movement collapsed after backing the Democratic candidate in the 1896 presidential elections. Many formerly anti-racist Populist leaders, such as Tom Watson, went on to embrace the Democrats’ call for white supremacy. But the disfranchisement campaign was aimed at white farmers and workers too. While the black vote in Louisiana dropped by 90 percent, the white vote dropped by 60 percent. Other Southern states saw similar drops in white as well as black voter participation. [18]

The defeat of the New Orleans general strike and the institutionalisation of racial segregation was bound to have an impact on the New Orleans waterfront workers’ alliance. In the autumn of 1894 the employers finally played the race card successfully as they sought to undermine the 75 bale loading rate of the ‘screwmen’ (the semi-skilled cotton loaders). Some companies violated their labour agreements and employed whites at a greater number than blacks, creating a pool of frustrated unemployed black screwmen. This led to a split in the black screwmen’s union, with a minority taking jobs outside the dock wide agreement. White screwmen responded with a violent hate strike in which they and white longshoremen sought to drive all blacks off the waterfront in three separate battles over the next year – despite the fact that the majority of black screwmen did not violate the agreement. The result was the near destruction of both the white and black unions. The employers were able to impose wage cuts and institute work rule changes on white as well as black workers. The bi-racial unionism of the 1880s was nearly gone. [19]

By the late 1890s national economic recovery had led to a revival of trade union membership. Between 1897 and 1904 the AFL grew 360 percent. [20] Yet this period also saw the AFL capitulate to Jim Crow segregation by organising only skilled craft workers, the vast majority of whom were skilled ‘native’ whites. Gompers, who had insisted on denying AFL charters to any union that denied membership to blacks, now tolerated the ‘colour bar’ if it was exercised informally through union locals. This from a man who had hailed the New Orleans general strike of 1892: ‘Never in the history of the world was such an exhibition, where with all the prejudices existing against the black man, when the white wage workers of New Orleans would sacrifice their means of livelihood to defend their coloured fellow workers.’ But by 1900 Gompers publicly used racist epithets, routinely used the words ‘Negro’ and ‘scab’ interchangeably, and called for restrictions of immigration from China and southern and eastern Europe. [21]

In trade union terms, Gompers’ turn reflected the reorientation of the AFL away from organising the mass of unskilled industrial workers in favour of craft unions who defended their interests by controlling access to their trade. As a result, the AFL represented only about 10 percent of the workforce in this period. Politically, Gompers and the craft union leaders rejected both Populism and the emerging Socialist Party, and moved the AFL into a close alliance with the Democratic Party, the bastion of white supremacy. [22] In New Orleans an integrated Independent Workingmen’s Political Club was defeated by vote rigging machine Democrats in the 1894 Congressional elections, and its candidate, general strike leader James Leonard, subsequently joined the racist Democrats. [23]

Segregation had come relatively slowly to New Orleans, home of a relatively large black middle class Creole population. But the imposition of new laws segregating streetcars and other facilities, along with mass unemployment among blacks, brought matters to a head. As usual the trigger for violence was police harassment. But this time, in July 1900, a black man fought back. Robert Charles, an active black nationalist who preached emigration to Africa, shot 27 whites, seven of them police officers, before he was lynched. [24] Twelve people died in the subsequent riots, five of them black. [25]

In this situation it seemed highly unlikely that the bi-racial union tradition could revive. Yet revive it did, in spite of the AFL. In 1899 the AFL leadership, sizing up the ‘delicate yet Herculean mission’ of organising in a segregated society, appointed exactly three men to organise the South. In New Orleans the new AFL sponsored labour central, the Central Trades and Labor Council (CTLC), led by James Leonard, denied membership to the black unions, unlike the previous bi-racial labour centrals. Black longshore union leader James Porter petitioned Gompers to intervene, but Gompers advised him not to ‘kick against the pricks’ and to accept the situation. The black unions’ citywide body, the Central Labor Union (CLU), finally received an AFL charter as a result of a rules change at the federation’s 1901 convention. [26]

Yet the composition of the working class in New Orleans and the logic of waterfront work itself stopped the AFL’s craft strategy from preventing black and white workers’ unity. Black and white workers on the New Orleans docks laboured side by side from the end of the civil war in 1865. This was a qualitatively different situation from the countryside, where ex-slaveowners used racism not only to prevent black Republicans from voting, but as a means of labour control over black sharecroppers. By contrast, even before the civil war New Orleans already had the South’s largest free black population, including some black slaveowners. Immediately after the end of the war in 1865 black workers in New Orleans began to organise unions and compete with unskilled whites for the same jobs. [27] By 1911 a British Board of Trade survey noted that New Orleans had the most integrated workforce of any city in the US, and perhaps the world. [28]

What is more, it was almost impossible for the AFL to organise on craft lines on the New Orleans waterfront. Only the cotton screwmen could be said to be skilled. The rest of the waterfront workers organised themselves according to specific tasks (longshore, draymen, packers), but in fact banded together on a semi-industrial basis. And although major corporations had come to dominate the railroads and steamship lines, most cotton firms were small and locally owned. The waterfront workers confronted relatively weak local employers who were often highly divided among themselves. [29] Thus by 1902, two years after the horrific race riots, the cotton unions, led by the screwmen’s strike, pieced back together the ‘half and half’ rule governing black and white labour. This practice tended to favour whites, as they were a minority of the total workers. Yet given the overall racial climate it was an astonishing show of unity. And it set the stage for a major strike in 1907 in which black and white workers together shut down the entire port for three weeks. Employers were forced to capitulate to the workers’ demands on work rules and wages and to sign an unprecedented five year contract. [30] The labour shortages of the First World War gave the New Orleans waterfront unions even more leverage. Dock workers around the country struck for higher wages and created a stable national longshore union on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. [31]

Like the 1892 strike, the 1907 battle was part of a broader labour upsurge and had an important political dimension. In the run up to the dock strike, the inter-racial Brewery Workers’ Union was expelled by the AFL for refusing to organise on a craft basis. When the AFL affiliated Teamsters tried to organise the breweries on a craft and all white basis, the brewery workers struck. The black longshore unions and other black waterfront unions supported the brewery workers, as did white delegates to the integrated Cotton Men’s Executive Council. The split in the local AFL provided a political opening for socialists and ‘Wobblies’, members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the revolutionary syndicalists who organised on an anti-racist basis. Arnesen summarises:

If radicals, socialists, and Wobblies neither instigated the 1907 upheaval nor radicalised the city’s labour movement, their efforts were not without impact. Delivering countless speeches and publishing commentaries on the summer’s development, they provided leadership, organisational and material support, and a political language for interpreting the crisis. Tapping into an important undercurrent of discontent within the New Orleans labour movement, they helped to mobilise labour dissidents into a temporary alliance opposed to the AFL’s policies. [32]

The ultimate demise of the waterfront unions in New Orleans came not because of racial divisions, but was the result of the employers’ open shop drive that swept the US in the 1920s. Mechanisation of the docks and increasing local government intervention in labour relations finally allowed local companies to break the screwmen’s unions and to dictate terms. As Arnesen puts it, ‘The challenge that destroyed the waterfront labour movement came from without, not within.’ [33]

Despite Jim Crow, despite racial violence, despite the AFL’s colour bar and craftism, the tradition of bi-racial unionism on the New Orleans waterfront had survived. But it had done much more than that. It had proved to be a touchstone of labour radicalism and socialism in one of the most conservative states in the South, keeping alive the possibility of inter-racial workers’ unity in a period of intense reaction. [34]

Yet for many US labour historians, the New Orleans experience is treated as an exception, if it is discussed at all. For example US labour historian David Roediger dismisses the inter-racial legacy of New Orleans by quoting from a racist white union leaders’ testimony before the Louisiana state legislature following the 1907 strike:

I guess before long you’ll call us nigger-lovers, too. Maybe you want to know next how I would like it if my sister married a nigger? ... I wasn’t always a nigger-lover. I fought in every strike to keep black labour off the dock. I fought until in the white-supremacy strike your white-supremacy governor sent his white-supremacy militia and shot us white-supremacy strikers full of holes. You talk about us conspiring with niggers ... But let me tell you and your gang, there was a time when I wouldn’t even work beside a nigger ... You made me work with niggers, eat with niggers, sleep with niggers, drink out of the same water bucket with niggers, and finally got me to the point where if one of them ... blubbers something about more pay, I say, ‘Come on, nigger, let’s go after the white bastards.’

Roediger goes on to add, ‘Here both racism and class feeling are utterly “at home with contrariety” and as utterly bound up one with the other.’ Such evidence, he argues, shows the weakness of ‘Old Left Marxism’ which is guilty of ‘overemphasis on the point that class and not race is the central consideration in the history of white and black workers ...’ [35] More recently, Roediger has argued that ‘the privileging of class over race is not always productive or meaningful. To set race within social formations is absolutely necessary, but to reduce race to class is damaging.’ He suggests that studies of working class racism are insufficient and warns against ‘overly simple economic explanations’ of racism. [36]

Yet how should working class racism be measured if not in terms of the class struggle? By the 1890s white supremacy was the law of the land in the South and the informal practice in the North. It should not be surprising that ‘native’ white workers embraced the dominant racist ideas of vote seeking Democratic politicians and industrial bosses, who were eager to keep skilled white craft workers from allying with unskilled ‘operatives’. Roediger’s quotations from a racist white union leader – crowd pleasing comments to ‘Bourbon’ Democrat investigators – doesn’t diminish the inter-racial solidarity that rank and file workers achieved on the New Orleans waterfront. On the contrary it highlights the degree to which rank and file white workers were able to break from the racism of their leaders and forge alliances with their black counterparts.

What must be explained is not the predominance of racist ideas in the US working class, but the conditions in which that racism can be broken down. As Alex Callinicos puts it:

There is ... an inverse relationship between the level of class struggle and the intensity of racism. The crucial factor underlying this relationship is workers’ self-confidence. When the class is engaging successfully in battles with the bosses, then white workers are more likely to place their confidence in workers’ self organisation to defend their interests, and to see themselves as part of the same class as their black brothers and sisters. [37]

To be sure, such struggles will not automatically result in a clear or permanent break with racism. For that the conscious intervention of anti-racist radicals and socialists is necessary. But that is exactly what the left Populists were grasping for in 1892, and what the IWW aimed to do again in 1907.

Racism and the unions, 1890–1920

Even today the one truly integrated sphere of life in the United States is the workplace. The situation was of course far more extreme during the rise of Jim Crow segregation. And given the fact that the vast majority of black Americans lived in the former slave states until the First World War, the Southern workplace – the docks, the mining camps or lumber mills – remained the one place that black and white workers could begin to challenge the dominant ideas by forging relationships with one another, however haltingly.

Alexander Saxton acknowledges the need for a concrete historical discussion of white working class racism as he shows how the debate over craft and industrial unionism became intertwined with racism against blacks as well as Chinese immigrants. Where craft and semi-industrial unions alike excluded Chinese workers in the Far West in the decade following the civil war, the Knights of Labor and later the IWW organised black workers:

The logic of the industrial or inclusive type [of union] worked in the long run against racial exclusiveness because the industrial form maximises potential bargaining power when it includes all workers in an industry regardless of wage or skill differentials, differences of sex, ethnicity or race. By contrast, the economically exclusive policy characteristic of skilled craft unions could readily accommodate itself to racial exclusiveness, especially since most non-white workers remained at unskilled levels.

Yet although Saxton points out that AFL craft unions represented a small minority of the workforce and were often weak, he nevertheless suggests that all white workers derived some benefits from the ‘colour bar’:

The white supremacist commitment – part of the American heritage of artisan egalitarianism – worked to the advantage of skilled craft unionism by enabling it to draw upon the political and economic resources of the white working class without assuming responsibility to defend the interests and needs of the class as a whole. [38]

Such formulations merely confuse matters. The point is that craft unions, which organised only about 10 percent of the US working class, did not benefit the vast majority of white workers. Their existence was not the product of the mass of white workers’ embrace of racism, but a reflection of conservative AFL leadership’s alliance with the Democratic Party. That alliance was to the detriment of the mass of unorganised white workers as well as blacks.

In other words, the role of racism in the US labour movement must be seen dynamically, and evaluated in terms of the historical development of the class. In arguing for suprahistorical ‘ideological’ explanations for white working class racism, it is historians like Roediger and Saxton who are deterministic, not those who ‘privilege’ class over race. By assuming that white workers cannot escape their identity of ‘whiteness’ to achieve genuine class consciousness, Saxton and Roediger neglect ‘the subjective factor, the conscious attempt by political organisations to influence the course of history, [which] can also play a decisive role in combatting the spread of racism.’ [39]

Even Eric Arnesen, whose Waterfront Workers is an inspiring story of black and white workers’ struggle for unity in the most adverse circumstances, states that ‘the white labour movement’ is somehow responsible for racism in the US:

When placed in the larger sweep of American racism, organised labour’s role appears consistent and of a piece with it ... The white labour movement did its share, and then some, to contribute to black oppression. [40]

But the New Orleans waterfront workers’ struggles were not ‘of a piece’ with American racism. On the contrary, they repeatedly and dramatically challenged that racism in one of the most reactionary states of the Jim Crow South. And what exactly was the ‘white labour movement’ and who were its leaders? The AFL and Gompers? Or socialist Eugene Debs, with his efforts to integrate the American Railway Union? Are Bill Haywood and other white leaders of the uncompromisingly anti-racist IWW included in this ‘white labour movement’?

In fact, Arnesen himself makes it clear in the same essay that there was no such thing as a ‘white labour movement’:

Bi-racial unions – some sustained over time and others short-lived – may have been exceptions to the rule, but they are of more than passing significance, for they embraced literally tens of thousands of workers and defied any simple categorisation. [41]

Bi-racial unionism began with the tolerance of segregated locals in some Southern Knights of Labor lodges and continued with the kind of parallel union organisations found on the New Orleans waterfront. Obviously, bi-racial unionism was an accommodation to racism in that it kept black and white workers in separate organisations. Yet at the same time bi-racial unionism provided virtually the only means to fight the anti-labour programme at the heart of Southern white supremacy. It laid the basis for inter-racial workers’ struggles where blacks and whites worked side by side, in such industrial or semi-industrial settings as the lumber mills, the mines and the waterfront. [42]

Such experiences led thousands of white workers to break with racist ideas and join such organisations as the IWW. And it is no coincidence that the IWW had perhaps its greatest success in building inter-racial unions in Louisiana, where the influence of the New Orleans waterfront struggles was greatest. One historian described the Wobblies’ impact on Louisiana lumber workers. During a 1910 strike by the Brotherhood of Timberworkers (BTW), the lumber operators’ association tried to use blacks as strike breakers and baited the BTW for violating the norms of Southern society with its 50 percent black membership.

These association tactics, more than any other factors, drove the BTW’s leaders to preach integration with Negroes and affiliation with the IWW ... Hence, they advised the black worker: ‘The BTW ... takes the Negro and protects him and his family along with the white wage worker and his family on an industrial basis.’ To the white worker they proclaimed: ‘As far as we, the workers of the South, are concerned, the only “supremacy” and “equality” they [the employers] have ever granted us is the supremacy of misery and the equality of rags ... No longer will we allow the Southern oligarchy to divide and weaken us on lines or race, craft, religion, and nationality.’ [43]

The strike ultimately led to the BTW’s affiliation to the IWW. Wobbly leader Bill Haywood and the white Southern IWW leader Covington Hall convinced BTW’s members to hold an integrated mass meeting at the union’s 1912 convention in Alexandria, Louisiana. This inter-racial solidarity prevailed in an even more bitter strike the next year. The strike was defeated not because of internal racial divisions, but through sheer terror. One black union leader was murdered, and virtually all others were kidnapped or arrested. [44]

Equally dramatic examples of Southern inter-racial union organising in this period came in the coal mines. In Birmingham, Alabama, the United Mineworkers (UMW) maintained blacks and whites to launch a strike in 1908. To be sure, union leaders organised blacks and whites in separate locals, bowed to segregation and denied that the strike would bring ‘social equality’ for black and white miners. Coal operators whipped up a racist frenzy in the Birmingham press and tried to use blacks as strike breakers. Nevertheless, as historian Ronald Lewis shows, black miners aligned themselves with whites in the armed battles with company guards and strike breakers that have always characterised coal strikes in the US:

It is important to note that the race issue was not sparked by the importation of black scabs. In fact, the race of the strike breakers received little mention in the local press. The attention of the entire white power structure, and the white populace generally, was focused on black strikers who were violating social norms by assuming a militant stance within a bi-racial working-class organisation ... Furthermore, that these black unionists were ‘conspiring’ with white unionists presented the explosive possibility of a class uprising in a region organised by caste and controlled by a small elite. [45]

Southern black and white miners also achieved a remarkable degree of unity in West Virginia. Only months after the steel bosses used racism to destroy the great steel strike of 1919 in the North, 5,000 black and white UMW members united in armed battles against company thugs and scabs that left 100 dead. These struggles, immortalised in the film Matewan, were defeated only after West Virginia authorities declared martial law three times in 1920–1. In this period black miners served as union leaders at every level. The anti-union head of the West Virginia Bureau of Negro Welfare and Statistics was forced to admit:

‘Negro members of the [UMW] Executive Board ... were elected in conditions in which white miner delegates outnumbered Negroes more than five to one. The Negro union miners ... are as staunch and faithful supporters of their organization as any other class of workers.’ [46]

Such struggles were not anomalies of a supposed ‘white labour movement.’ On the contrary, they were some of the most epic battles in US labour history. And they were the direct precursors of the great 1930s industrial union drives of the Congress of Industrial Organization which split from the craft oriented AFL and organised blacks and whites into the same unions.

Trade unions and the black community

The question of racism in the US labour movement involved not just the question of whether white workers would organise alongside blacks, but why black workers rejected the strategies of a conservative and often pro-business black middle class. As Arnesen puts it, historians’ ‘overwhelming emphasis on the AFUs racism and discriminatory policies tells us nothing about the black workers who did join unions ... or why they would join such ostensibly weak and subordinate unions in the first place.’ [47] In New Orleans the sizeable black middle class followed the black conservative leader Booker T. Washington in urging black workers to make alliances with their employers. Yet despite the common oppression that enveloped the lives of Southern blacks of all classes, black workers in New Orleans continued to search for common ground with their white counterparts. [48]

In short, a rise in class struggle exacerbated the class divisions among the Southern black population. As Brian Kelly points out in his study of the Alabama coal strike of 1920, black middle class leaders openly supported the coal operators against the United Mineworkers. Typical was a black preacher who denounced the alleged presence of ‘IWW Bolsheviks’ in the strike. Kelly concludes:

In ‘normal’ times, the black middle class message of ‘racial solidarity’ could appear benign and even progressive to black workers suffering a range of indignities in a segregated society. The ‘Buy Black’ slogan, for example, was innocuous enough, especially when the treatment blacks received at the hands of white proprietors did not seem an incentive to ‘Buy White’. But in a period of rising class struggle, when the prospects of co-operation between black and white workers presented themselves, racial solidarity became a conservative position, consciously counterposed by black businessmen and preachers to the option of joining the ‘white man’s union.’ It led the black middle class to some extremely bizarre formulations. They upheld, for instance, the notion of the ‘colour line’ and railed against social equality. They exhibited a deference towards white employers and politicians that is even now almost painful to behold. And they threw their weight behind an effort to crush an organisation [the United Mineworkers] which could have helped to drastically improve the lot of the black working class in and around Birmingham. [49]

For Southern black workers at the turn of the century the question of class versus racial solidarity was no abstract discussion about ‘privileging’ class over race. It was a concrete debate about how to take their struggles forward. Even in the Jim Crow South, black workers continually demonstrated a willingness to join unions, despite the AFL’s policies and the anti-union line of the black middle class. This points directly to the fact that class, not race, was the fundamental division in US society even in the depths of the segregation era.

Multi-racial unionism and the Great Migration

Racism played a major role in the defeat of the great strikes for recognition of industrial unions in the meatpacking and steel industries in 1919. Chicago, a centre of strike activity, was also the scene of some of the worst race riots in US history that same year. But this was not simply a question of the racist ideas of white workers. Rather the decisive factor was the employers’ extraordinary efforts to play the race card – and the failure of the AFL craft unions to confront racism.

The racial divisions that emerged in the 1919 strikes were strengthened by the transformation of the US labour market during the First World War. The war stimulated a massive industrial boom and created a labour shortage. At the same time, it led to unprecedented government intervention in labour relations through the War Labor Board. Such measures consolidated the industrial bosses as never before. And they were determined to resist the strike wave that came when workers demanded compensation for wartime sacrifices. [50]

To resist the labour revolt, Northern industrialists took their cue from their Southern counterparts by seeking to use black workers as strike breakers. The black population in the Northern cities expanded enormously in what became known as the ‘Great Migration’. For example, Chicago’s black population surged from 44,000 to 110,000 between 1910 and 1920, while Cleveland’s increased fourfold from 8,000 to 34,000. [51] In East St Louis the black population had risen from 6,000 to 13,000 between 1910 and 1917, increasing in size from 10 to 18 percent of the total population.

The bloody riot of July 1917 took place after white workers at the Aluminum Ore Company lost a strike when they were replaced by black workers. Thirty nine blacks and nine whites died in the violence. In the Chicago riot of 1919 black workers were kept from their jobs in the packing houses because they could not cross through hostile Irish-American neighbourhoods. [52]

Craft unionism and the ‘colour bar’ had left AFL unable to provide an alternative of multi-racial unity at the workplace. Rather than organise on an industrial basis, the AFL’s National Committee for Organizing the Iron and Steel Workers sought to preserve craft jurisdictions inside the steel mills. Unskilled workers would be relegated to a separate union. While the majority of the unskilled were from Southern and Eastern Europe, blacks played an increasing role in the mills after the war cut off immigration. At US Steel’s flagship Gary Works the number of blacks employed increased from 189 in 1915 to 1,295 in 1918. By August 1917, 4,000 blacks worked at Carnegie steel plants around Pittsburgh. [53] Overall, between 1910 and 1920, the number of black industrial workers in the US surged from 551,825 to 910,181. [54]

The steel bosses manipulated these ethnic and racial divisions in a way that must have left their Southern counterparts envious. A paternalistic ‘Americanisation’ programme aimed to influence unskilled immigrant workers who had been neglected by organised labour. Similar tactics were used with the burgeoning black communities, whose leaders usually opposed the unions. Yet union leaders provided no alternative. The AFL mechanical unions in the national committee’s organising drive had continued to exclude blacks. Thus the stage was set for defeat:

In late October [1919] numbers of [blacks] began appearing in steel centres. They swiftly became an alarming threat to the strike. Chicago leaders reported that it hurt the ‘morale of the white men to see blacks crowding into the mills to take their jobs.’ Mexicans were shipped into Pueblo [Colorado] and Chicago. According to National Committee estimates, 3,500 [blacks] were brought into Homestead, 2,000 into Buffalo, and 5,000 into Youngstown; altogether, the industry received between 30,000 and 40,000. In despair, the National Committee requested Gompers to call together [black] leaders for a conference, but nothing came of it. ‘Niggers did it,’ company officials were heard to remark of the strike failure afterwards. [55]

Strike leader William Z. Foster, who would become a leader of the Communist Party during the 1930s, blamed racism and the union leaders for forcing blacks to act as strike breakers: ‘Race prejudice has everything to do with it. It lies at the bottom ... The white man has enslaved him, and they don’t feel confidence in the trade union ... In the steel strike he lined up with the bosses.’ [56]

Racism and US labour’s greatest defeat

This foregoing historical explanation of white working class racism in the United States will doubtless be accused of the ‘Old Left’ sin of ‘privileging’ class over race. But equivocation over the centrality of class in US society makes it impossible to answer this question: what is the origin and role of racism in US society and whose interests does it serve?

It has already been demonstrated in this journal that white workers in the contemporary US receive no material benefit from racism. [57] What remains is the question of the role racism has played in the class struggle – whether or not what W.E.B. DuBois called the ‘psychological wage’ of racism has been decisive in keeping white workers from allying with blacks at decisive moments.

Yet it is precisely this crucial question that historians like Saxton and Roediger fail to answer in their proposed ‘ideological’ strategies to explain racism. It is not terribly difficult to construct an ‘ideological’ model of white working class racism by collecting a series of horrific anecdotes – as Roediger and Saxton do. But such an approach completely misses the ways in which the self activity of the working class leads workers to challenge long accepted notions, including racism. [58]

The conditions in which multi-racial trade union unity was possible in the US should be rather obvious. Where black and white workers have shared the same jobs – and struggles – side by side for extended periods, white workers have shown they can break with the dominant racist ideas to forge links to confront a common enemy, the employer. This was true even in the post civil war Jim Crow South, where segregation and white supremacist terror could not stop blacks and whites from organising together in the mills, the mines, and on the waterfront. It was true again in the 1930s, when the influx of blacks into heavy industry allowed the CIO unions to renew the IWW’s tradition of inter-racial industrial unionism.

By contrast, racism could play a decisive role in the 1919 steel and meatpacking strikes in large part because black and Northern white workers had relatively little experience working together. In a workforce already divided by skilled and unskilled, ‘native’ and immigrant, the additional pressures of economic slump and post-war demobilisation made circumstances singularly unfavourable for unity between whites and newly arrived Southern blacks. In this situation society’s prevailing racist ideas maintained a considerable hold on white workers, despite the high level of struggle. As we have seen, the employers pressed this advantage to the maximum, while the conservative AFL stood pat.

The great steel strike was only one of a series of massive defeats suffered by organised labour in the employers’ open shop drive of the 1920s. Membership in the AFL plummeted more than 40 percent, from nearly 5 million in 1919 to less than 3 million by 1933, with 60 percent of its membership in non-industrial occupations such as construction, local transport, entertainment and printing. The 1928 strike figures, the last year of ‘prosperity’ before the Great Depression, were the lowest since 1884. By the end of the 1920s real wages had increased only 2 percent, while manufacturing performance had increased 72 percent per person hour over the same period. In 1929, 42 percent of US families had incomes of less than $1,500, barely adequate to sustain a family of four even outside industrial centres. [59]

Such were the bitter fruits of the AFL’s craft unionism and the colour bar. Having accommodated to white supremacy and allied with the Democratic Party in the 1890s, the AFL was utterly incapable of meeting the challenge of industrial unionism, which brought with it the far greater challenge of organising on an inter-racial basis. The above figures should make it clear that, far from benefiting white workers at the expense of their black sisters and brothers, craft unionism and the colour bar were a disaster for the entire working class, including whites.

Which leads us back to the subjective factor, the conscious effort to influence the course of events. The question of racism in organised labour cannot be reduced to the colour bars of AFL craft unions or the discrimination tolerated, later, by the CIO tops – crucial though these factors are. Still less can it be measured in purely ideological terms, as an ‘identity’ of ‘whiteness’. Rather the relative strength or weakness of racism among white workers can only be understood in political terms, in the context of overall working class consciousness in concrete historical situations. Ideas, including racist ideas, change in struggle. But given the absence of an organised political alternative within the working class, the ‘normal’ ideas, including racism, will return to even the most advanced sections of the class.

That is why the struggle against racism within the organised labour movement in the United States has always been bound up with the struggle for socialism, from the end of the civil war to the present day. As organisations for the defence of workers’ interests within capitalism, trade unions organise workers on the lowest common ideological denominator. [60] Union bureaucrats are reconciled with the dominant ideas of society, including racism. Thus the struggle for multi-racial unity in the US labour movement has always depended on the intervention of conscious anti-racists among rank and file workers – from Reconstruction era radicals to left Populists, and from the IWW to the Communist Party.

Since 1865 there has not been a ‘white labour movement’ in the United States. Rather, there is a history of black and white workers’ strides towards trade union unity in a country built on slavery, black disfranchisement and racist violence. Eric Arnesen’s account of the New Orleans labour movement highlights a key moment in that history. And it gives every reason to believe that the anti-racist tradition in the US workers’ movement will continue.


1. A. Saxton, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (London and New York 1990), p. 16.

2. See A. Shawki, Black Liberation and Socialism in the United States in International Socialism, 47 (London 1990), pp. 3–110, A. Callinicos, Race and Class and L. Sustar, Racism and the Class Struggle in the American Civil War Era in International Socialism, 55 (London 1992), pp. 3–39 and 40–63 respectively.

3. Southwestern Christian Advocate, 7 December 1882, quoted in E. Arnesen, Waterfront Workers of New Orleans (New York and Oxford 1991), p. 94.

4. Ibid., pp. 95–96.

5. P.S. Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker 1619–1981 (New York 1982), pp. 17–18.

6. R.W. Shugg, Origins of Class Struggle in Louisiana: A Social History of White Farmers and Laborers During Slavery and After, 1840–1875 (Baton Rouge, 1968), pp. 302–303.

7. L.G. Dawson, Army Generals and Reconstruction: Louisiana, 1862–1877 (Baton Rouge and London 1982), pp. 183–215.

8. W.I. Hair, Bourbonism and Agrarian Protest: Louisiana Politics 1877–1900 (Baton Rouge 1969), pp. 187–190.

9. Ibid., pp. 181–182.

10. E. Arnesen, op. cit., pp. 114–116.

11. P.S. Foner, op. cit., p. 68.

12. E. Arnesen, op. cit., p. 116.

13. Ibid., p. 114.

14. Quoted in W.I. Hair, op. cit., p. 218.

15. Ibid., pp. 228–232.

16. E. Arnesen, op. cit.., p. 118.

17. W.I. Hair, op. cit., pp. 234–279.

18. A. Shawki, op. cit., pp. 30–31.

19. E. Arnesen, op. cit., pp. 123–145.

20. Ibid., p. 150.

21. P.S. Foner, op. cit., pp. 69–76.

22. A. Saxton, op. cit., pp. 364–369.

23. E. Arnesen, op. cit., pp. 151–152.

24. W.I. Hair, Carnival of Fury: Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riot of 1900 (Baton Rouge 1976) pp. 1–2; 137–155.

25. J.J. Jackson, New Orleans in the Gilded Age: Politics and Urban Progress 1880–1896 (Baton Rouge 1969), p. 20.

26. E. Arnesen, op. cit., p. 150.

27. Ibid., pp. 13–33.

28. Ibid., p. 157.

29. D. Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State and American Labor Activism, 1865–1925 (Cambridge and New York 1987), pp. 96–107.

30. E. Arnesen, op. cit., pp 165–169; 199.

31. Ibid., pp. 220–228.

32. Ibid., p. 193.

33. Ibid., pp. 224–252.

34. The New Orleans experience was not unique in the South. Black waterfront workers in Norfolk, Virginia, also formed their own union, which ultimately affiliated to the International Longshoreman Association after the First World War. See E. Lewis, In their Own Interests; Race, Class and Power in Twentieth Century Norfolk, Virginia (Berkeley 1991), pp. 46–65.

35. D.R. Roediger, “Labor in White Skin”: Race and Working Class History in M. Davis and M. Sprinkler (eds.), Reshaping the US Left: Volume 3 of the Year Left (London and New York 1988), pp. 292–294. Roediger develops this theme in his Towards the Abolition of Whiteness: Essays on Race, Politics and Working Class History (London and New York 1994) pp. 1–17, 69–81.

36. D.R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London and New York 1991), pp. 8–10.

37. A. Callinicos, op. cit., p. 30.

38. A. Saxton, op. cit., pp. 313–315.

39. A. Callinicos, op. cit., p. 32.

40. E. Arnesen, Following the Color Line of Labor: Black Workers and the Labor Movement Before 1930 in Radical History Review 55 (New York 1993), p. 77.

41. Ibid., p. 57.

42. L. Sustar, op. cit., pp. 58–59.

43. M. Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World (New York 1969), p. 215.

44. A. Shawki, op. cit., pp. 48–50.

45. R.L. Lewis, Black Coal Miners in America: Race, Class and Community Conflict 1780–1980 (Lexington, Kentucky 1987), pp. 51–57.

46. J.W. Trotter Jnr, Coal, Class and Color: Blacks in Southern West Virginia (Urbana 1990),pp. 113–115.

47. E. Arneson, Following the Color Line, op. cit., p. 60.

48. E. Arnesen, Waterfront Workers, op. cit., pp. 50–52.

49. B. Kelly, Biracial Unionism in a “White Man’s Country”: Black Birmingham and the 1920 Alabama Coal Strike (Unpublished paper, Brandeis University 1992), pp. 27, 34–35. In West Virginia, the black press sided with the coal companies even at the height of the armed battles of 1920–1. See I.W. Trotter, op. cit., pp 115–117.

50. D. Montgomery, op. cit., pp. 320; 411.

51. A. Meier and E. Rudwick, From Plantation to Ghetto (New York 1976), pp. 235–236.

52. E. Rudwick, Race Riot at East St Louis: July 2, 1917 (New York 1966), pp. 217–218;227.

53. D. Brody, Steelworkers in America: The Nonunion Era (New York 1969), pp. 186, 214–218.

54. P.S. Foner, op. cit., p. 131.

55. D. Brody, op. cit., pp. 187–190, 254–255.

56. P.S. Foner, op. cit., p. 144. Foster and left wing leaders in the Chicago Federation of Labor and the new meatpackers’ union made a concerted effort to organise the city’s black packinghouse workers – about one third of a total of 50,000 meatpackers – including leading an integrated march on the eve of the race riot that began 8 July. But as in the steel strike, the racism of most AFL leaders, the employers’ use of embittered blacks as strikebreakers, and the pressures of massive postwar unemployment saw the strike collapse amid racist violence. See W.M. Tuttle Jnr, Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919 (New York 1970), pp. 108–156 and J.R. Grossman, The White Man’s Union ... The Great Migration and the Resonance of Race and Class in Chicago, 1916–1922 in J.W. Trotter Jr (ed.), The Great Migration in Historical Perspective: New Dimensions of Race, Class and Gender (Indianapolis 1991), pp. 83–105. It is worth noting that in Pittsburgh, heart of the steel strike, the employers’ hiring of black strikebreakers and even police deputies did not lead to a race riot, in part because white European immigrants themselves faced bigotry from ‘native’ whites. See P. Gottlieb, Making Their Own Way: Southern Blacks’ Migration to Pittsburgh 1916–30 (Urbana,1987), pp. 146–165 and D.C. Dickerson, Out of the Crucible: Black Steelworkers in Western Pennsylvania 1875–1980 (Albany 1986), pp. 85–94.

57. A. Callinicos, op. cit., pp. 22–27.

58. In an essay on IWW leader Covington Hall, Roediger does acknowledge that the integrated industrial Southern workforce forged virtually every important interracial labour struggle in the US before 1919 and takes note of the pathbreaking anti-racism of the IWW in Lousiana. But rather than examine these successes and failures in terms of the impact of industrialisation and the balance of class forces, he attributes the persistence of working class racism to the identity and ‘double consciousness of poor whites’. See Towards the Abolition of Whiteness, op. cit., pp. 127–180.

59. R.H. Zeiger, American Workers, American Unions, 1920–1985 (Baltimore 1986), pp. 3–10, 22.

60. T. Cliff and D. Gluckstein, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle: The General Strike of 1926 (London 1986), chapter 2.

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