Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
If the porters can organize their industry, hold their ranks, prove their fighting ability in the interest of the working class, it will have a profound effect on the attitude of white organized labor.And it will have a profound effect upon the organizable capacity of Negro workers in other industries.These men who punch our pillows and shine our shoes and stow our bags under the seats bear in their hands no little of the responsibility for the industrial future of their race (The Nation, June 9, 1926).
Most observers would have thought it quite unlikely during the early 1920s that the sleeping car porters, those seemingly obsequious men, always bowing and scraping in the presence of whites with their hands held out for a tip, would ever have been able to start a union.
Even more preposterous was the thought that they not only would start a union, but that their organization would become a nationally recognized symbol of the New Negro, a leader in the struggle of black people to attain their rightful Place as part of the American working-class.
Not only were porters servile and easily frightened men, people would say, but the vast majority of them worked for the Pullman Company, a giant among American capitalist enterprises. The company was the largest single employer of blacks in the country, and most black spokesmen believed that black people owed the Chicago-based corporation a debt of gratitude. Moreover, the Pullman Company was notoriously anti-union. Should porters attempt anything so foolish as forming a union, the company would crush the incipient movement before it ever began (Perata 45-47).
However, by the end of World War II, Randolph and the brotherhood were major forces within American labor and society. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), was the first African American labor organization to affiliate with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The BSCP, founded by the labor leader Asa Philip Randolph in 1925, organized black Pullman car porters. Far more than a labor union, the BSCP was also a pivotal organization in the twentieth-century civil rights movement. Randolph was president of the BSCP from 1925 to 1968.
Although he also held general organizer credentials, his role within the BSCP was largely that of public spokesperson and agitator, with practical matters being left in the hands of men like the BSCP organizers Milton Webster, Ashley Totten, and C. L. Dellums. The labor movement had done more for advancement of blacks than any other institution in America. Between 1928 and the 1935 convention, the laws governing labor-management relations bad changed dramatically. In July 1935, President Franklin D.
Roosevelt signed into law the Wagner-Connery Act, which guaranteed workers the right to organize. But more important to the BSCP, Congress had passed the Amended Railway Labor Act of 1934 which guaranteed railroad workers that right. Moreover, that act required corporations to negotiate with unions that could prove that they represented the majority of a particular class of workers, and created the National Mediation Board to protect workers’ interests. The emancipation of slaves following the Civil War did little to resolve their precarious social and economic status.
As late as 1910, 83. 3 percent of African Americans resided in the South. The vast majority were engaged in agricultural work, with black artisanship suffering erosion when Reconstruction ended and Jim Crow systems became dominant. One of the few corporations to employ large numbers of African Americans was the Pullman Company, the maker and supplier of luxury cars for railroads. Founder George Pullman hired ex-slaves as servants for his cars as early as 1870, and by the turn of the century, Pullman was the single largest employer of black labor.
Of the 12,000 porters employed by Pullman in 1925, all were black except for about 400 Mexicans and a handful of Asians. What emerged was a complex relationship between black employees, the Pullman Corporation, and rail passengers. From its origin the BSCP had three goals. First, of course, union leaders wanted to gain recognition from the Pullman Company as the official representative of porters and maids so as to improve their wages and working conditions.
Second, and of equal importance, at least to Randolph, the BSCP was the means by which black workers would break down barriers to equal membership in organized labor. Thus, Randolph and his colleagues set their sights on an international charter from the AFL. The union’s third goal stemmed from the first two. A union under black leadership strong enough to gain recognition from the Pullman Company and to wrest a charter from the AFL would serve as an example to other working-class blacks of the possibilities for improving their lives. Many of the black men (including J.
Finley Wilson, president of the Improved and Benevolent Order of Elks of the World; Perry Howard, perennial Republican national committeeman from Mississippi; and Benjamin E. Mays, who became president of Morehouse College and of the Atlanta school board) who went on to make names for themselves worked for Pullman at one time. The harsh irony is that such men accepted jobs at Pullman largely because the company offered the best opportunities available for black men. Indeed, a porter’s annual pay of $810 plus tips in 1925 far exceeded that of a black school teacher.
In addition, porters were considered cosmopolites, men of the world who flitted back and forth across the country, visiting regularly places most blacks could never dream of seeing. Black women were instrumental in advancing the brotherhood from its earliest days. A small number of black women employed as maids by the Pullman Company took out memberships in the BSCP, but women were most active in auxiliaries. Wives and other female relatives of Pullman employees started to establish local auxiliaries in 1926, and that same year several auxiliaries combined to form the Colored Women’s Economic Council.
Women’s auxiliaries were instrumental in raising money for the brotherhood in the days before an AFL charter boosted the organizational treasury. They also performed important community functions such as offering financial assistance to families left destitute when the Pullman Company dismissed black wage earners (Chateauvert 197). The BSCP took advantage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election in 1932. New Deal legislation outlawed company unions and granted workers the right to bargain through their own elected units.
In 1934, the Railway Labor Act was amended to include sleeping car employees. Women continued their feverish activity on behalf of the union, and women’s auxiliaries became so numerous that a coordinated network of Ladies Auxiliaries of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters emerged in 1938. Increased political, legal, and organizational activity gave Randolph the necessary leverage to call for a union election. In June 1935, despite massive layoffs by Pullman, the BSCP won collective bargaining rights by a nearly eight-to-one margin.
BSCP officials not only sought legitimacy for their own union but looked on the union as a vehicle for the advancement of all black workers. During the Great Depression the Brotherhood participated in various grass roots activities and workers’ actions. The union joined in the numerous protests throughout the country over the plight of the Scottsboro Boys, nine young blacks convicted of rape in Alabama, and was a leader in the successful efforts of organized labor and civil rights organizations to prevent the confirmation of judge John J.
Parker, whom President Herbert Hoover nominated for the Supreme Court in 1930 (Santino 34). The BSCP alone tied together Parker’s racist and anti-union sentiments. And though they would not go so far as to support Communist activities, Randolph and other BSCP spokesmen encouraged black workers to form workers’ councils so as to demand equitable relief funds from the U. S. government, especially after the origin of the New Deal. The BSCP was the very first African-American labor union to sign a collective bargaining agreement with a main U.
S. corporation (Santino 67). All applicants were required to take the General Test the United States Employment Service. Each applicant was also given an intensive interview with an employment service counselor to determine whether he might have a substantial potential in the trade regardless of his ability to meet the minimum standards. Under the collective bargaining agreement, appointments as apprentices were to be made from among the highest scorers. Randolph’s career is one of the most interesting in contemporary black history.
As an opponent of participation in World War I and an angry critic of the Wilson administration, Randolph’s writings earned The Messenger the title of ‘the most able and the most dangerous of all Negro publications’ (Pfeffer 67). During the inter-war years he devoted himself to trade union organization and gained prominence as the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Not only did he secure recognition of the union from the railroads, but in 1936 took it into the American Federation of Labor as an international union.
This union’s founding and struggle for recognition was a dramatic episode in the history of black workers (Harris 78). The black leaders of the period, including Du Bois and Randolph, who believed in programs of interracial cooperation also believed that such a policy of working with whites must be accompanied by a campaign of public enlightenment about black people. To win whites to the cause it was necessary to correct the black image in their minds. Beyond an appeal to the conscience of whites, or to their democratic ideals, it was necessary to remove the misconceptions they held about blacks.
In the mid- 1930s the Brotherhood won two notable victories-the receipt of an international charter from the American Federation of Labor and recognition by the Pullman Company as the bargaining agent for the porters and maids. Strengthened by its international union status and by its victory over the Pullman Company, the Brotherhood had become a dominant force in Negro circles by the late 1930s. References Chateauvert, Melinda. (1997). Marching Together: Women of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Harris, William. (1977).
Keeping the Faith: A. Philip Randolph, Milton P. Webster, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 1925-37. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Perata, David. (1996). Those Pullman Blues: An Oral History of the African American Railroad Attendant. New York: Twayne Publishers. Pfeffer, Paula F. A. (1990). Philip Randolph, Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. Santino, Jack. (1991). Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle: Stories of Black Pullman Porters. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. The Nation, June 9, 1926, p. 3.