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David Coolidge

Negroes in Organized Labor

Account of a First-Hand Investigation

(April 1945)

From The New International, Vol. XI No. 3, April 1945, pp. 90–94.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Herbert R. Northrup’s first-hand study of the Negro in the labor movement in the United States [1] should be a textbook for every union official, for every white and black worker and particularly for revolutionists who want to see the trade-union movement as it really is in relation to the Negro worker. This holds especially for the AFL and the non-affiliated railway unions. These unions are revealed in all their stark nakedness and hypocrisy in connection with their anti-Negro position. Mr. Northrup made personal investigations and has told in this book the results of those investigations. He reports what the AFL, railway and CIO unions stand for, what they do and how they act when faced with the problem of the Negro in industry. He tells what their constitutions say, what is provided for in their rituals and to what extent the organized labor movement practices what it preaches in relation to the Negro worker and the Negro member.

The author has been well placed for acquiring the necessary information and experience for this study. He has worked for the WLB, was a consultant to the Fair Employment Practices Committee and is now connected with the National Labor Relations Board. In his preface he reports that “the basic material for this book was gathered in the field during the summers of 1940–1943.”

The book is divided into sections dealing with the building trades, railroads, tobacco industry, textiles, clothing and laundries; longshoremen, coal mines, iron and steel, automobiles and aircraft and shipbuilding. There are explanatory notes on the material in the various chapters, a bibliography and an introduction by Prof. Sumner Slichter of Harvard University, where Mr. Northrup took his doctorate in economics and wrote his thesis on Negro Labor and Union Policies in the South.

Mr. Northrup not only presents the reader with an abundance of factual material on the subject with which he is dealing but he has a point of view which he gives in summary form at the end of the book in his Concluding Remarks.

Union Discrimination Against Negroes

The author warns that care must be exercised in any attempt to evaluate the “racial policies” of the unions for the reason that “the attitude of unions toward Negroes ... often varies within the same organization from region to region ...” He classifies the unions which exclude Negroes by ritual, the machinists, for example; unions which exclude Negroes by the constitution, and names six AFL affiliates and seven non-affiliated railway unions. Then he gives the unions which exclude Negroes by “tacit consent,” naming six AFL affiliates and ten unaffiliated organizations. His last category is unions “which afford Negroes only segregated auxiliary status.” He finds seven of these in the AFL and two unaffiliated. It is probably not necessary to say that no CIO international or local union falls within any of these exclusionist categories.

In connection with Northrup’s catalog of unions which discriminate against Negroes in one way or another, it is necessary to bear in mind his own warning about “dynamic elements” which operate to change the picture. For instance, Northrup gives the Seafarers International Union as one of the unions excluding Negroes by “tacit consent.” Today the SIU does not exclude Negroes but I have been told that this international maintains a separate hiring hall for Negroes in New York City. Also it should be remarked that since Mr. Northrup wrote his book the courts of California have upheld a petition of Negro members asking that the Boilermakers be ordered to dissolve its auxiliary locals and to admit Negroes to the regular locals. It is too early to say what the final results will be, as the Boilermakers have appealed to a higher court.

Northrup contrasts the policies and practices of the AFL with those of the CIO. He points out that in the first few years of its existence the leaders of the AFL “apparently” made an effort to live up to their “expressed policies of racial equality ... These sentiments, however, were of short duration.” In this statement Northrup reveals what is brought out throughout the book in those parts dealing with interpretation: namely, that the author evaluates the labor movement as just one of the important and significant social movements in the American scene. The formation of the AFL was a class in motion but this is not expressed in the book. The coming of the AFL represented a class in motion, despite the fact that its leaders failed to recognize this fact and its tremendous importance for the future of organized labor in the U.S. The fact that the AFL displaced the Knights of Labor despite the latter organization’s equalitarian policies, demonstrated that there was objective need for an organization basing itself on the skilled workers and excluding some of the elements which were admitted to the Knights. The AFL leaders did not live up to their “expressed policies of racial equality” mainly for the reason that they did not recognize American capitalist society as a class society and therefore did not understand or agree that class solidarity across racial lines was imperative for the health and vigor of the labor movement. The AFL developed a “success” philosophy based on expansion among the skilled workers.

Negroes in the Building Trades Unions

Mr. Northrup begins his consideration of the several groupings in the labor movement with the building trades. Since the space allotted is not sufficient to discuss the author’s treatment in detail I can only give what is of outstanding significance. He points out that one-half of Negro skilled workers are in the building trades and that of these, sixty per cent are in the South. The Negro lost ground in the building trades due to the pressure of the white workers as unionization proceeded. He goes into the attitude of the plumbers and electricians in their efforts to bar Negro mechanics by finagling with city councils to pass ordinances which worked hardships on Negroes. Also both of these internationals adopted apprenticeship standards which Negroes could not meet due to the discriminatory practices of the unions themselves. The carpenters, although having no formal discriminatory policy against Negroes, have found such subtle ways of exclusion as confining Negro carpenters to the Negro section of the community. In the South, the Carpenters’ International has not bothered to intercede in behalf of Negro carpenters who were denied work on account of race. In this connection Northrup relates the results of government intervention in behalf of Negro carpenters in the case of federal public housing as well as the opposition against equality for Negro mechanics voiced by members of Congress.

The set-up in the Painters is similar to that of the Carpenters. They too set up separate Negro locals. This has been done by the Painters in the North to a greater extent than in the Carpenters. The Painters also resort to various schemes to keep Negro workmen from obtaining jobs.

Unlike the Carpenters and the Painters, the Bricklayers’ officers began a campaign “as early as 1870 ... to achieve equal status for Negroes.” Unlike the Carpenters, the Bricklayers did not adopt the separate local as a national policy. In his field survey in 1940–41 Northrup found separate Negro locals in only three cities, all in the South. In this international too, however, the Negro worker runs into difficulties in getting admitted to certain locals and in getting his share of the work.

In 1940, 15.2 per cent of the plasterers in the country and 54.5 of those in the South were Negroes. This is accounted for by the ease with which Negro hod carriers and plasterers’ helpers may graduate into the higher trade. Negro plasterers have less difficulties over discriminatory practices than other Negro building craftsmen.

Northrup’s investigations serve to underscore and give the concrete material to buttress what was generally known: that the building trades unions of the AFL, all of them in one way or another, discriminate against the Negro mechanic. These were the unions which first came under notice and against which the main fire was directed for the reason that it was these unions which sought jurisdiction in the field occupied by the overwhelming majority of Negro skilled workers.

Railroad Organizations and the Negro

Northrup next deals with the railroad organizations and here he tells a sordid story indeed. He says: “The Negro railroad worker is in an anomalous position. He is denied a voice in the affairs of nearly all railway labor organizations; yet collective bargaining on the railroads has received wider acceptance than in almost any other American industry.” He relates how violence has been used against Negro railway workers by white union members, how the brotherhoods have connived with railroad management to bar Negroes and discriminate against them and how “since 1934” the brotherhoods “have found federal agencies useful in accomplishing their purpose.” The Engineers, in their jurisdictional quarrel with the Firemen, have attempted to use the Negro firemen as pawns in the game. On the Florida East Coast Railroad “the general chairman of the Engineers’ Union acted as representative for the Negro firemen in return for monetary consideration.” Dr. William Leiserson, chairman of the Railway Mediation Board, wrote to the Firemen and Engineers suggesting that they withdraw a request for an election because no matter what bargaining units resulted, the colored employees would control the results for the particular region for which the election was requested. James W. Carmalt, a member of the board, wrote to the Engineers and Firemen that in the “Southeastern region the Negro question interjects itself in that the B. of L.E. are (sic) soliciting the votes of Negro firemen ... This demonstrates the unhealthy condition that has grown in the relation between the two organizations when the votes of the colored employees are used to determine white representation.” Northrup adds: “One cannot avoid receiving the impression that the board regards collective bargaining in the train and engine services as strictly a white man’s affair.” It is necessary to emphasize that the Railway Mediation Board is a federal government board appointed by the President.

Northrup goes over the whole miserable affair and closes by saying that discrimination against the Negro railroad workers by the employers and the unions “is assisted by the policies of government agencies.”

There is one argument which Northrup makes which needs examination because here again his point of view appears. He argues against a suggestion which has been made to the effect that the Amended Railway Labor Act should be extended to other industries because this Act has made for industrial peace in the railroad industry. Northrup admits that peace has been preserved “and due credit should be accorded to the Railway Labor Act and its administrators for this laudable accomplishment. But peace on the rails has had its price. One price ... is the acceptance by employers of obsolete made-work, or ‘featherbed’ working rules. Another has been the toleration of intense discrimination against Negroes.”

We cannot agree to Northrup’s equating what is called “featherbed” working rules with discrimination against Negroes or any other group of workers. No matter what its merits or demerits today, what is called “featherbedding” was devised by the unions as a protection against unemployment due to technological changes and covert anti-union acts of the

employers. All unions and the whole working class at some time or another are confronted with this problem (one-man street cars, for instance). Historically, made-work rules were an effort on the part of labor to ward off unemployment due to the ups and downs in the development of capitalist production and organization. These shifts and developments affect all of labor. These demands of labor are directed at and against the employer. Discrimination against Negroes or any other group in the working class is not an act directed at the employer but at the worker group discriminated against. This creates a rift in the working class and operates against the interests of the labor movement at any and all times. The basic reason that the Railway Mediation Act should not be extended to cover other industries is not that it tolerates “made-work” or even that its administrators have promoted discrimination against Negroes. The basic reason is that this act, in so far as it establishes government control over unions, would be detrimental to the unions and to the working class, including the Negroes. The experience of the unions with the WLB, which is looked upon as a temporary war body, has illustrated the danger of the intervention of capitalist government into union affairs.

In March of this year, the Regional War Labor Board denied a request of Radio Station WOV in New York City for permission to reduce the number of musicians hired under contract with the American Federation of Musicians. WOV charged “featherbedding” on the part of the union. The regional board said that it had no authority to “destroy or diminish privileges won by a local union through collective bargaining.” The question as to what “featherbedding” actually is in practice always arises. In the case cited, the radio station planned to reduce the number of musicians from twelve, as called for in the collective bargaining agreement, to five. Furthermore, in these days of “government control,” “feather-bedding” can become a very useful dodge to be used by employers for contract breaking and by government boards for an assault on the unions.

The Organization of Separate Locals

Northrup deals with a group of unions which are divided between the CIO and AFL. Here are the Tobacco Workers; Textile, Clothing and Laundries; Longshoremen and Shipbuilding Workers. In pre-Civil War days tobacco, was grown and processed by Negro slaves. In the industry today “whites operate the machines and weigh and pack the final product ... The racial-occupation segregation pattern is made practical because the stemming and blending and shredding departments where the majority of Negroes are employed, have to be housed in separate buildings, or at least on separate floors.” The jobs the Negroes have are the least desirable because they work in the heat and the dust. Furthermore there are wage differentials based on race.

The AFL Tobacco Workers Union forbids discrimination in its constitution but has organized separate locals in the South. A new administration elected in 1940 has adopted a policy of mixed unions “wherever possible” and at the 1940 convention a Negro was elected to a vice-presidency.

Few Negroes have ever been employed in the cotton textile industry either North or South. In the South, “legislation demanding the complete segregation of workers of the two races ... has not only helped to institutionalize the exclusion of Negroes ... but has assisted white workers to preempt most of the desirable work opportunities.” In the South, the CIO Textile Workers Union has adopted the policy of organizing separate locals for Negroes under certain conditions. This is the case at a Virginia mill and. at the Marshall Field Mills in North Carolina. “To the writer’s knowledge,” says Northrup, “no other CIO affiliate has adopted the separate Negro local as a union policy.” This means that the Textile Workers Union “has accepted the racial employment pattern in the industry.” The author doubts that the union can do otherwise now because the TWU has only a small portion of the industry under contract and to “advocate an alteration in the status quo at this time would insure the Textile Workers Union, or any other organization, complete defeat in the Southern textile mills.” I do not believe that there is any warrant for this position. In the first place, it smacks too much of the philosophy of the Southern inter-racial committees, that is, it is too tinged with liberal opportunism. Admitting that the poor whites in Southern textile mills are an ignorant and very debased group of workers, there is no good reason for approaching them in any fundamentally different way from the miners and steel workers, for instance. Also, the way to organize these backward textile workers and force contracts from the mill owners is not to hold the very small Negro minority in the foreground but the very large unorganized white majority already in the mills. The mill owners at present are not so much concerned with Negroes who are not present but the white workers who are now employed by the thousands. They are not organized. The TWU has the task of pushing a vigorous organization campaign in the South. The road to changing the attitude of white workers toward Negroes is to get the white workers organized; let them learn something about trade unionism and they will at the same time learn the value of a different outlook on the Negro worker. Any other attitude is to advocate the acceptance of “the racial employment pattern in the industry.”

In the same chapter Mr. Northrup relates that in Miami, Fla., separate locals of laundry workers were established by the Laundry Workers Union, “but their charters were recently revoked and a new charter for a mixed local granted instead. In most of the local organizations Negroes are well” integrated, holding various offices and being well represented as shop stewards.” It seems that what the Laundry Workers could do in Miami, the Textile Workers might attempt in South Carolina.

“The Greater Tractability of Negroes”

Northrup says that in longshore work one find emphasis on speed and “in view of the greater tractability of Negroes in submitting to continual prodding – a result of their inferior socio-economic status – it is not difficult to imagine that many employers hire them even when white workers are available at the same pay.” Here Mr. Northrup sounds like a “car window” sociologist. He certainly did not discover this about Negroes generally in the course of his investigations. What often seems to be tractability on the part of Negroes is often nothing more than a very astute physical procedure for reducing physical exertion to the level of the pay received without getting into conflict with a brutal but stupid anti-Negro superintendent.

About ninety per cent of the longshoremen at Hampton Roads are Negroes. Before 1900, the locals were entirely Negro. White workers refused to join and “the colored longshoremen were finally persuaded to consent to the issuance of a separate charter for white men.” I suppose that one of the arguments made by the white men was that if the situation were reversed and the Negroes wanted a separate local, the whites would readily consent.

For the coal industry, Northrup holds that increasing mechanization has injured Negro employment and “if past experience is any guide, Negroes will suffer disproportionately heavy losses in jobs ... These post-war adjustments will put the equalitarian policies of the UMWA to their severest test.”

In the steel industry, Northrup finds that employment has tripled since 1910 but that there was a decrease in the proportion of Negro workers in the Thirties. This was due to personnel policies of the corporations. Most of the Negroes were held in unskilled classifications and were not therefore in the indispensable class. The majority of Negroes in the industry remain in the unskilled class. This is particularly true of the South. Equalitarian policies have met more obstacles in steel than in coal. “Successful unionism is newer,” there is a wider wage differential “between the unskilled and skilled work” and there is more “job segregation” in the steel industry.

Here again, however, it is necessary to remark that these are problems for the unions to tackle and solve. There are all manner of differences in the world in everything. It is true that it is easier to open “all white” departments in steel than in coal. But all white departments are just as unnecessary in steel as in coal. There is nothing about the steel industry which makes some operations more effectual if done by white workers. This is one of the problems for the United Steel Workers to solve by effective and militant union action.

How seniority is applied affects the welfare of Negro workers, according to Northrup. The prevalence of departmental seniority “accounts in large measure for the failure of the USA-CIO to open up some all-white departments to Negroes. On the other hand, in periods of depressed business ... departmental seniority works to the advantage of Negroes ... where they are heavily concentrated in a few departments.”

Northrup makes a queer and unexplained statement when he writes that “Most companies prefer departmental seniority, for its operation interferes the least with the established order of things, and hence has not the adverse effect on the efficiency of operations which the application of plant seniority does.” (My emphasis. – D.C.) It is true that any seniority operations interfere with the “order of things,” but just how does plant seniority interfere with “efficiency of operations?” Which is better for the union and the workers?

Negroes as Active Union Members

In the automobile industry, Negroes are also predominantly in the unskilled class. (Of course, there has been some change in all industries since this book was published.) Northrup found that generally Negroes had not been dealt with unfairly in layoffs. This was largely due to the fact that they had acquired seniority in departments where they were concentrated.

“On the other hand, a majority of Negroes have been quite unsatisfied with the operation of departmental and occupational seniority. They regard it as a thinly disguised ruse to keep them concentrated in the poorer and more undesirable departments and occupations.”

In the automobile industry, Northrup makes a statement on Negro participation in union affairs similar to the one he makes about the United Steel Workers. “UAW-CIO leaders continue to be hindered in their attempts to secure equality of opportunity for Negroes by the failure of Negroes in some plants to give the union their full support.” He mentions the Flint Buick plant, where the union was successful in getting 500 Negro foundry workers upgraded to production. “Yet in July 1942 less than fifty per cent of the Negroes were union members, as compared with ninety per cent of the white workers.”

It is true that Negroes have been slow in getting into the union and becoming active. However, it should not be expected that Negroes will rush into a union merely through the impetus of one event in which the local has succeeded in getting Negroes upgraded. Whereas Negro workers have a single experience of the value of the union to them, white workers in the same plant may have had a hundred such experiences. It will take a long time to convince Negroes that getting upgraded through the activity of the union will be a permanent and regular experience in their working lives. There must be no attitude that Negroes give thanks for any fight which unions carry on against discrimination. This sounds too much like “remember Abraham Lincoln.” What is necessary is the complete integration of Negroes into the union, equality in the union, a persistent demand for job equality and the education of Negroes in the principles of trade unionism. If this is done more and more Negroes will join the unions and become among the most active members.

Oh the aircraft industry, Northrup points out that “the responsibility for excluding Negroes from the industry clearly rested upon the management.” In those cases where the union or the. international officers acted vigorously against Jim Crow the Negroes rally to the CIO against the AFL, as was the case in Kansas City, where the Negroes supported the UAW-CIO against the IAM-AFL.

Mr. Northrup deals with the AFL Metal Trades Department in his discussion of the shipbuilding unions: with the Boilermakers’ Jim Crow auxiliaries, whose international removed the Negro exclusion clause from its ritual in 1937 and resorted to the Negro auxiliary set-up as a substitute. In a Tampa yard, where one-half of the employees were Negroes, the Boilermakers and the Machinists did not establish Negro auxiliaries but “used the closed-shop contract to secure the dismissal of about 500 Negroes and the demotion of all but two of the remainder to unskilled jobs.”

On the CIO Shipbuilding Workers, the author deals with the situation at the Sun Co., where a Jim Crow yard was established in the midst of three nearly all-white yards. He also discusses the situation in the yards on the Gulf Coast, where there have been many difficulties in connection with Negro employment. He concludes as of the date of the book that “serious attempts have not been made to utilize Negro labor.” Negroes have had the best opportunities on the Atlantic Coast in the yards under contract to the CIO Shipbuilding Workers.

In his Concluding Remarks, Mr. Northrup expresses his point of view on several complicated and controversial questions. He observes that there is a tendency for “union racial policies to be conditioned by their environment.” Unions have the habit of accepting “the racial employment pattern of an industry.” He finds that national officers “can and do take a more detached view of the situation, to the resultant advantage of Negroes.” This is probably true but in the AFL this “detached view” is usually filled with a great deal of hocus-pocus and hypocrisy. In the CIO it is certainly true that the national officers have been outstanding in their efforts to wipe out discrimination both in the CIO unions and in industry. But here too there are many things yet to be done.

The Question of Government Intervention

An important section deals with Public Policy, the Negro and Unions. He asks the question: should unions which discriminate be permitted to limit employment opportunities, to sign closed shop contracts, to use public labor relations boards, or be designated as the bargaining agent? Northrup makes a distinction between what he, following the courts, calls “private institutions such as the church or the Elks,” and “quasi-public institutions,” in which category he places the unions. Mr. Northrup writes:

“The claims of unions that they should be permitted to govern their own affairs, free from government interference of any sort, is a ‘sheer anachronism,’ out of keeping with their actual status in our present social organization ... Once unions are admitted to be quasi-public institutions, it follows that their rules and practices should be subject to some public scrutiny, and those found contrary to the public interest should be forbidden.”

It is precisely by the acceptance of this premise that Congress passed the Smith-Connally Act, that the no-strike pledge was demanded, that the Little Steel formula was established and that Roosevelt demanded passage of a National Service Act. The question must be asked: What is a quasi-public institution? Unions are institutions of a class, organized for the purpose of protecting the interests of a class. They are or should be public in their relations to the class which they represent. Implied in the demand of the unions that they be free from government interference is the position that government interference in the affairs of unions is interference by another and a hostile class. The fact that this notion is usually not explicit is only demonstrative of the lack of class-consciousness and political understanding in the labor movement.

It is a tragedy in the labor movement that the unions do not understand that they can hold to their discriminatory policies only so long as the employers and the government have no need for the services of the whole labor force. When, as at present, there is a war to fight, the class interests of the employers and the government will result in the intervention of the government by law and administrative or presidential decree.

Mr. Northrup argues furthers, apropos the closed shop, that “it seems quite sound, also, that unions which sign closed shop contracts should also be subject to further regulation.” Also the existence of “race wage differential” indicates “the need for strong governmental action.” We agree with and support Mr. Northrup’s very laudable attitude against the discrimination and Jim Crow. But we do not agree with the cure which he proposes, namely, government intervention or control. Even the most ordinary workers have acquired an education in the meaning of government intervention in the “public interest” through their experiences with the “public” members of the WLB.

Negroes may profit materially, for the time being, by virtue of government action against discriminatory unions but as a section of the working class they have suffered along with the white workers from the government and employer restrictions on the functioning of the unions. The organization of the CIO did more to advance the interests of Negroes and Negro labor than all the government intervention in the twentieth century.

The Liberal and the “Public”

In advocating government regulation as a cure for racial discrimination, Mr. Northrup takes the viewpoint of the middle-class liberal in setting up an entity known as the “public” and then arguing for action in the “public interest.” This attitude, as we have remarked, ignores the class organization of capitalist society and the further fact that unions are basically class institutions participating in a struggle between classes. As the working class develops greater class-consciousness and the Negro worker becomes more firmly integrated thereby into the labor movement, Jim Crow and discrimination will tend to vanish and the solidarity of labor will be increased.

Despite his point of view for government regulation, Mr. Northrup seems to agree with this position. He writes: “The overwhelming bulk of organized labor ... has everything to gain from continued improvements in the economic status of Negroes.” Also “it is difficult to understand how Negroes can improve their lot without the aid of organized labor. It is therefore obvious that Negro workers who want unions to continue their fight for equal opportunity must join and support the unions.”


1. Organized Labor and the Negro, by Herbert R. Northrup; Harper & Bros.

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