A Short History of Black Labor Movements in America

Born out of necessity, America’s Black labor movements have left an indelible mark upon the social fabric of our country. For hundreds of years Black activists have poured blood, sweat, and tears into organizing the American labor force for better working conditions. Until relatively recently, Black Americans were excluded from major unions, and therefore had to create separate institutions that fought for Black workers. Black men organized against all odds in the agriculture sector, and Black women, who were often excluded from leadership and sometimes even membership in other Black organizations, were early proponents of labor reform by unionizing domestic workers. As civil rights in America progressed, major unions integrated and partnered with Black labor movements across America to champion both economic reform and racial justice. Today, union membership in the Black community is declining despite the long tradition of Black-led labor activism. 

The Early Days

Labor organizing by Black people has been documented since before the Civil War, and the first strike in America organized by Black laborers was probably at Washington Navy Yard by Black ship-caulkers in 1835. Possibly the first Black labor union, the American League of Colored Laborers, was founded in 1850. Pre-Civil War information is more challenging to find, but Black labor movements post-Civil War are much better documented. In the age of Reconstruction, labor unions blossomed as trade increased, but Black Americans were often excluded by predominantly white organizations. So in 1869, the Colored National Labor Union (CNLU)  was formed as, “a counterpart to the white National Labor Union.” The CNLU repeatedly petitioned Congress to address labor conditions in Southern states and to make good on the government’s promise to give newly-freed slaves 40 acres of land to farm, but Congress declined to act. 

From the beginning of Black labor activism in America, Black women played an essential role. Despite being doubly excluded on account of gender and sex, Lucy Parsons and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union organized the very first May Day, the first in a series of strikes in 1886 supporting the eight hour day. Parsons led over 80,000 people through the streets of Chicago in favor of the eight-hour work day, and the movement continued to pick up steam, ultimately succeeding in its goal. Parsons later went on to be the only woman to speak at the founding conference of the International Workers of the World (IWW). 

In Mississippi, the first labor union was established by newly-freed slave washer-women who sent a letter to the Mayor of Jackson, “informing him that they would henceforth be charging a ‘uniform rate’ for their labor”. In the 1880s, Black domestic workers (mostly female) organized the Atlanta Washerwoman’s strike, inviting both Black and white women to strike for fixed wages. 

As Reconstruction ended and the Jim Crow Era progressed, labor movements became more segregated. During the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, Black and white workers in Louisville struck together in solidarity for better working conditions, but by 1894 railway unions could not be convinced to accept Black members. Not only were Black people often excluded from white unions, but white unions frequently protested the hiring of lower-paid Black workers as unfair competition.

In the Progressive Era, two important trends coincided. First, the government became suspicious of Black organized labor related to anti-War sentiments, and second, the number of Black people employed in industry jobs nearly doubled as a result of the Great Migration and World War I. As a result, numerous agencies and administrative positions were created to keep tabs on Black labor leaders such as Ben Fletcher, President of the Marine Workers Association (an IWW affiliate).

In 1925, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porter (BSCP) was established, the first all-Black labor union that dealt with the Pullman Company’s mistreatment of workers. Porters struck for better wages, shorter hours, and better working conditions. Perhaps its greatest achievement, after a decade of lobbying the NAACP, religious leaders, and Black women’s organizations, BSCP was successful in changing the opinions of Black middle-class Americans from anti- to pro-union. 

Black advancement into industry jobs was stymied by the Great Depression, and most of the opportunities and assistance given by the New Deal excluded African Americans. Not only were African Americans excluded from most of the benefits given, but few worker protections were given to the agricultural sector which employed 31% of all Black people as of 1940. 

In the 30s, it was extremely difficult for Black agricultural unions to thrive because of agriculture’s migratory, seasonal patterns as well as incredibly low wages. However, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU) was a notable exception. Founded in 1934 in Eastern Arkansas just 15 years after the Elaine Massacre took place in the same county, a tragedy that saw white law enforcement officers and vigilantes murder over 200 Black community members, targeting union officials of the all-Black Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America. The STFU was inspired by Socialist principles and was an interracial union focused on the living conditions of tenant farmers and sharecroppers. STFU was incredibly successful, and its lobbying was responsible for Franklin Roosevelt’s creation of multiple agencies tasked with improving the conditions of tenant farmers. 

Post-WWII Industrialization 

WWII greatly improved the economic conditions of African-Americans, and as Black labor became more and more important to the federal government, Roosevelt made concessions such as acknowledging racism in the federal workforce and various executive orders addressing racist labor practices. In the post-WWII era, civil rights became a major focus of many Black labor movements with notable figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Angela Davis leading the charge for both economic and political reform. A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porter, successfully lobbied President Truman to desegregate the armed forces in 1948.

When the AFL and CIO (two of the most influential unions) merged in 1955, the Black labor movement gained new momentum as various unions were united under cohesive, and integrated, leadership. As Vice-President of the AFL-CIO and President of BSCP, Randolph put his weight behind Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Woolworth sit-ins, and Freedom Rides. To leaders like Randolph, economic justice and racial equity were one and the same. Black workers continued to be excluded from local union chapters, and Randolph campaigned tirelessly for racial equality within the labor movement. In 1961, his efforts were rewarded when the AFL-CIO adopted a civil rights agenda to include people regardless of race.

In the fifties, the first person to represent US labor interests abroad was a Black woman, Maida Springer Kemp, who “was named the AFL–CIO’s representative to Africa in 1959”. Kemp grew up in Harlem and was active in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union which had decades earlier participated in the first May Day strike in favor of the eight-hour workday. In the sixties, as the Civil Rights Movement came to a head, the AFL-CIO mobilized 40,000 union members for the March on Washington and lobbied Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Organized labor was increasingly concerned with policy reform and contributed “legal support, publicity, and lobbying efforts in Congress.”

Black labor movements were met with incredible hostility because they challenged the order of society from a racial and a class-based perspective. Up until the Civil Rights Movement, most unions excluded Black people, and the ones that did not exclude Black people at the national level often allowed local chapters to discriminate at will. This fostered decades of Black union development against all odds. As time passed and white unions began to integrate, Black leaders saw the importance of uniting workers against economic and racial exploitation. National unions became a platform for Black activists to organize, and unions were an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement. 

The Flip Side of Exploitation

While Black Americans were at the forefront of labor organizing in many industries, the same economic conditions that created a need for labor organization all created workers who were exploited by businesses as strike-breakers. Black workers would often be employed for lower wages, and it was common practice for business owners to bring in Black workers when white workers struck. In 1917, “the Aluminum Ore Company brought in African American workers to break a strike, 3,000 white union members marched in protest” and as retaliation white mobs torched Black neighborhoods and killed between 100 to 200 Black workers. Again in 1919, over 30,000 Black and Mexican-American workers were brought in by US Steel when white union members struck and “taunted the locked-out strikers for losing their good “white” jobs”. This tactic was used by businesses to undercut union activity and to destroy class solidarity, pitting white union members and exploited Black laborers against each other. 

The Current Situation

Starting in the Nixon administration, the federal government began scaling back some of the pro-labor progress made by Kennedy and Johnson. The National Labor Review Board was the tool Kennedy and Johnson used to reform labor practices and was later used by Nixon, Carter, and Reagan to deregulate and undercut unions. H.W. Bush and Clinton both had mixed records, but the younger Bush appointed a union-buster as head of the NLRB. The Obama administration that followed was very pro-labor. 

To date, the longest strike in US history was organized by a Black woman by the name of Hattie Canty. As President of the Las Vegas Culinary Workers Union Local 226, Hattie organized a strike that lasted over 6 months, 24/7, with not a single person crossing the picket line from 1991-1998. The hotel targeted by the strike was eventually bought out by an owner who acquiesced to the Union’s demands and the strike succeeded in garnering better working conditions. 

Today, just over 14% of Black Americans are unionized, and Black workers who are unionized earn about 16% more than their non-unionized counterparts. Despite that fact, union membership has been decreasing in recent years. Unions continue to champion both racial equity and economic justice, and in recent years have become concerned with gender equality as well. As Black and integrated labor unions continue to strive for better working conditions, it is well worth noting that the future envisioned by Black labor activists a hundred years ago and today have much in common. 

As Booker T. Washington wrote in 1913, 

“[T]he leaders of the labor organizations fully realize what the masses of laboring men must inevitabl[y] come to see, namely, that the future belongs to the man, or the class of men, who seeks his own welfare, not through the injury or oppression of his fellows, but in some form of service to the community as a whole.”

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