The notion of a labour union is rooted in egalitarianism, in promoting the rights of workers through solidarity and unity. This core principle seems to sit comfortably with the idea of racial equality. However, historically in the USA labour unions have found themselves on both sides of the civil rights debate. When they were supportive, it was often more out of necessity than genuine belief.
Despite this, organized labour was the background for towering figures in the movement – A Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Walter Reuther in particular. All played elemental roles in the acceleration of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and belong in the pantheon of great civil rights leaders.
Early 20th Century
In the early 1900s many labour unions refused to admit blacks. The American Federation of Labour started out in the late nineteenth century with a nominal nondiscrimination policy, but founder Samuel Gompers later came to see blacks as, in his own words, a “convenient whip placed in the hands of the employers to cow the white man.” Where there were legal restrictions to prejudicial activity, they were usually flouted.
Gradually black workers began to organize and lobby for change. By sheer numbers alone they began to command recognition. The fact, for example, that 85,000 steelworkers were blacks could not be ignored by the CIO. The language of these lobbies – for example calling each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister’- echoed that of the black equality movement.
That black and white workers shared common grievances also worked in favour of greater unity. Black workers cemented a fruitful alliance with the United Auto Workers when, in 1941, many joined the white workers protest to win recognition from the company.
Post World War Two Civil Rights
World War Two helped to further dissolve racial iniquities in unions, and soon it became commonplace for union contracts decreed that black workers were treated equally. The chances of arbitrary dismissal on implicit racial grounds were drastically diminished, and subsequently black workers became solidly pro-union.
Simultaneously, blacks formed and grew their own unions. Perhaps the most famous was the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters, founded by A Philip Randolph in 1925, and won formal recognition in 1937.
By the 1960s, when the civil rights movement was in full swing, blacks and minorities accounted for 25% of union membership. However, the AFL-CIO, whilst nominally in favour of civil rights, was still lax when it came to preventing unions from forbidding black involvement.
Even so, unions had a crucial hand in the emblematic protests of this era. ED Nixon, a regular member of the BSCP, brought the young Reverend Martin Luther King Jr to the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. 8 years later, in Birmingham, Alabama, Walter Reuther, the head of United Auto Workers, helped bail King out of jail.
And most significantly, labour unions were heavily involved in orchestrating and populating the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.