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International Socialist Review, Summer 1957


Lois Saunders

One Union and Its Race Relations


From International Socialist Review, Vol.18 No.3, Summer 1957, p.102.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY, a Union Approach to Fair Employment
by John Hope II
Public Affairs Press, Washington, D.C. 1956. 142 pp. $3.25.

This study by the director of industrial relations of the Race Relations Department of Fisk University deals with race relations within the various locals of the United Packinghouse Workers. It is based on a statistical “self-survey,” and includes a brief – too brief – account of the union’s attempts to implement its non-discrimination policy.

By far the most interesting section of the book is the description of actions by the union leadership to force into line locals in the Deep South – in such cities as Fort Worth, Texas; Birmingham, Ala.; Atlanta and Moultrie, Ga.; and in the sugar plants of Louisiana.

The self-survey was initiated in 1949. It involved sending out questionnaires to union members and leaders, holding personal interviews and painstakingly analyzing the replies, which give a graphic picture of race conditions, practices and prejudices which existed in a number of key locals of the union.

The statistical information, which comprises the bulk of the book, confirms for the most part facts that are pretty well known, but it also contains a number of other facts of considerable interest.

It was found, for instance, that Negro members of the union have a “considerably higher level of education than whites.” It was also found that in the opinion of union leaders, Negro and Mexican-American workers generally rate “average or above average” in their quality as union members, and that their loyalty to the union was particularly demonstrated during the 1948 industry-wide strike, a strike in which no minority issues were involved.

After giving the detailed statistical information, the author presents a quick review of some of the major struggles conducted by the union in an endeavor to implement its revitalized anti-discrimination policy.

The 1949 self-survey served as the basis of that policy, and the May 1952 convention gave the leaders the go-ahead signal.

As a result of that mandate, the union in its negotiations with the “Big Four” packers demanded the strengthening of non-discrimination clauses in its contracts. Under attack were the refusal of the packers to hire women, particularly Negro and Mexican-American women; the exclusion of non-whites from certain preferred jobs; and the segregated facilities in factories in the South. This was the first time this latter demand had been included in negotiations.

In October, 1952, Armour and Cudahy accepted the union demands, and the fight against Jim Crow in Southern plants was launched. The union instructed all locals, North and South, to demand “immediate removal of discriminatory signs” requiring segregated use of locker rooms, cafeterias and other plant facilities.

Armour proceeded to comply with the new contract provisions. It took down partitions in the cafeterias in the Oklahoma City and Fort Worth plants, hired Negro women for the first time and placed them in locker rooms on an unsegregated basis. The Fort Worth local balked and demanded that management restore the “Negro” and “White” signs and leave the partition in the cafeteria. The union top leadership stepped in, and the contract provision was made to stick. As a sequel to this fight, the district director was subsequently defeated for re-election by a Negro member of the Fort Worth Armour local.

Tackled next by the union was discrimination in the sugar plants in Louisiana, including separate lockers and lunch rooms, and segregated pay lines. At issue also was the North-South wage differential. Five small locals disaffiliated over the integration issue, but again the union stuck to its policy. It was forced into lengthy strikes at the Colonial and Godchaux locals, but in the end won its contract demands.

An ugly situation developed in Moultrie, Ga., over the issue of an integrated union educational project. One of the teachers was a Negro. The opposition was so violent that the school was closed and the staff left town.

The issue was carried to the floor of the union convention in 1954, and a resolution was passed strongly condemning the union members “whose violent opposition to our equal rights program sabotaged the school,” and ordering reinstitution of the school within four months. Rather than comply, the Moultrie local disaffiliated.

The United Packinghouse Workers in these and other instances set an example that could well be copied by other unions. Despite rough going in some instances, the union challenged the Jim Crow prejudices of its own members, and as a result of its firmness in carrying out a policy it knew to be right, has won acceptance of integration by the overwhelming majority of its members, including its white members in the South.

The history of these struggles merits extensive study, for the Packinghouse Workers have chartered the course that must be followed by the rest of the labor movement, unless labor is to continue to bow down before Eastland and the White Citizens Councils.

The union movement can become a strong force in the South, but only if it has the courage to meet the challenge of the white supremacists, including those within its own ranks.

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