[Fwd: [BRC-NEWS] Black Workers and the CIO]

Carrol Cox cbcox at SPAMilstu.edu
Wed Feb 14 20:04:14 MST 2001

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Black Workers and the CIO
Date: Wed, 14 Feb 2001 21:56:01 -0500 (EST)
From: Bill Fletcher <bfletcher4 at compuserve.com>
To: brc-news at lists.tao.ca


The Dispatcher

February 2000

The Indispensable Ally:
Black Workers and the Formation of the CIO

By Bill Fletcher Jr. <bfletcher4 at compuserve.com> and Peter Agard

The 1930s witnessed a tremendous upsurge in labor organizing
and activity. A movement swept the United States to establish
industrial unions, that is, unions that would organize all
workers, regardless of trade, into the same union in that
industry. The industrial union movement, known at the time
as the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), transformed
the U.S. labor movement. In the process of this transformation
Black workers left their mark, a mark unfortunately all too
often overlooked.

The future of labor depends on the organizing of nonunion
minority workers in the offices, factories and fields. For
this reason, the critical role of Black workers in the
organizing and building of the CIO during the 1930s
must be understood.

The Great Depression devastated the working class, while
simultaneously provoking a wide-ranging and angry response.
In March 1930, over 1,000,000 people demonstrated against
unemployment and for jobs across the United States.
Organized by the National Unemployment Councils, these
workers were given a sense of hope and a realization that
through collective activity changes could be brought about.

By the mid-1930s worker discontent spread from the
unemployed to sectors of organized labor. In 1934 a strike
wave spread across the U.S.A. with the Teamsters leading a
general strike in Minneapolis, and the West Coast branches
of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA)
leading one in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The West Coast Longshore strike had a profound impact on
Black workers. Although Black workers had a long history of
working on the docks as longshoremen in other parts of the
U.S.A., prior to 1900 Black workers were relatively absent
from the West Coast docks. Black workers entered the West
Coast docks in a less-than-noble manner as strikebreakers in
the 1901 dock strike in San Francisco and again in the 1919

>From the moment of entry onto the docks Black workers were
subject to intense discrimination. The hiring process
followed on the docks, known as the "shape-up," was an
almost certain guarantee of "Jim Crow" hiring practices. The
shape-up involved the gathering of workers on the docks to
then be chosen by company representatives and often involved
kickbacks and other forms of cronyism. The shape-up system
was undemocratic, and as such became one of the main targets
of the 1934 strike.

Led by Australian-born dockworker Harry Bridges, the West
Coast ILA turned what was initially a dock strike into a
full-blown general strike in the Bay Area. Contrary to
the practices of most unions at the time, including the
practices of their own parent union (that is, the rest of
the "International Longshoremen's Association"), the West
Coast ILA opened up its ranks to Black workers, a point
which was not lost on the Black community nor other sections
of organized labor. Black workers went on to play an active
role in the strike. The attitude of the union leadership
was very important in seeking to gain the involvement of
Black workers and to combat, within the ranks of its own
membership, various racist views on the role of Black
workers. Initially there were several companies on the
docks where Black workers did not join the strike. The
deep suspicion by Black workers on the AFL and its brand
of unionism -- which had excluded Blacks systematically for
decades -- led many Black workers to distrust the strikers.
Only with serious and intense work did the strike leadership
convince those workers that the Bay Area ILA represented a
different brand of unionism, and that they were welcome.

Black workers enthusiastically supported the strikers'
proposals for the introduction of a "hiring hall" system
through which all workers would be sent to jobs according to
their place on a master list. They felt that this would lead
to a break in West Coast dock discrimination.

The 1934 San Francisco General Strike affected the West
Coast maritime industry as well as the Bay Area labor
movement. Thirty-five thousand Bay Area workers joined
unions as a result of the General Strike, despite the
employers' claims that unions, particularly the West
Coast ILA, were communist-front groups.

The strike affected Black workers in the Bay Area in at
least two ways. First, the establishment of a hiring hall
meant that Black workers finally had a chance to get jobs
on a regular basis on the docks without selling their souls.
This led to a steady increase in the overall number of Black
longshore workers, particularly in the Bay Area (though the
increase was not felt in great numbers initially and was
inconsistent in other parts of the West Coast). Second,
there was tremendous growth of Black membership in the newly
established National Union of Marine Cooks and Stewards,
growth accompanied by the breakdown of Jim Crow practices
on shipping lines.

The 1934 general strikes and many less publicized moves by
labor's rank and file to organize challenged the AFL's brand
of unionism. The AFL had long rejected any serious moves to
organize Black workers and include them within its ranks.
But it had also rejected demands and pleas that it organize
millions of unorganized and skilled or semi-skilled workers
in mass production industries. Sections of the AFL, led by
United Mine Workers of America President John L. Lewis,
expressed the concern that labor would die unless it took
on the organizing of the mass production industries.

Lewis' belief in the future of industrial unionism also led
him to recognize that a successful industrial union movement
would need the active participation of Black workers. Lewis
and others in the pro-industrial union movement camp did
not want to repeat the mistakes of the union drives which
followed World War I where the AFL tried to organize large
industries on the basis of craft unionism, often to the
actual or virtual exclusion of Black workers. The
endorsement of industrial unionism by Lewis, the support
that he was able to gather among an important minority of
AFL union officials, plus the rank-and-file interest that
had been developing, was enough to get the actual movement
going -- a movement called the "Committee for Industrial
Organization" upon its founding on Nov. 9, 1935. (The name
was changed to the "Congress of Industrial Organizations"
after a full break was made with the American Federation
of Labor.)

Within four months of the formation of the CIO, Black
progressives from around the U.S. joined together in
the formation of the National Negro Congress (NNC). The
kernel of the idea for the NNC actually developed out of
discussions among Black progressives of various political
stripes as to how the African American population should
respond to the devastation of the Depression. It was
understood that no single Black organization could defeat
or reverse the crisis of the Depression and that a united
and activist-oriented response was necessary.

Arising as it did in the mid-1930s, the NNC could not avoid
having been influenced by the industrial unionism movement.
What is not widely understood, however, is that the NNC
sought to influence the new labor federation. In this
effort, the NNC met with some important successes. The NNC
recognized the possibilities that existed for Black workers
should African Americans get behind the CIO movement. Thus,
when the NNC formed in February 1936, it placed a clear
priority on supporting industrial unionism and winning
over the African American people to the importance of
this development.

The support which the NNC gave to industrial unionism
was a radical step at the time. Though Black workers made
consistent attempts to enter the unions, there were many
leaders of the African American people who turned a cold
shoulder to unionism, regardless of whether it was craft
or industrial. In that sense the NNC, as a collection of
organizations, but also as a unit, represented a different
pole of opinion within the national African American

At the first congress A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood
of Sleeping Car Porters was chosen as the President of the
NNC. This was a significant move given that Randolph was
himself a leader of a labor organization, and in that regard
not typical of the formal leaders most often pointed to in
the African American freedom movement. Though Randolph did
not leave the AFL to join the CIO, a point which was highly
controversial at the time, Randolph was very supportive of
industrial unionism and the work of the CIO.

In his address to the first congress of the NNC (delivered
in his absence due to an illness), Randolph stressed the
importance of industrial unionism, pointing out that:
"...the craft union invariably has a color bar against the
Negro worker, but the industrial union in structure renders
race discrimination less possible since it embraces all
workers included in the industry regardless of race." Until
he resigned from his position as President of the NNC in
1940, Randolph used this platform as a means to herald the
cause of industrial unionism and point to why Black people
should endorse this path-breaking movement.

NNC support for the CIO was probably most keenly felt in
the organizing of tobacco workers in Richmond, Virginia and
in the steel industry. The work of the NNC in Richmond is
particularly important given that it was primarily among
Black women workers who labored in the tobacco factories
of the city.

Tobacco workers labored under dreadful conditions.
Describing the conditions faced by Black workers during the
1920s, shortly before they became organized, one commentator
noted that as miserable as the conditions were for all
workers, Black women worked in the worst situations.
Black women performed the re-handling of tobacco, whereas
operations in the manufacturing of cigars and cigarettes
were the exclusive province of white women. Black women
were completely barred from manufacturing. Additionally,
there was the complete segregation of the workers within
the same factories.

The owners or managers ruled over these plants with an iron
hand, treating the plants as if they were plantations. In
some cases the shops had changed very little since the days
of slavery, both structurally, and in the forms and methods
management followed. In Richmond, the tobacco workers were
among the poorest of the poor, in the winter going so far as
to drape themselves in the tobacco burlap bags in order to
keep warm. The women were completely subservient to their
white foremen, having to submit to their sexual advances
or face the loss of their employment. The employers were
apparently confident that real labor organization would
either never come or never survive in the tobacco industry.
Management could have such confidence since the AFL-affiliate,
the Tobacco Workers International Union (TWIU), was entirely
ineffective and openly collaborated with the employers.

The organization of the tobacco workers was in many ways the
direct outgrowth of the preparatory work for the founding of
the "Southern Negro Youth Congress" -- a little known wing
of the NNC. Organizers of the SNYC in Richmond, Virginia,
working up to the founding convention (held in February
1937) established contact with tobacco workers. The tobacco
workers wanted the SNYC to address the miserable conditions
faced by them at work. It was out of this contact that the
Tobacco Stemmers' and Laborers' Industrial Union (TSLIU)
was established in the city.

The TSLIU began what was for Richmond a remarkable period
of growth -- remarkable for at least two reasons. For one,
Richmond had not been the scene of much in the way of union
activity since the strike of street car workers earlier in
the century. Second, Richmond was witnessing the unionization
of Black workers, and Black females at that, who the white
power structure had led everyone to believe would never
carry out such an affront to the city establishment. The
mere act of organizing and demanding collective bargaining
was in many ways perceived as a form of revolt.

With the help of SNYC organizers such as James Jackson and
Ed Strong, the TSLIU began to organize a series of plants.
Jackson later noted that the workers became transformed
through the process of building the union. Many of the
Black women, who had been told time and again that they
could do nothing of the kind, showed talented leadership and
organizing skill, such as that exhibited by the secretary
of the union, a Mrs. Harris. In fact, during the struggle
at British-American Tobacco, one of the key demands of the
workers was to be referred to by their supervisors and plant
management as "Mr. X" or "Mrs. Y," rather than in the first
name, over-familiar fashion (as well as in other derogatory
ways) so commonly taught by whites with regard to how they
should relate to African Americans. Thus, the Richmond
organizing effort became not only a struggle for improved
wages and working conditions, but also a battle for human
dignity against a very racist, in fact, "Jim Crow"
establishment. The inspiration of this SNYC-supported
Black unionization spread through the rest of the city,
and influenced other unionization campaigns.

The NNC specifically, and Black workers generally, also
played an important role in organizing the steel industry.
In the steel centers such as Birmingham, Alabama, Gary,
Indiana and Chicago, Black workers played a key role in
establishing a CIO presence. The Steel Workers Organizing
Committee (SWOC -- formed in part out of the old Amalgamated
Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers, though committed
to the principle of industrial unionism) openly courted the
NNC and the Black community generally, realizing that Black
workers were decisive in the unionization of the plants.
This attitude on the part of the SWOC brought forward a
generally positive response from the African American

The attitude of the SWOC was not based on moralism, nor
necessarily on some higher level of principle. As NNC
executive John P. Davis pointed out at the time, Black
workers constituted 20 percent of all laborers in the steel
mills and six percent of all the operatives. More importantly,
the strategic significance of Black workers had to be under-
stood in terms of their high proportion in the three or four
key geographic areas of steel production, not simply in terms
of their overall percentage within the steel industry.

In these areas of concentration, Black workers faced various
forms of racist discrimination. There were disproportionately
fewer Black workers in skilled positions. In the South, Black
workers doing the same work as whites were paid less. Black
workers doing piece work were often subject to job assignments
that would take much more time to complete than jobs assigned
to their white co-workers. In addition, the job assignments
of Black workers were generally more hazardous than those
received by white workers.

The SWOC found that in many locations Black workers
responded more quickly to unionization efforts than did
white workers. This did not mean, however, that Black worker
support for unionizing was universal. One step taken by SWOC
to encourage Black recruitment was the employment of Black
organizers. Given the understandable levels of suspicion
held by the African American community towards unions,
Black organizers and favorable support by Black community
organizations were essential for the creation of the type
of climate necessary for unionizing efforts to win.

The SWOC did not stop with the employment of organizers. The
national office encouraged the election of Black workers to
positions within the unions themselves, including their
placement on all committees of the union.

These new Black labor leaders were able to achieve some
influence in the direction taken by the industrial union
movement. Besides this accomplishment, the SWOC raised wages
by one-third, reduced working hours and helped to alter some
of the segregationist employer practices current at the time.

With 20/20 hindsight one may conclude that the Black
community did not place sufficient demands on the CIO or
that it was perhaps over-optimistic about what the CIO could
accomplish. It is, however, too easy to say that the Black
community was not demanding enough. By the late 1930s, Black
progressives actually were well aware that uncritical
support for the CIO was illogical and strategically
inappropriate. Compromises and conservative tendencies
within the CIO would and did inevitably develop that would
not be to the advantage of the African American community
and worker. Problems which arose within the left-wing-led
Transport Workers Union-CIO (in New York City), specifically
a hesitation and/or unwillingness on the part of the union
to confront racist structural problems in the workplace, led
otherwise pro-CIO Black minister and later politician Adam
Clayton Powell Jr. to comment that Blacks would have to
fight a battle on two fronts: against the employer and
against the unions for admission, recognition and

What was understood by the progressive section of the Black
community in the mid-1930s, however, was that there was a
development going on within labor which could significantly
influence the state of the African American worker. It was
understood that a section of organized labor was making a
direct appeal to the African American community in general,
and the African American worker in particular, to jump on
board. When contrasted with the treatment Black workers
received from the AFL, it made sense to unite with this
motion. What must be understood is that the massive entry of
Black workers into organized labor via the alliance between
the progressive section of the African American population
and the progressive section of organized labor created the
conditions for eventually changing the policies of organized
labor. That these policies have not been changed to the
satisfaction of Black workers and other progressive workers
should not be misunderstood or lead to the conclusion that
the initial alliance was incorrect. Rather, the post-World
War II problems speak to some deeper difficulties within the
leadership and perhaps the structure of organized labor as
well as problems in the strategies advanced by progressive

The CIO organizing experience of the 1930s and early 1940s
pointed out that the labor movement could not grow without
organizing Black workers and without mobilizing some
significant support in the Black community. The CIO also
advanced an entirely different approach to organizing --
that is, the creation of something on the lines of a mass
movement by which entire industries were confronted with
organizing campaigns. Pulling such campaigns together were
talented organizers, many of whom were Black, leftists or
both. Their commitment and skill, along with a vision of
a socially just society, helped to inspire hundreds of
thousands of workers across the U.S. to organize into
industrial unions. This inspired view placed labor, not
into the camp of what later would be called a "special
interest," but rather as a centerpiece for progressive
change. By aligning itself with African Americans the CIO
attempted to represent more than just its own members: it
attempted to represent the interests of the majority of
peoples of the United States.


This article is an abbreviated version of the original
published in 1987 by the University of Massachusetts,
Boston, William Monroe Trotter Institute. It is
reprinted with permission of the authors.

Copyright (c) 1987-2001 Bill Fletcher Jr. and Peter Agard.

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