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The Black Workers Fight For Social Equality Through Trade Unions In the US


The Black Workers Fight For Social Equality Through Trade Unions In the US
In the contemporary world, employees have a workers union as a platform to voice their
grievances. Workers Union is an association that fights for the rights of workers. One feature
apparent in the contemporary world is that union membership is nondiscriminatory. Also,
employers have realized the power of workers' unions and have therefore put the modalities in
place to ensure that the rights of workers are respected. One feature that runs through the history
of labor unions in the USA is racism. The African-American race was subjected to slavery and
therefore, had to endure hard labor with no compensations. Even after slavery was abolished, the
Black workers were continually subjected to unfavorable working conditions, and therefore,
decided to fight through trade unions and end the practice. Forming unions was not an easy path
for the Black workers as there were some pros and cons. This paper explores Black workers and
the Union. The exploration will involve an in-depth review of what the Black people went
through to get in the union, and how the union has been used as a tool for fighting inequality.
The Early Unions Movements
The Era of The Colored National Labor Union and the National Labor Union
Racism has characterized labor unions in the United States of America. Prior to 1866,
labor unions were dominated by the White race. The Blacks, especially in the Southern States,
were still under slavery. In 1866, the National Labor Union (NLU) was formed. NLU consisted
of mainly the Whites, but since the nation was undergoing reconstruction after the civil war,
some level headed Whites were keen to give the Black race a portion in the labor unions. Some
NLU leaders had the opinion that labor unions were meant to unite all workers irrespective of
their affiliations. Efforts for inclusion of the Blacks in the NLU were pioneered by Isaac Meyer.
Meyer used to work as a caulker. After the end of the civil war, Meyer and other fellow Black

caulkers found themselves unemployed after the protests by White caulkers, who did not want to
work with the Blacks. To counter these protests, Meyer came up with an idea to create a union
for Black caulkers. The union was called Colored Caulkers Trade Union Society (CCTUS). The
union later formed a shipping company that employed mostly Blacks, and later some Whites1.
CCTUS became a vehicle for fighting social inequality in the workplace. In fact, the union
ushered in an era whereby the Blacks and the Whites were to be given equal social status.
After the formation CCTUS, Black workers in other sea port cities were encouraged to
organize. By that time, the NLU was the largest labor union and therefore, it invited Meyer and
his CCTUS to join them. In 1896, during its annual general meeting, NLU declared that it was
open to Black unions. During the same period, the Colored National Labor Union was formed
and Meyer was elected as the President2. Meyers main task was to argue the Blacks to join labor
unions and fight for their labor rights. The Union fought for equal representation of the rights of
the Blacks. It championed for increase in pay and better working conditions. Expecting the
backing of NLU, Meyer called on the Whites to accept the Black membership in the union.
However, the Whites pressed unnecessary demands on the Blacks and partially backed Meyers
efforts. For instance, the Whites demanded that the Blacks should abandon their affiliations with
the Republican Party and instead throw their support behind the Labor Reform Party. This idea
did not work well with the Blacks. Led by Meyer, they refused to give in to the demands of the
Whites and as a consequence, they were expelled from NLU. The Colored National Labor Union
found itself isolated by the NLU. In 1971, it collapsed3.
The Era of Knights of Labor

Foner, Philip, History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Vol. 1: From Colonial Times to the Founding of
the American Federation of Labor, (1947, New York: International Publishers) 47.
Shmoop University, Unions, Race in History of Labor, 2013, derived from:
Foner, p. 87.

After the collapse of colored NLU, Knights of Labor (KOL) surfaced. It was based in
Philadelphia and was established in 1869. Union members were being dismissed from their work
in Philadelphia at that time and as a consequence, the KOL kept its activities in secret. KOL
provided a noble platform for solving labor problems. Unlike NLU, it gave all races equal
platform. It also accepted the memberships of both unskilled and skilled, including the women
and the Blacks. In early 1880s, KOL became a national force in the labor organization
movements with more than 700,000 members. It accepted members from various professions
except gamblers, bankers, doctors, and liquor workers4.
In its initial years, KOL opposed strikes. However, strikes were considered as an effective
tool, and therefore, the movement used strike as a tool to push for their rights. In 1884, KOL
organized for a successful strike on Union Pacific, which was followed by another successful
1885 strike at Wabash Railroad. The influence of the union was eroded during its 1886 failed
Missouri Pacific strike and riots at the Haymarket in the same year 5.
The Era of the American Federations of Labor
After the decline of KOL, American federations of Labor (AFL) came into the limelight.
Founded in 1886, its aim was to fight for the implementation of the policy of nondiscrimination.
In this case, the movement sought to ensure that all workers were treated fairly in their
workplace. However, Samuel Gompers, the founder, saw the Blacks as a threat to the Whites in
the job market. Many employers resorted to employing the Blacks because they could not
organize strikes on their own. In 1917, the was a clash between the Whites and Blacks members
of AFL at East St. Louis in Illinois that resulted in the death of 9 Whites and 40 Whites. By

Kealey, Gregory, and Brian Palmer, Dreaming of What Might Be: The Knights of Labor in Ontario, 1880-1900,
(1982, New York: Cambridge University) 47.
US-History, Knights of Labor: An Early Labor Organization, 2012, derived from:

1900, AFL had become a racial platform. About 43 unions disowned Blacks and the other 27
kept the Black membership at minimum level6.
The Union Movements in 1930s to Date
In 1930s, one of the most organized labor unions, Congress of Industrial Organization
(CIO), was formed. During this time, the steel industry had more than 85,000 Blacks and
therefore, it was not possible to ignore their membership. The CIO had more than 20% Blacks
and by 1954, it had a Black membership of more than 500,000. After the World War II,
workplace democracy was realized and therefore, the Blacks were treated in equal measures7.
In 1925, a union for Blacks also called African-American Brotherhood of Sleeping Car
Porters (BSCP) was formed to cater for its 35,000 members. Initially, members worked for over
400 hours per month for low pay. For almost a decade, the union fought for recognition, which
was granted in 1937. The union thereafter fought for increased wages and cut in a number of
hours for its members. BSCP further fought for civil rights. It played a major role in the March to
the Washington movement of 1941, which threatened a mass destruction to the city. President
Roosevelt was forced to give in to their demands and he therefore directed equal employment
considerations in the defense and banned all racial discrimination in workplaces8.
The 1940s and 1950s stories of the African American workers denote the degree to which
the trade unions struggle local was frustrated by White racism. This racism dictated the day-today activities in the workplace, as well as job allocations and work performance. The
combination of the racist observations made it difficult for African American workers to achieve
parity within the workplace, but the unions provided some answer. The African American worker

Moreno, Paul, Black Americans and Organized Labor: A New History, (2007, Louisiana: Louisiana State
University Press) 41.
Moreno, p. 76.
Shmoop University, par. 9.

encountered harassment on a daily basis giving him a few options to improve his situation.
Because of the discrimination, the complaints of black workers were taken into consideration by
the unions executive once they presented them9.
By the 1960s, about 25% of union memberships were Blacks. However, many unions
continued to discriminate the Blacks and the minority. The International Ladies Garment
Workers Union refused to provide federal training to the Blacks. BSCP and other Unions fought
for civil rights. In 1955, BSCP teamed with Martin Luther King to stage a Montgomery bus
boycott. In 1969, King organized strike through his Poor Peoples Campaign union to campaign
for the rights of Memphis sanitation workers. However, he was assassinated, but the city granted
the workers their wishes10. From 1970s to date, unions have played a key role in the fight for the
workers welfare. Currently one does not need to fear his or her skin color because democracy
has been established at the workplace.
The Dark sides of the Union Activities and the Blacks fight for Equality in the Unions
During the 1970s, trade unions had gained popularity among the Blacks, and were seen as
a vehicle for fighting for equality. However, the Whites too joined the trade unions and sought to
discriminate the Blacks. The Blacks did not relent in their fight for equality, however, and they
even took some cases to the court as in the case of Kelly vs. the Bates.
Kelly vs. the Bates Discrimination Case
Since the 1960s up to early 1970s, the whites controlled the workplace in several ways,
including accessing operating facilities and opportunities to work in the skilled jobs. A new
generation of the blacks emerged during this period and was led by Elbert Kelly Junior who was
a son of Elbert Kelley Senior, the first black foreman in southern California. These generations

Moreno, p. 99
Moreno, p. 102.


consisted of sons of people who had lived with unemployment and Kelley Junior was among
them. There came a lawsuit case of the Bates and it alleged racial discrimination encountered in
the process of hiring people in harbors. The result of the case required that a recruitment of four
blacks in every hired group of ten workers be done continuously until the Black longshoremen
proportion equaled the qualified Black proportion in the labor pool. This was one of the several
cases that had been filed against the union local by Black longshoremen over racial
discrimination. A new civil rights legislature was established, and to Kelley and his Black
counterparts, this opened the unions discrimination to disputes at the institutional level11.
Over the years, the Black longshoremens generation won several vital decisions, which
entailed assenting action in hiring, equivalent access to steady work, and improved access to a
broad range of work assignments. However, the union continued to treat the members of the
union who were African American unequal. This triggered conflict in different sites, such as in
access to operating cranes and getting the most paying job on the waterfront. The Blacks were
not considered as crane operators because of discrimination despite the skills they had. This
discrimination went on throughout the 1980s and 1990s and remained to be a major obstacle to
the Blacks. The African American workers saw the privileges accorded to the white workers,
such as unlimited access to more lucrative jobs and to the Blacks as discouraging. The White
workers were assigned jobs that were less taxing physically, and had unimpeded chances for job
promotions, as well as a wider access to steady and well paying jobs12.
Pros and Cons of Union Membership for the Blacks
Based on already discussed information, Black union membership had many advantages.
The union essentially fought for equal representation at the workplace for the Blacks and an

Alimahomed-Wilson, Jake, Black longshoremen and the fight for equality in an anti-racist union, (2012, Los
Angeles, LA: SAGE) 19.
Alimahomed-Wilson, p. 48.

improvement in the working conditions, such as salary and working hours. For instance,
members of KOL benefitted in various ways. First, the union ensured that its members worked
eight hours a day, and received equal pay on an equal amount of work irrespective of race and
gender. The union also fought against child labor practices and pushed for the formation of
cooperatives as a replacement of the traditional wage system, which helped to tame the excesses
of capitalism system13. Other unions, such as Poor Peoples Campaign union championed for the
rights of Memphis sanitation workers.
Union membership had also some disadvantages. Members sometimes engaged in a
physical contest, which resulted in death. For instance, in 1917, the was a clash between the
Whites and Blacks members of AFL at East St. Louis in Illinois that resulted in the death of 9
Whites and 40 Whites. About 43 unions disowned Blacks and the other 27 kept the Black
membership at minimum level. Some activities such as the 1886 failed Missouri Pacific strike
and riots at the Haymarket in the same year were labeled as a disgrace.
A seniority system was introduced within the union and it served as a major source of
tension among the Black workers. This was so mainly because of the affirmative action that was
eroded largely throughout the 1990s. The ability of the white workers to secure well paying jobs
at a young age meant that they had more years of enjoying good pays compared to Black
workers. Moreover, a decrease in the number of black foremen was experienced because they
were often phased out of a job because of age and this led to a lack of representation of Blacks in
the Local 94. Therefore, racial and age discrimination was dominant not only in the institution,
but also in the union14.


Moreno, p. 96.
Alimahomed-Wilson, p. 74.

Currently the USA is among the leading democracies in the world. Workers only worry
about their qualifications because racial discrimination is becoming a past. In this paper, it has
been established that the Black workers struggled to have their rights established through
workers unions. Although most unions had Whites as the majority members, the Blacks
struggled to have their representations of the same. Being a member of the union ensured that the
right of the workers was guarded. However, members had to endure grueling struggles
showcased through demonstrations and sometimes death of a member.


Alimahomed-Wilson, Jake. Black longshoremen and the fight for equality in an anti-racist
union. Los Angeles, LA: SAGE, 2012.
Foner, Philip. History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Vol. 1: From Colonial Times
to the Founding of the American Federation of Labor. New York: International
Publishers, 1947.
Kealey, Gregory, and Brian Palmer. Dreaming of What Might Be: The Knights of Labor in
Ontario, 1880-1900. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Moreno, Paul. Black Americans and Organized Labor: A New History. Louisiana: Louisiana
State University Press, 2007.
Service Employees International Union. "The Union Advantage: Facts and Figures." Service
Employees International Union. 2013. (accessed November 27, 2013).
Shmoop University. "Unions, Race in History of Labor." Shmoop University, Inc. . 2013. (accessed November 27, 2013).
US-History. "Knights of Labor: An Early Labor Organization." US-History. 2012. (accessed November 27, 2013).