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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 9/6/15

Labor Day, the labor movement, and black Americans

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Pullman Porter 1943
Pullman Porter 1943
(Image by en.wikipedia.org)
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Many working people across the United States are enjoying a three-day weekend thanks to Labor Day. But sadly, it has become more of a retail holiday and a marker for the end of summer than a celebration of workers and organized labor. Even those who do honor workers and unions rarely explore the historical links between the Pullman Strike of 1894 and the black Pullman porters who could not strike--because they weren't allowed in a whites-only union.

In an op-ed for The Grio, Theodore R. Johnson wrote about how Labor Day was born:

Labor Day was nationally established after the Pullman Strike of 1894 when President Grover Cleveland sought to win political points by honoring dissatisfied railroad workers. This strike did not include porters or conductors on trains, but for the black porters, racism fueled part of the workers' dissatisfaction, and was never addressed. Pullman porters were black men who worked in the trains' cars attending to their mostly white passengers, performing such tasks as shining shoes, carrying bags, and janitorial services. During this period, this profession was the largest employer of blacks in the nation and constituted a significant portion of the Pullman company's workforce, yet blacks were not allowed to join the railroad worker's union.

Being excluded from the right to even fight for fair work and wages, the Pullman porters formed their own union called the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters, the first black union, and A. Philip Randolph was its first president. That name should sound familiar: the first planned March on Washington was Randolph's brainchild. Set to take place in the 1940s, this demonstration was called off weeks before its kick-off date because President Roosevelt met with Randolph and other civil rights leaders in 1941, and signed an order barring racial discrimination in the federal defense industry. Roosevelt did so to stop the march from happening.

Keep reading below for more of the history, and some discussion.


In spite of a history of exclusion, black Americans are the group that view unions most favorably, according to Pew research:
Across demographic groups, there are wide differences in overall favorability ratings of labor unions. Among blacks, who are more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to be union members, 60% hold a favorable view of unions; by comparison, 49% of Hispanics and 45% of whites view unions favorably.
Black Americans also have the highest rate of union membership:
Among major race and ethnicity groups, black workers had a higher union membership rate in 2014 (13.2 percent) than workers who were white (10.8 percent), Asian (10.4 percent), or Hispanic (9.2 percent).
Black workers have fought to organize, even in the face of racism. When not allowed in white unions, they organized their own.

Let's examine that history.

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