book reviews

“Organized Labor and the Black Worker in America, 1619-1981” by Philip Foner: Book Review

The rise of Donald Trump, the internet videos of white racists – some of them workers – insulting and threatening Black Lives Matter activists, the swing of white male blue collar workers further to the right. “We would rather go broke and die hungry than to give up our moral beliefs,” said one poor, white Mississippian in explaining the support for right wing Republicans by poor whites in that state.  

As the police continue to rampage through the black community – and communities of other people of color –  some are starting to wonder whether there is any hope for white workers at all. Others are tending towards the idea that moral appeals and/or shaming (“you are privileged”) can accomplish a change.

In this context, Philip Foner’s book, “Organized Labor & the Black Worker, 1619-1981” provides a lot of useful information and lessons – along with a few key gaps. It is very useful, therefore, to consider some of the history Foner reviews. One note: This article deals mainly with the issue of the racism and the potential of white workers. It is not a fully balanced review of Foner’s book, which also has a lot of information on the struggle of black workers themselves.

Reconstruction Period: “National Labor Union” and “Knights of Labor”

The first attempt to build a national labor body in the United States was led by William

William Silvis

William Silvis

Sylvis, a self-proclaimed supporter of Karl Marx, who led the founding of the National Labor Union (NLU) in 1867, in other words, during the era of Reconstruction. He and other leaders urged that black workers be admitted on the simple grounds that if they weren’t, the bosses would use them to break the (all white) unions. Their urgings were rejected by the majority, but a position had been laid out.

This was the norm, time and again during this era. In part, the rejection of the most basic principles of working class solidarity was due to outright racism on the part of white workers. In part, it was due to the craft/guild mentality that still existed at that time. “The more we can restrict our ranks, the more we can increase our price, meaning our wages,” was the attitude.

In the following decades, the NLU was eclipsed by the Knights of Labor, an organization that mixed elements of unionism with utopian socialism. The weakness of their views was shown in that the leadership tended to oppose open class struggle in the form of strikes. On the other hand, their idealism was reflected in that they admitted two key sectors of especially oppressed workers: women and black workers. As a result, black workers flocked into the Knights. As Ida B. Wells, a black journalist and anti-lynch mob crusader reported in 1887: “I was fortunate enough to attend a meeting of the Knights of Labor…. I noticed that everyone who came was welcomed and every woman from black to white was seated with the courtesy usually extended to white ladies alone in this town. It was the first assembly of the sort in this town where color was not the criterion to recognition as ladies and gentlemen.”

“Staggering” Towards Class Unity and New Orleans General Strike

In general, workers learn from experience, especially the experience of the class struggle. That was clearly seen in the post Civil War era. Whenever workers went into struggle, the white workers tended to drop their prejudice and move to unite with the black workers. That was what happened, for example, in a sugar cane workers strike in Louisiana in 1887. (Whether the unity in the course of the open struggle would last is another question. We can see some of the answer in future events.) The problem was that the leadership of the Knights opposed and discouraged strikes, so the learning was more limited that it had to be.

By 1890, the AFL had largely overtaken the Knights of Labor, mainly because the Knights weren’t a true labor union. A clear example of the huge step forward that white workers had taken was the New Orleans general strike of 1892. There, the strikers consciously decided to establish a negotiating committee that was made up 50-50 of black and white workers. They refused to back down from this in the face of fierce race baiting by the employers, who among other things offered to bargain with the white representatives only. (The offer was rejected.) The head of the AFL was Sam Gompers, who at that time considered himself to be a supporter of Karl Marx. He wrote: “Never in the history of the world was such an exhibition, where with all the prejudices existing against the black man, when the white wage workers of New Orleans would sacrifice their means of livelihood to defend and protect their colored fellow workers.”

In other words, following the Civil War, white workers were staggering in an uneven way towards opposition to racism and towards class unity. Sure, it was based on perceived self interest, but what section of the working class doesn’t start from that position? However, capitalism is a system of turmoil and crisis, including economic crisis. How the workers’ movement develops during “normal” times can be thrown back in a time of crisis, if a way forward out of the crisis is not clear.

Panic of 1893

That is exactly what happened in the economic panic of 1893. Tens of thousands of workers were thrown out of their jobs and, especially among black workers and their families there was outright starvation. In this situation, the unity that had been forged among black and white workers in New Orleans, for example, disintegrated, and white workers were perfectly willing to take the jobs of their black brothers. Nor was this just a temporary situation; it had a centuries’ long affect on the US labor movement.

Was this the inevitable result of the Panic of 1893, or would a different outcome have been possible? Just as the opposition to strikes meant not only did the Knights of Labor decline, it also meant that they were unable to fully lead the way forward towards overcoming racism in general, so the AFL suffered from a shortcoming. Even when Gompers considered himself a supporter of Karl Marx, in practice he saw no alternative but to organize for the best deal possible under capitalism. That was a million times more true for almost all the rest of the union leadership. But in the economic crisis of those years, no “good deal” was possible. The choice was to either build a movement to overthrow the entire system, or to see the working class retreat into a mentality of every man or woman for themselves, better you starve than me. Given the absence of an alternative, it was the second that held sway.

Rise of Craft Unionism & Racism

It was exactly in this period that the AFL moved towards craft vs. industrial unionism. This meant that workers were organized based on what skills they had, rather than based on the fact that a group of them all had the same boss. Inherent in this mode of organizing is a trend towards a guild mentality – that we are essentially selling a commodity (our particular skill), and if we can limit the number of people who can sell this particular commodity, then we can jack up the price of that commodity (in other words, increase our wages). In the context of the United States, that inevitably meant encouraging racist exclusion, especially of black workers.

AFL president Samuel Gompers. As he moved towards business unionism and opposing strikes, he also moved to accept racism.

AFL president Samuel Gompers. As he moved towards business unionism and opposing strikes, he also moved to accept racism.

Prior to 1893, the AFL was actually barring unions that had racist exclusion clauses. By 1900, this was reversed, and by 1901 there were 8 affiliated unions that officially barred black workers as members. This paralleled the increased racism; from 1900 to 1914 there were over 1000 black people lynched in the South. Gompers reflected this transformation, and whereas he had previously saluted the unity in action in New Orleans, he now took the position towards black people that “you must hold and hope for a time.” During this same period, Gompers also moved to opposing strikes in general. In other words, as he moved away from opposing racism he also moved towards class collaboration. No accident there.

Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)

In 1905, the same year as the “general dress rehearsal” for the Russian Revolution, key

IWW leader Big Bill Haywood (R), with two IWW supporters. He said to the Southern timber workers: "You work in the same mills together. Sometimes a black man and a white man chop down the same tree together. You are meeting in convention to discuss the conditions under which you labor. This can't be done intelligently by passing resolutions here and then sending them out to another room for the black man to act upon. Why not be sensible about this and call the Negroes into this convention? If it is against the law [which it was], this is one time when the law should be broken." They ended up breaking the law and building an integrated union.

IWW leader Big Bill Haywood (R), with two IWW supporters. He said to the Southern timber workers: “You work in the same mills together. Sometimes a black man and a white man chop down the same tree together. You are meeting in convention to discuss the conditions under which you labor. This can’t be done intelligently by passing resolutions here and then sending them out to another room for the black man to act upon. Why not be sensible about this and call the Negroes into this convention? If it is against the law [which it was], this is one time when the law should be broken.” They ended up breaking the law and building an integrated union.

radical union leaders in the US met to found the self-styled revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In the main, the founding of the IWW was a response to the opposition of the AFL unions to organizing in heavy industry (steel, auto, etc.) The IWW leaders understood that organizing in such industry was impossible if done along craft lines. Not coincidentally, they saw their goal as the overthrow of capitalism while, at the same time they opposed racism in all its forms. Despite their confusions on some issues and their ultimate demise, the IWW represented all that was best in the US labor movement; they showed the potential for the US working class.

  • In 1906, they were the only union to explicitly address the issue of lynching, passing a resolution calling lynching and racist riots “a blot on the garment of civilization”
  • In May of 1913, they led a successful strike of longshore workers in Philadelphia, insisting on racial solidarity. The strike was led by the black IWW organizer Harrison Fletcher.
  • In that same year, the Brotherhood of Timber Workers in the South applied for affiliation with the IWW. They were organized on “separate but equal” lines. Before affiliating, they were convinced by Big Bill Haywood to fully integrate their union.

(That same year also saw the example of the workers of the Great Southern Lumber Company in Louisiana going on strike. One of their lead organizers was a black worker named Sol Dacus. He was forced to flee into the swamps by a racist anti-union mob, and only emerged under the protection of his fellow workers. Four white workers were shot and killed protecting Dacus.)

Rise of CIO

The IWW went into decline partly due to government repression during WW I, partly because they were unable to organize in heavy industry as they had set out to do, and partly because of their own confusion (seeking to be both a union and a revolutionary organization at the same time). That workers in heavy industry would organize, however, was inevitable. The warning sign of this was the three great strikes of 1934 – the San Francisco General Strike, the Toledo Auto Lite Strike, and the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike.

In the case of the S.F. General Strike, which was led by longshore workers and maritime workers in general, there were many black workers involved and one result was the further integration of the Marine Cooks and Stewards union, where racially mixed crews were established as a result. In 1936, the MC&SU struck to maintain the power of the union hiring hall, which not only protected the union in general, it helped protect against racist hiring practices.

In March of 1937, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) held its first congress. Among other things, it passed a resolution calling for an organizing drive in the South and opposing all forms of discrimination, both political and economic. Again, this stood in marked contrast to the conservative AFL, which neither seriously tried to organize workers nor opposed racism. Foner sums up the creation of the CIO: “Whatever its shortcomings, the CIO was unquestionably the most important single development since the Civil War in the black worker’s struggle for equality. The Pittsburgh Courier (an African-American newspaper) remarked on December 7, 1939: ‘The only real effort that has been made to let down the color bars since the days of the Knights of Labor is that of the Congress of Industrial Organizations.’ Thurgood Marshall, chief legal adviser to the NAACP, declared, ‘the program of the CIO has become a Bill of Rights for Negro Labor in America.’”

A milestone in the building of the CIO was the sit-down strikes, starting in auto in 1937. The auto sit downs focused on General Motors, where few black workers were employed at the time. Foner reports on one small shop, however, where there were a number of black workers. In defiance of the United Auto Workers position, the white majority in this instance barred the black workers from membership. (The UAW never should have admitted them under those circumstances.) However, when they went on strike, it became clear to the whites that if they continued their racist exclusion, there was no way they could win, so they dropped it. According to Foner, “In a sharp break with precedent, the white workers did not desert their black union brothers after the victory. They kept their part of the bargain, and a truly interracial local developed in the plant.” (Foner, p. 222)

“Has the CIO played fair with us Negro workers? Well, look at the new clothes our children wear the homes that we are paying out since the SWOC enrolled us and showed us how to wage a successful fight for decent wages and better working conditions. See how the white and colored steel workers get along together since they started waring the union buttons.” Joe Cook, black president of the Valley Mould (IL) Lodge of the SWOC, 1940

“Has the CIO played fair with us Negro workers? Well, look at the new clothes our children wear the homes that we are paying out since the SWOC enrolled us and showed us how to wage a successful fight for decent wages and better working conditions. See how the white and colored steel workers get along together since they started waring the union buttons.” Joe Cook, black president of the Valley Mould (IL) Lodge of the SWOC, 1940

It was a similar story throughout the steel industry and on the East Coast of the maritime. In fact, according to Foner, the National Maritime Union expelled members who were open racists. At that time, this meant they couldn’t work in the industry. Throughout the CIO, in industries where there was a significant number of black workers, there was also a significant number of black union organizers and black union officials. We must bear in mind that this did not come from some benighted idealistic liberals; on the contrary, it reflected the consciousness of the great bulk of steel workers, sailors, etc. Ordinary working class people. Did it eliminate racism altogether? Of course not; that would (and will) require a complete revolution. But it was a huge step forward both in the class struggle and the struggle against racism.

WW II: “Hate Strikes and Wildcat Strikes

Foner covers the WW II period, but with one huge gap: During the war there were the twin developments of the racist “hate” strikes in auto and elsewhere. These were strikes of white workers against the promotion of black workers to more skilled positions. At the same time, there was a huge outbreak of unsanctioned “wildcat” strikes of both white and black workers. This writer once asked a retired auto worker and UAW shop steward to explain why these contradictory developments happened. During this time, all wings of the union leadership did their level best to prevent workers from taking advantage of their improved conditions to fight for higher wages. The worst of the leadership on this score was the Communist Party, who reversed course completely. This even included their opposition to the planned March on Washington led by the black union leader A. Philip Randolph. The purpose of this march was to demand an end to racist employment practices in war related industries. (Before the march happened, FDR retreated and conceded the point to Randolph.) What this former auto worker explained was that the workers were under tremendous pressure in that period, and where there was a local, in-plant leadership that took a militant position, the workers responded by going on wildcat strikes. Where such a local leadership was absent, then they released the pressure through racism. As a supporter of the Communist Party, Foner completely misses these developments.

Post WW II: The Bureaucracy Gains Control

Foner covers the period up to 1981. However, this was the period (after WW II) when the conservative, business-minded union bureaucracy really managed to gain near complete control over the US labor movement. This distorted everything that happened within the unions, including the views and actions of the membership, both black and white. The reasons for this are several. They include the global power of US capitalism, the post WW II economic boom, and the role of the Soviet bureaucracy in giving socialism a bad name. The organized left that remained became pretty integrated into the bureaucracy itself, and Foner, as a supporter of the Communist Party, doesn’t even come close to explaining this. It is partly as a result of this prolonged period, which in its worst aspects is still present, that there is the confusion on the question of the link between working class struggle and unity and the struggle against racism.

The main lesson from this history, however, is that as workers move to struggle against the employers, their understanding and consciousness in general raises. This includes the increased consciousness about the issue of racism (as well as sexism). That doesn’t “solve” the problem; the consciousness can always be driven back again, especially during times of crisis, just as the class struggle can go into retreat for entire periods. But the link between class struggle and the struggle against racism is inextricable; in the US, it’s impossible to effectively fight on one front without linking it to the other. Ultimately, this means linking the class struggle with the struggle against racism, per se, along with the struggle to overthrow capitalism itself.

Members, Marine Cooks and Stewards Union. “All the time the struggle for integration was taking place, the general fight against the ship owners for better wages and conditions was also being intensified, thereby keeping the basis of Negro-white unity solid in the union.” A black member describing their strike of 1936.

Members, Marine Cooks and Stewards Union.
“All the time the struggle for integration was taking place, the general fight against the ship owners for better wages and conditions was also being intensified, thereby keeping the basis of Negro-white unity solid in the union.” A black member describing their strike of 1936.

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