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Lansing Labor News
Established 1945
March 25, 2019
Recording Secretary Scott Lounds
Updated On: Feb 22, 2019

February 2019

The history of the Labor movement and the fight for equality have long been joined.  Former president of the UAW Walter Reuther was at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s and the UAW provided significant financial support to the Dr. Martin Luther King’s movement.  But, this coalition of Labor and the African American community has not always existed.  In fact, for decades African-Americans were forced to struggle against both the companies and the Unions in the search for fair treatment in the workplace.  This struggle began even before the Civil War brought the end to slavery.  As far back as the early 1800’s African American workers joined together against their employers, seeking better pay and conditions.  One notable example being the Caulkers strike at the Washington Naval yard in 1835. Caulking, which was of enormous importance in the age of wooden hulled ships, was a trade dominated by African-American workers who banded together and struck against their employers seeking the end to the twelve-hour work day and better working conditions.  This was the first ever strike against the Federal government by civilian workers.
A few decades later, in the winter of 1873-1874, the African American dock workers in Pensacola, Florida, a group made up of men who had almost universally been born into slavery, organized a Workingman's Association and successfully defended their jobs against Canadian longshoreman brought in to replace them. While workers of all races shared a heightened interest in trade union organization during Reconstruction trade unions organized by white workers generally excluded blacks, forcing black workers to organize on their own.
 For example, in December 1869, 214 delegates attended the Colored National Labor Union convention in Washington, D.C. This union was a counterpart to the whites only National Labor Union. The assembly of the Colored National Labor Union sent a petition to Congress requesting direct intervention in the alleviation of the "condition of the colored workers of the southern States."  Congress refused to intervene and the election of President Hayes in 1876 was quickly followed by “Jim Crow” laws and as a result the burgeoning Labor movement amongst southern African American workers was crushed.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century with the advent of the various federal railroad arbitration boards that African Americans began to chip away at work place discrimination.  These Boards were put into place during the Progressive Era to stabilize the critical railroad industry by avoiding strikes and other worker driven interruptions of commerce.  One of the first seeming victories for African American workers came in 1909 when a Federal Board of Arbitration ruled that blacks had to be paid equal pay for equal work. The ruling seems powerful on its face but sadly this ruling resulted in fewer jobs for African Americans who the railroads refused to hire if they were to be paid the same as whites.
During most of the late 19th and early 20th century the dominant Labor organization was the American Federation of Labor which was made up largely of craft unions and opposed industry wide unionization.  The AFL’s member Unions were almost exclusively craft unions hostile to minority membership. A historically significant event began in 1925 when A. Philip Randolph took up his twelve-year fight to gain recognition of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters by the Pullman Car Company, the AFL, and the U.S. government. Randolph ultimately succeeded in his quest and is recognized as one of the most important leaders in the fight against racism in the workplace.
A giant step toward equal treatment of workers regardless of their race came with the 1935 founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which welcomed industrial workers regardless of race or ethnic background.  With the organization of the CIO the first steps were taking toward making right the historic conflict between African Americans and trade unions.  Under the Umbrella of the CIO thousands of African American workers joined unions, among them the UAW.
Which is not to say that the fight was over. Racist views held by both the companies and fellow workers still existed which forced African American workers to seek legal redress.  In fact, the Duty of Fair Representation which is at the heart of the laws surrounding the way Unions must deal with their membership was not part of the National Labor Relations Act which gave Unions legal status.  This Duty instead grew from Federal lawsuits brought by minority workers against the racist treatment they received at the hands of the own Unions.  These early cases created the Duty of Fair Representation and legally prevented Unions from negotiating different rates of pay for minority workers and from enshrining the racist practices of the companies in Collective Bargaining Agreements.

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