Labor Day, the working man’s holiday pays tribute to the contributions of American workers but it’s the laborers in cities of Detroit, St. Louis and Memphis are the real heroes that should be honored this Labor Day. While this day was created originally by the labor movement in the late 19th century becoming a federal holiday in 1894; the unflinching labor leaders like A. Philip Randolph, James Lawson, TO Jones and Bayard Rustin made this a day to remember. Sit back and learn a bit of history from the staff at BLAC. Enjoy.
HISTORY, LABOR AND RACE
Our founding fathers, some of whom were racists slave-owners, incorporated free labor into our political institutions and defended it with everything they had. Because in the late 1800s, a time called the Industrial Revolution, the average white American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks to make a basic living. Even children as young as 6 worked in mills, factories and mines. The very poor, uneducated and recent immigrants, faced extremely unsafe working conditions, as manufacturing increasingly surpassed agriculture as the largest means of American employment. These inhuman working conditions gave birth to labor unions.
Black people were just years separated from slavery, in the throes of the Reconstruction Era, working in the worst jobs and getting paid the least. In 1867 the founder of the Pullman Company, George Mortimer Pullman, seized on this opportunity by providing employment to freed slaves freed who were desperately in need of means to live. Of course, Pullman exploited their difficult situation by demanding never-ending hours of hard work with poor compensation. Frustrated by the company’s policy, the Black Pullman porters organized and approached A. Randolph Randolph. He wrote and published two articles in The Messenger magazine that received wide support and on August 25, 1925, the BSCP, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, one of the nation’s first Black labor unions. The organization brought labor union ideals to thousands of Black households, becoming an exclusive collective bargaining agent.
LABOR UNIONS AND CIVIL RIGHTS
Progressive leaders like Fredrick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, A. Philip Randolph and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saw labor unions as essential to the ability of black workers to achieve equality. At this time, a good 90 percent of African Americans lived in the South, the vast majority were sharecropping. This gave unions more negotiating power, and wages started inching up. So employers started recruiting black workers from the south as strike breakers and replacement workers. About a half-million black workers moved to Chicago, Detroit, Ohio, Philadelphia and St. Louis in what’s known at big migration.
ST. LOUIS & CHICAGO
The worst recorded incident of labor-related racial violence occurred in St. Louis in 1917. When the Aluminum Ore Company brought in African American workers to break a strike, 3,000 white union members marched in protest. The marchers morphed into a mob, attacking random black residents on the street. The following day, shots were exchanged between whites and black in the black part of town; two plainclothes police officers were killed. When the news got out, roving white mobs rampaged through black East St. Louis, burning homes and businesses, and assaulting men, women and children. Between 100 and 200 black working people died and 6,000 were left homeless.
A year later, four million soldiers returned from World War I. With no plan for absorbing them into the economy, unemployment rose rapidly. Both white and black veterans felt betrayed. In the “Red Summer” of 1919, 38 separate race riots occurred, all of them white mobs attacking blacks. The worst riot occurred in Chicago. After a black youth was stoned for swimming into the “white” part of the lake, Irish and black gangs battled each other for 13 days. When it was over, 23 blacks and 15 whites were dead, 537 were injured and 1,000 black families were homeless.
With World War I over, the business community closed ranks and honed its anti-union tactics. When the AFL struck U.S. Steel in the fall of 1919, shutting down half the steel mills in the country, management used every dirty tactic available to them. It smeared the union leaders in the press by calling them Reds and Bolsheviks; derided the striking workers because they were immigrants; and encouraged local and state militia to intimidate and harass the strikers. The original race card players, they brought in 30,000 to 40,000 African Americans and Mexican-Americans as strike breakers, and taunted the locked-out strikers for losing their good “white” jobs.
In June 1943, when managers at the Packard company in Detroit actually promoted a few black workers, 25,000 white workers went on strike. Similar racial conflicts erupted in mass transit unions in Philadelphia, in steel plants in Baltimore and in the shipyards of Alabama when black workers gained access to production jobs. This time, labor leaders, especially Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) leaders, worked hard to suppress “hate” strikes and were fairly successful. The NAACP worked closely with the UAW to integrate Ford and supported the sit-down strike at its River Rouge plant in 1941.
The Sleeping Car Porters and UAW were among the first supporters of the new Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They also supported the Woolworth counter sit-ins by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Freedom Rides organized by the Congress of Racial Equality in the summer of 1961. Randolph and other black trade unionists helped plan, organize and fund King’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
On 1 February 1968, two Memphis garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. Conditions for black sanitation workers worsened when Henry Loeb became mayor in January 1968. Loeb refused to take dilapidated trucks out of service or pay overtime when men were forced to work late-night shifts. Sanitation workers earned wages so low that many were on welfare and hundreds relied on food stamps to feed their families. Eleven days later, frustrated by the city’s response to the latest event in a long pattern of neglect and abuse of its black employees, 1,300 black men from the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike. Sanitation workers, led by garbage-collector-turned-union-organizer T. O. Jones, who demanded recognition of their union, better safety standards, and a decent wage.
The following day, after police used mace and tear gas against nonviolent demonstrators marching to City Hall, Memphis’ black community was galvanized. Meeting in a church basement on 24 February, 150 local ministers formed Community on the Move for Equality (COME), under the leadership of King’s longtime ally, local minister James Lawson. COME committed to the use of nonviolent civil disobedience to fill Memphis’ jails and bring attention to the plight of the sanitation workers. By the beginning of March, local high school and college students, nearly a quarter of them white, were participating alongside garbage workers in daily marches; and over 100 people, including several ministers, had been arrested.
While Lawson kept King updated by phone, other national civil rights leaders, including Roy Wilkins and Bayard Rustin, came to rally the sanitation workers. King himself arrived on 18 March to address a crowd of about 25,000—the largest indoor gathering the civil rights movement had ever seen.