Working hard to enjoy a better life is a quintessential American value, and it helps to explain why men and women have stood up throughout the nation’s history to demand better wages, safer working conditions, and fair treatment and respect from their employers. Unfortunately, progress toward these goals has not been shared equally by all members of our society as a result of the role that race has played in the labor movement.
The Civil War and slavery had ended only decades before the first major unions emerged in the 1870s and 1880s. Racism toward African-Americans remained high and discrimination prevailed in every major institution. This was true in matters of employment, and black workers were barred from good jobs—perhaps due to the prejudice of employers or restrictive Jim Crow laws—so that skilled or high-paying positions would go to white workers instead.
At the time, unions refused to admit African-Americans over fears that black workers would drive down wages and opportunities for whites; employers exploited this racial tension and often hired black workers as strikebreakers when their white employees took to the picket lines. Unions also opposed membership for immigrants, particularly the Chinese, and called for stricter restrictions on the number of immigrants that were allowed to enter the United States each year. This meant that African-Americans, other racial minorities, and immigrants would find themselves vulnerable to some of the more extreme injustices of the labor movement and that they would need to fight even harder to enjoy any progress.
One union that did not succumb to racism, however, was the Knights of Labor (KOL). The KOL extended membership to black workers—although its affiliate unions in the South continued to segregate their organizations—and even women. Despite otherwise tolerant attitudes, the KOL was vehemently opposed to Chinese immigration and prevented Chinese workers from joining its ranks, but it was more sympathetic toward European immigrants.
The KOL collapsed in the 1880s, and when it did, black workers were unable to find a national union that would accept them on the basis of their race. The KOL’s primary rival, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), for example, notoriously discriminated against African-Americans and opposed all immigration on the grounds that it would jeopardize white workers’ economic advantages.
This exclusion prompted black workers to form unions of their own. Under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) organized black workers at the Pullman Company. It was able to secure higher wages and better conditions for the railroad porters who comprised its membership, and it became the first African-American union to earn a charter from the AFL. The BSCP grew so formidable that, after calling for a million-man march on Washington, D.C., Randolph was able to work with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) and ban hiring discrimination by government defense contractors.
In 1935, John L. Lewis formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and seceded from the AFL due to philosophical differences with its leadership. This new union scored victories by organizing the auto, steel, and maritime industries. A major element of its strategy was support for black workers, who were eligible to become members; it also supported government efforts to promote equality in the workplace. In 1955, the CIO merged with the AFL, and at that point, America’s largest union became open to black members.