The month of February, the month of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, is recognized as Black History Month. It was initially proclaimed by the distinguished Black historian, Carter G. Woodson in 1926 as a counter to the omission or often racist portrayal of African Americans in the standard works on American history and school curricula. In recent years, scholars have been correcting that history, portraying the history of slavery and Reconstruction in a much more accurate light and paying attention to the great contributions Black people have made to our development as a nation. It is fitting that we celebrate Black History Month today in the face of efforts by reactionary politicians (who are also no friends of unions and working people) to push the clock back on the teaching of this history. It is also fitting that we, as a website devoted to the cause of labor, note the contributions of African Americans to the building of the labor movement and the important role they play in it today.
Although there were numerous actions by Black workers and tenant farmers in the South during the 19th century, their incorporation into the industrial work force really began with the Great Migration of the early 20th century when about a million Blacks fled the Jim Crow South to seek greater opportunity in the rising factories in Northern states. It was still an uphill battle. The early unions did not welcome them. The conservative AFL craft unions largely refused them membership, which meant they were excluded from higher paying jobs and union-negotiated benefits. Particularly notorious was the Plumbers Union, headed in later years by George Meany, who subsequently headed the AFL-CIO in the 1950’s and 60’s The union was notorious for limiting membership so that it became an inside joke that in order to get in, you needed a wrench, a white skin and a father who was a member.
The big change came with the organization of the CIO in the 1930’s, committed to unionizing all workers in industrial plants into large union locals, irrespective of their race, ethnicity, or their jobs in the plant. Black workers played important roles in building the three largest CIO unions – the United Auto Workers, the United Steel Workers, and the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers as well as many other unions. And they have provided leadership in the union movement, from A. Philip Randolph, who headed the largely Black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, to Fred Redmond, a former vice-president of the United Steel Workers and now secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO.
We salute the contributions that African Americans have made to the labor movement and to the nation as a whole.