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The New International, October 1939


B.J. Widick

Organizing Negro Labor


From New International, Vol.5 No.10, October 1939, p.318.
transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Black Workers and the Unions
by Horace R. Cayton and George S. Mitchell
The University of North Carolina Press. 1939. 437 pages.

MUCH has been written of the role of the Negro in the American labor movement in the past century. To put the matter bluntly, the history of the Negro worker consisted mainly of chapters of strike-breaking. In steel, packinghouse, railroads, mines and other vital industries, Northern employers found one main use for Negro workers: import them as scabs. Bloody Homestead is a classic example; the 1919 steel strike another.

Add to this historic factor the racial prejudices infesting the labor movement which also grew out of the special status of the Negro people in American society and one can readily understand why the problem of the Negro in the labor movement has been so difficult and acute.

However, under the impact of a declining capitalist system which now finds itself in an inescapable social crisis, class interest and class solidarity have measurably relaxed racial tensions, and by doing so, have mitigated the divisive effects of racial antagonism. This is recognized by the authors of this excellent survey of the black workers in the unions.

They necessarily devote much time to the CIO because one of the progressive features of this industrial union movement was its attempt to tackle seriously the problem of the Negro worker and bring him into the labor movement. The CIO did commendable spade work in this field, as the authors show.

Previous sporadic attempts of the AF of L to unionize the huge mass of unskilled workers in steel had met with failure. A union basing itself on the aristocracy of labor could hardly be expected to do otherwise. The poorest paid, least vocal and most exploited of the unskilled workers, the Negroes – who entered the industry largely as strike-breakers – were least, when not adversely, affected by the AF of L campaigns, before and after the first world war. Yet they comprised 10 per cent of the 500,000 steel workers.

In approaching this question the CIO had a rich experience to base its strategy on. The backbone of the CIO, the United Mine Workers of America, for decades had been tackling the job of organizing the thousands of Negro coal miners and did succeed. The UMWA had been able in 1933 to organize all of Alabama’s coal mines which employed thousands of Negro workers. Many Negroes held positions as union officials.

When the CIO entered the steel industry field through the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, the Negro worker was one of its major concerns. For decades the steel barons had used the simple but effective strategy of playing off black against white workers to prevent union organization. Wages for Negroes were always lower and they were given only the dirtiest and hardest work. Under the steel code of the NRA, for example, minimum rates of pay for common labor varied from 40 cents an hour in the Ohio district to 25 cents an hour in the Birmingham area. “The low rates of 25 and 27 cents an hour for the two southern districts are presumably based on the predominance of Negro labor in those districts,” Secretary of Labor Perkins admitted at the code hearings. Mutual suspicion and distrust between black and white workers was inevitable under those conditions. Promotion was impossible for the Negro worker, although steel employers admit they make fine employees. The Negro worker resented the wage differential. The white worker saw an economic threat in the lower-paid Negro worker. Frequent double-crosses of the Negroes by labor bureaucrats added to the suspicion. Steel-company financed Negro churches did their part to keep the Negro worker from the “white union”. Breaking down the antagonism through special appeals to the Negro workers, advancing Negro workers into official union positions, fighting for social, political and economic rights insofar as possible: these were the weapons of the CIO Hundreds of interviews with Negro workers in steel plants, and with SWOC organizers are quoted by the authors to depict in detail this process. By no means has it been completed ... The socialist revolution is necessary to solve the problem fundamentally. But the 200 pages of this book on the steel unions is an indispensable guide for all progressive unionists who want an immediate answer to the problem of organizing and building mixed unions.

Current interest alone would dictate reading the section of the book on the Negro in the meat-packing industry. It provides an excellent background to the present CIO moves, including a strike threat, against the big packing house companies.

Out of the 164,882 persons engaged in the meat-packing and slaughtering industry, 18,426 are Negroes, most of whom are found in the semi-skilled and laboring divisions. Boss-fomented friction provoked the notorious Chicago race riots of 1919 giving a bloody background to that industry. The AF of L Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen dropped from a total membership of 70,000 to a few thousand when its strike failed because the race riots were engineered to break union solidarity. Importation of Negro strike-breakers, the antagonism of Negro organizations like the Chicago Urban League, and the bitter hatred among white workers against the “scabs” poured further kerosene on the flames of race hatred. Chicago remained open shop.

Conditions in the meat packing industry have scarcely improved since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle in the early 1900’s. Under the NRA the packing house workers expressed their dissatisfaction by flocking back into the Amalgamated Meatcutters and Butchers union. In 1935, 5,000 Negroes in Chicago had signed union cards, along with 30,000 other workers. Conservative policies and racial discrimination soon brought another drop in the AF of L union. Then the CIO entered upon the scene. Although handicapped by Stalinist leadership, the CIO union has made considerable gains primarily because of its industrial union policy with no racial discrimination.

Since the overwhelming majority of the Negro people live in the South and constitute potentially one of the most dynamic revolutionary forces in the country, the story of unionism in the South has special significance. To give a picture of the problems involved, the authors selected Birmingham, the Pittsburgh of the South, for a survey of the Negroes in unions. Out of 250,000 population, Birmingham has 100,000 Negroes. For Jefferson County as a whole, in a population of 431,493 in 1930 some 173,031 were gainfully employed; 96,298 of those were white and 76,736 Negroes.

Union membership in Jefferson County increased 48,000 in the NRA days. 31,200 were Negro recruits. It was a remarkable reversal of the history of the Alabama labor movement which has been featured by racial discrimination, lynchings of Negro militants by the Klu Klux Klan, and ruthless crushing by police power of all strikes which involved black and white workers. “Divide and rule” is not so easy for the Southern bosses any more. However, “Jim Crowism” exists even in most of the union movement. Certain obnoxious practices are accepted by both white and black unionists in union meetings. Separate locals prevail in the building trades. Study classes, more active participation in union matters, and the development of Negro union leaders tend to break down the barriers still existing.

The changes in the role and status of the Negro in the labor movement reflect themselves in the life of the Negro communities and their social organizations. Once all Negro social organizations were antagonistic to “white unionism.” But class differentiation among Negroes, copying that of capitalist society in general, created the basis for a new attitude. How this occurred in the National Urban League, a Negro organization, is told by the authors. The “Uncle Tom” role of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People likewise is analyzed.

Although we disagree with the program advocated for Negro labor by the authors, namely the formation of a federated trades organization of Negro workmen, we can certainly agree with the spirit of the concluding remarks in the book.

“The growth of a trade union movement is a long and slow process; certainly the fetters of race prejudice within the trade unions cannot be released by flat. Persons interested in enlisting Negroes in the union movement can hope to overcome only gradually the many difficulties involved. Under present conditions, Negroes will remain the lowest paid of the industrial workers. Only when they realize that the myth of ‘black economy’ is just another escapist mechanism, with even less validity than Garvey’s Black Republic, will they attempt to organize and demand a greater share of the national income.

“Those interested in assisting them in industrial emancipation will face the problem of invading every institution in the community, contesting the Churches” doctrine of salvation through resignation, questioning the worth of the vicarious grandeur offered by the fraternal orders, and emancipating the mass of the workers from the ideological hold of the ultra-nationalistic, race conscious upper class.”

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