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C. Thomas

Negro Workers and the CIO

(May 1950)

From Fourth International, Vol.11 No.3, May-June 1950, pp.75-78.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In the years before the formation of the CIO, when craft unions dominated the American labor movement, not only the employers but the bulk of organized labor itself was militantly Jim Crow. White workers sought deliberately to keep Negroes out of jobs. The trade unions constituted a hostile barrier to the employment of Negro labor in the organized sectors of industry and trade. Where obvious self-interest dictated the necessity of organizing Negro workers, they were usually shunted off into second-class Jim Crow locals.

Under the circumstances, the Marxist contentions that the future of Negroes lay with the labor movement and that the only road for workers, white and black, was solidarity in the struggle against their mutual capitalist enemy, appeared like lunacy to the majority of Negroes.

The CIO brought a great change. Today about a million and a quarter Negroes are established in the labor movement with approximately half-a-million in the CIO. Compared to the pre-CIO days the present situation represents a great advance. But it is necessary to recognize that only the first steps forward have been taken. Negroes still suffer heavy discrimination in industry and in the unions.

A wartime study, published in 1944, disclosed that some 30 national unions, AFL, Railroad Brotherhood and independent, either excluded Negroes through constitutional provision and ritual or accorded them only segregated auxiliary status. Exclusionist provisions by unions affiliated to the AFL violate its national constitution. Yet, numerous attempts to invoke disciplinary action have been sidetracked by the AFL hierarchy with the hypocritical assurance that the problem can best be solved by “education.” This beneficent approach to its Jim Crow affiliates is in sharp contrast to the AFL leaders’ ruthless expulsion in 1936 of unions comprising the Committee for Industrial Organization for “violating” the AFL constitution because they sought to unite all workers in a given factory or industry in a single organization.

The Indispensable Cornerstone

The unions which launched the CIO had to deal, from the beginning, in a forthright manner with the Negro question. Fortunately, the most powerful of the group, the United Mine Workers, International Ladies Garment Workers and Amalgamated Clothing Workers, had gained insight and experience through intensive organizing campaigns in the early ’30s. Thousands of Negro workers had been recruited without discrimination and comprised a substantial section of their membership. The inclusion of all workers regardless of race, color or creed, was immediately recognized as the indispensable cornerstone of any lasting union structure in the basic mass production industries. This was especially true in steel and auto, two of the main citadels of corporate resistance to unionization.

The United Steel Workers and United Automobile Workers are the largest and most influential in the CIO. Each contains a large proportion of Negro members. Their attitude on the race question exerts great influence on the policy of the CIO and its affiliates. While no comprehensive survey of the entire CIO can be given within a brief article, it is possible to give a fairly accurate indication of the situation of Negroes in the CIO and to draw certain conclusions from the experience of its major unions.

How Negroes Got into Unions

How the Negroes got into industry and the unions is essential to an understanding of where they are today. Prior to World War I the rapidly expanding steel centers of the North relied on immigrants from Europe for an ever-increasing supply of cheap labor. Negro labor was concentrated in the South, particularly in the Birmingham region. The war shut off immigration and subsequent restrictive legislation dried up that source of supply.

The steel industry then turned to the South for its cheap labor supply, recruiting thousands of Negroes for its northern mills. In the two decades from World War I to the launching of the CIO, Negro labor in basic steel more than tripled. In the 30’s between forty and fifty thousand Negroes were employed in basic steel production. This was a factor to be reckoned with in the calculations of the CIO leaders. It would have been impossible to organize basic steel without tacit support from the Negro labor force.

Very few Negroes were employed in the automobile industry prior to World War I. The 1910 census figures show only 569 Negroes in a total labor force of 105,759 automobile workers. An acute labor shortage during the war attracted thousands of southerners, white and colored, to the automobile industry center in Detroit. This mushrooming industry continued to absorb Negro labor so that by the middle 30’s between twenty and thirty thousand Negroes were employed in auto plants.

An additional factor that made the race question a key issue in the organization of auto was the Ford Motor Company’s potent bid for the sympathy and support of Detroit’s Negro community. Ford made a practice of hiring Negroes to the extent of 10% of his labor force. These jobs were distributed primarily through Negro ministers who in turn were expected to bolster the ferocious anti-union policy of the Ford Motor Company and deliver the Negro vote to Harry Bennett, head of the notorious Ford Service Department. Although Ford rarely departed from the accepted racial occupation pattern of confining Negroes to the dirtiest, heaviest and most dangerous jobs, the fact that he hired so many colored workers established his reputation as a “friend” of the Negro. He tried to use this reputation to the very last to prevent organization but failed. By the time the UAW leadership tackled Ford, it had already demonstrated in action its adherence to the CIO policy of non-discrimination and thereby gained the active support of prominent Negro spokesmen who played an important role in critical stages of the 1941 strike which brought Ford into the UAW fold.

Basic Racial Patterns Unchanged

Although the CIO has organized Negro workers without discrimination, it has done little to alter the racial occupation patterns imposed by capitalist operation. Unionization found the Negroes concentrated in the heaviest, dirtiest, most dangerous and poorest paying jobs. By and large, that is where they remain. This is true of steel, auto, mining, textile, tobacco, etc. The Negro is unskilled, semi-skilled, common laborer, while the white is mechanic, machine-tender, skilled maintenance and white-collar worker.

The persistence of this inequality must in large measure be laid at the door of the CIO leadership. Negroes were able to penetrate industry in large number only during periods of acute labor shortage. It is in such periods that the greatest advances can be made. The CIO organized the Negro worker without discrimination but neglected to take advantage of the wartime opportunity for eradicating the discriminatory employment practices of the bosses. The wartime policy of national unity, equality of sacrifice and the no-strike pledge left employers free to exercise discriminatory practices in the field of hiring, transfer and promotion.

Most union agreements in the mass production industries contain departmental or occupational seniority clauses. Plant seniority clauses are very rare. While department seniority protects the Negro worker in case of layoffs within the department, it makes no provision for upgrading or promotion to more desirable or higher paying jobs in other departments. This tends to freeze Negro workers in the least desirable departments.

The wartime labor shortage provided CIO leaders with their greatest opportunity to lead Negro workers out of this blind alley. Despite the acute shortage many employers refused to hire Negroes, others persisted in maintaining the traditional racial occupation pattern of industry while a few made token moves infringing on this pattern by upgrading Negroes to hitherto all-white departments. To the credit of many national and local CIO leaders it must be said that in the latter case they moved with vigor to quell any Jim Crow strikes or demonstrations designed to exclude Negro workers. Usually a threat of drastic disciplinary action was enough to send the “rebels” back to work.

Negroes Took the Initiative

Where the employer took the initiative or could be induced to hire or upgrade Negroes into all-white departments the CIO threw the support of the union, if necessary, to make it stick. But such cases were rare. In the over-all struggle for equal opportunity of employment the Negroes themselves took the initiative through the March-On-Washington Movement. This promising movement proposed to substitute mass action for ineffective pleas, petitions and pious wishes. With active support from the CIO it would have been invincible. But the CIO leaders remained aloof. They were unalterably committed to a policy of collaboration with the Roosevelt administration and would do nothing to embarrass their “friend” in Washington.

However, the mere threat of a nation-wide march on Washington sufficed to compel Roosevelt to issue the executive order establishing the Fair Employment Practices Committee. Inadequate as it was, the FEPC represented the greatest concession wrested from the government in the struggle for Negro rights during the war. It demonstrated the superiority of militant methods of struggle over the moral preachments, appeals to patriotism, legislative lobbying and “education” practiced by the liberals and labor leaders.

Bolstered by the FFPC, the Negroes made some notable advances during the war. The number of Negroes employed in industry increased. Jobs hitherto reserved to whites were opened up to Negro workers. These gains were most marked in the section of industry organized by the CIO. But the number of Negroes who succeeded in breaching the Jim Crow occupation pattern was too small to make any appreciable alteration in the basic pattern. Today the racial occupation pattern remains essentially what it was before the war.

Meanwhile, the presence of Negro members in significant numbers, their active participation in union affairs plus the exigencies of internal union politics has made them an important factor in the key unions of the CIO. In most steel locals, for example, Negroes function as officials, executive board members, stewards, committeemen, etc. The same is true in auto and other CIO unions with substantial Negro membership. It is above the local level, however, where the top brass is further removed from direct contact with the ranks, that Jim Crow rears its ugly head.

The “Jim Crow in Reverse” Argument

While a Negro is usually appointed in each district of the steel union, it is the practice to assign him a special department where his duties do not bring him into direct contact with the employer as a representative of the national organization. In the UAW repeated demands have been made for Negro representation on the International Executive Board. The Board is composed of regional directors and executive officers who represent the national organization in negotiations and disputes with the corporations.

The demand for Negro representation has been met by Reuther and his close associates with the charge that this constitutes “Jim Crow in reverse.” The specious argument is made that advancement to top union positions must be made solely on the basis of “ability.” This is poppycock. There are Negro leaders in the UAW as able as any now occupying top positions in the union. Underlying the “Jim Crow in reverse” argument is an unwarranted concession to white chauvinism.

This concession to prejudice sterns from the pattern adopted by the United Mine Workers Union in organizing the coal miners of the deep South. In setting up mixed locals in which Negroes constituted a majority, it was arranged for the president to be a white and the vice-president a Negro. The president was the official who represented the men in meetings with the employers. By this system, corporation executives were spared an affront to their Jim Crow prejudices.

When the UMW organized steel the same system was adopted for the mixed locals of the South and extended into the North—with harmful consequences. Prejudiced white workers are quick to sense the attitude of the leaders. Supervisory personnel are emboldened to practice discrimination in a hundred insidious and devious ways. Rising unemployment sharpens the competition for jobs. Exacerbated friction can lead to dangerous explosions. The complacent attitude of International Presidents like Reuther and Murray who feel they have discharged their obligation by giving lip service to the struggle for Negro equality and by using a few Negroes as window-dressing to display their “good will” acts as a spur to chauvinism. At this juncture, Negro representation on leading bodies of CIO unions—and not for show-case purposes—is the minimum required to demonstrate the seriousness of union leaders in the struggle against industrial Jim Crow.

In the Taft-Hartley Era

Labor is now living in the Taft-Hartley era. The business unionism of Gompers and Green and the mossbacks of the AFL Executive Council is a relic of the past.. Every major struggle involves the unions in conflict with the government which functions as the executive agency of the capitalist ruling class. Politics has become a life and death matter for the unions. And the Negro question is, above all, a political question. If the union leaders were unaware of it before, the so-called Republican-Dixiecrat coalition has forcibly reminded them of the fact.

The CIO campaign to organize the South ran smack into the Negro question in all its political and social ramifications. Lacking a correct policy on this crucial problem, the drive has bogged down. The Southern drive was undertaken with a view toward breaking the political monopoly of the Dixiecrats by exerting the pressure of organized labor on the Democratic Party. The Southern Negro is extremely sympathetic toward the CIO. But he is disfranchised, along with a large proportion of white workers, and in addition is subjected to an atmosphere of intimidation and terror. A policy based on an appeal to support “good” Democrats against “bad” Democrats cannot arouse much hope or enthusiasm. For in the South, even the “best” of the liberal Democrats, as witness the campaign pronouncements of a Claude Pepper, are Jim Crow practitioners.

The Republican-Dixiecrat coalition is a political fusion of northern capital and southern demagogy. Northern capital bolsters Southern reaction. Southern reaction upholds Taft-Hartleyism. As long as labor adheres to the fraudulent two-party system, monopoly capital can’t lose. To organize the South while supporting the Democratic Party is a more formidable task than Hercules faced in cleaning the Augean stables. And Philip Murray is no Hercules!

Education, Organization, Leadership

The CIO top brass is fond of emphasizing that Jim Crow will be conquered through education, organization and leadership. That is true in the abstract. But the heart of the question is, what sort of education, what type of organization and what kind of leadership?

In steel, the Murray machine initiated an educational campaign through the establishment of a Civil Rights Committee. The committee calls various conferences to promote ... Truman’s civil rights program. The emphasis at these conferences is on legislative lobbying, letter writing and CIO-PAC types of political action. The sum total of Murray’s educational program consists in covering up and whitewashing the Truman administration’s failure to deliver on its election promises and drumming up support for the election of Trumanite Democrats next fall. This sort of “education” is worse than useless.

Effective education in the struggle against Jim Crow must lay bare the real function of racial discrimination, must expose its capitalist class character and the role it plays in dividing and weakening the working class in its struggles for emancipation from exploitation and wage slavery.

Effective organization must be based on the recognition of the class division in capitalist society, the knowledge that Democrats and Republicans alike represent the interests of the ruling capitalist class, and the necessity for an independent working class party to carry forward the struggle of exploited labor, black and white.

Effective leadership can be provided only by those who recognize the revolutionary implications of the struggle for Negro equality and are prepared to lead such a struggle to the very end.

The entrance of Negroes into industry during the first World War coincided with the beginning of the decline of capitalism as a world system. Encompassing a brief span of 30 odd years this period has been marked by major convulsions: wars, depression, colonial revolts and socialist revolutions. It required a major split in the American labor movement and the tumultuous rise of the CIO before Negroes gained admission to the unions on a near-equal basis. The same period witnessed a gigantic growth of union membership to some 16,000,000 strong. These tremendous historical events are a harbinger of what is to come.

Taft-Hartleyism and Jim Crow are twins. Decaying capitalism, which exudes the poison of racial discrimination from every pore, is bent on using its political monopoly to destroy the labor movement. Necessity will drive the American working class onto the political arena to engage the enemy in mortal combat. They will learn the truth enunciated by Marx: Labor with a white skin cannot emancipate itself where labor with a black skin is branded. Working class solidarity, fertilized in the womb of the CIO, will see its fruition in the conquest of political power and the establishment of a workers and farmers government. The death knell of Jim Crow will have sounded!

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