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Albert Parker

The Negro Struggle

“Labor with a White Skin Cannot Emancipate Itself Where Labor with a Black Skin Is Branded” – Karl Marx

Negroes and the Unions

(15 November 1941)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 46, 15 November 1941, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

One of the great achievements of the CIO, among many others, was that it opened its doors wide to Negro workers, and especially the great bulk of them in the mass industries. This resulted not only in a more effective organization of the basic industries, but it also did much to build up a feeling of solidarity among the white and Negro workers and to greatly increase the pro-union sentiment among the Negro people generally.

Since the organization of the CIO, the Negro workers have been integrated into hundreds of local unions. They have attended their meetings in “peace time” as well as done their full share on the picket lines in time of strike. They have been elected as officers and shop stewards and committeemen and responsible leaders in many shops, even where the Negro workers form only a small part of the membership. More and more Negroes have been selected as national organizers and representatives of their union and sent in to organize new fields. On the whole, the Negro workers in the CIO feel that it is their home, and they belong in it.

But it would not be painting a true picture to let it go at that and say that complete and full equality for the Negro people exists in all the shops that have been unionized, even by the CIO.

By this I do not mean to say that it is the policy of the CIO or its affiliated unions to practice discrimination or segregation against its Negro members. Far from it. If in isolated instances in the CIO such Jim Crow practices are discovered, they are the exception to the rule, and should be reported and exposed and fought against, and undoubtedly the CIO national office would aid in such a fight.

But while there are no, or practically no cases of such open discrimination in the CIO, that does not mean that there are no special problems for the Negro members in many situations. For even if the CIO does not discriminate, the employers and their managers still consider the Negro workers as “inferior” and do not hesitate to go out of their way in giving Negroes the dirtiest and lowest paid jobs and in preventing them from advancing to better and skilled positions.

And often the local leaders of the unions just do not see the problem or its importance. They may mean well and might be the first to protest and propose action to correct this situation – but meanwhile, they are so concerned about other problems, they are so busy that they just don’t see this important problem.

Thus, as many Negro workers who have observed this will understand, although the CIO does not practice Jim Crowism, there are special Jim Crow problems which exist which the CIO is not in all cases taking the necessary steps to wipe out.

What is to be done in this situation? It is serious, for as long as it exists, many Negro workers will continue to feel that their white brothers are only paying lip-service to the idea of equality for the Negro workers, and in the end the employers may be able to turn them against the unions.

The Answer to the Problem

The answer is that the Negro workers in the unions – AFL as well as CIO – must get together as an organized force within the unions to bring these problems before the other workers and propose steps to correct them. They must organize Negro Labor Councils, or any other name you want to give it, which will concern themselves with the solution of the special problems facing Negro workers.

Does this mean separate unions? No! Does this mean separate Negro locals? No! Does this mean a body set up to fight against the regularly constituted locals in the various shops? No!

It simply means that the Negro workers will get together in their unions and in their cities to discuss how to best protect the interests of the Negro workers in the unions, how to bring unorganized Negroes into the unions, how to develop a more favorable attitude toward the unions among the non-unionized Negroes, and all other measures which will help to build the unions. They will not function separately from the unions, but as a matter of fact will try to get the unions to endorse their work and assist them in it.

Won’t such a step antagonize many white workers? Not at all. As a matter of fact, the white workers will respect the Negroes all the more when they see that they are determined to build the unions and protect their own interests at the same time.

Is this a new idea? There is nothing new about it. For many years such a body of Jewish workers in New York did a very good job in helping to organize Jewish-speaking workers into the unions. There have been various such groups in the history of the American labor movement. Many prominent Negroes have for a long time been advocating the formation of such Councils – not to fight unionism, but to help it.

At the present time such bodies already exist in various parts of the country. Just recently there was organized a Mid-West Negro Labor Council in Chicago, with representation from CIO and AFL unions. (Next week we’ll tell more about it.) In many different local unions such bodies already exist and have done some good work.

What is necessary now is to spread and extend the formation of such Councils everywhere. Negro delegates to the CIO convention in Detroit this week should discuss the matter and bring it before the convention for its approval. Such approval would be a real impetus to formation of these Councils.

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