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Robin D. G. Kelley: Organized Labor and the Black Worker

With unemployment rising sharply and a pandemic, an economic crisis, and a mass uprising against anti-Black racism unfolding across the world, coming to grips with the relationship between the labor movement and racism and learning from the tradition of Black labor militancy is more important than ever. 

Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619-1981 is historian Philip S. Foner's classic, radical history of Black workers' contribution to the American labor movement. Here, we present an excerpt from scholar Robin D. G. Kelley's foreword to the Haymarket edition:

Haymarket’s reissue of Philip S. Foner’s Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619–1981 could not have been more serendipitous. Donald J. Trump, a reckless billionaire known for making racist comments, failing to pay his workers, and outsourcing his manufacturing firms, is the forty-fifth president of the United States. He presides over a cabinet made up of billionaires and extreme right-wing ideologues utterly hostile to environmental protections, civil rights, public education, any sort of social safety net, and labor. And yet, mainstream news outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, and the New York Times attribute Trump’s success to his ability to speak to, and for, a disaffected white working class.

If Foner could come back from the grave, he would probably think this was all a bad science-fiction movie. But he would also detect a familiar theme to the story—one that is foundational to Organized Labor and the Black Worker. The book documents a very long history of trade union and white working-class intransigence to black working-class advancement alongside episodes of interracial class unity and the elusive promise of a radical future. It remains elusive because those precious moments of solidarity repeatedly crash on the shoals of white supremacy. Although Trump’s victory owes much to the surprisingly solid backing from the Republican base, especially middle-class white folks with a median income of $72,000 a year, frustrated white workers who flocked to Trump tended to blame immigrants, black people, and anti-patriotic business moguls who hired foreign labor or sent jobs overseas for their misery. Pundits played down white racism and instead chalked it up to legitimate working-class populism driven by class anger. But if this were true, then why didn’t Trump win over black and brown voters, since they make up the lowest rungs of the working class and suffered disproportionately more than whites during the financial crisis of 2008? Why did Trump’s victory inspire a wave of racist attacks and emboldened white nationalists to flaunt their allegiance to the president-elect? Because 63 per cent of white men and 53 per cent of white women voted for a president who openly opposed regulating the financial sector, strengthening union power and labor protections, increasing the minimum wage, and restoring the social safety net. Instead, they voted for an essentially anti-labor platform dressed up in populist clothing, and ignored (or embraced) Trump’s message of white supremacy, Islamophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, militarism, anti-Semitism, and anti-science. The vast majority of people of color voted against Trump, with black women registering the highest voting percentage for Clinton of any other demographic (94 per cent).

Foner had little patience for arguments that racism is merely a veneer for the true sentiments of white working people. It was a psychological wage, to use W. E. B. Du Bois’s apt phrase, and a structure to ensure job security, higher wages, and the elimination of competition. “To many a white unionist, the black was not simply a rival who threatened his control of the job. He was also a racial and social inferior . . . . Hence, a union that refused to admit blacks not only eliminated a threat to its white members’ monopoly of jobs but preserved their status and its own reputation in the white community.” His book is filled with anecdotes of working-class racism undermining genuine workers’ power in favor of the paltry protections of white privilege—from the erection of occupational color bars by unions to the outbreak of wildcat strikes against the hiring of black workers. But it is also peppered with episodes of antiracism and interracial unity, from the New Orleans General Strike of 1892 to the sit-down strikes organized by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Foner showed that white workers were not a monolithic bloc and that racism and opposition to it divided the working class, though not always by color. Anticommunism often masked racist ideologies, and both conspired to mobilize workers for capital and against each other. He tells the story of CIO organizers in Tampa, Florida, who in 1936 “were attacked by an incredible alliance of the Klan, Catholic followers of Father [Charles] Coughlin, leading state AF of L [American Federation of Labor] officials, and various criminal elements of the city. Hiram Evans, Imperial Wizard of the Klan, praised the AF of L for its anti-Communism.” Klansmen joined the AF of L, distributed leaflets at its 1940 convention vowing to rid the country of “CIO Communists and n***** lovers” and even participated in assaults on CIO organizers.

Black workers were not a monolithic bloc either, nor were they merely victims of racism or mute pawns in the machinations of white led labor unions. Foner reminds us that African Americans provided leadership to white workers—or at least they tried. From the Colored National Labor Union to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, from the League of Revolutionary Black Workers to the Coalition of Black Trade Unions, black labor militants appealed to whites and other workers of color for solidarity. Indeed, solidarity is the book’s central message; when white workers attempt to go it alone or build exclusionary racist unions, they don’t win. Foner drives home the point by looking at the 1866 campaign for an eight-hour day: in St. Louis, unionists built a biracial campaign and won, while in New Orleans a lily-white campaign went down in defeat. And yet, rather than place the blame entirely on the unions, Foner situates union history within a larger context of structural racism in which the most powerful agents are the capitalists. The book is replete with stories of capitalists using the coercive arm of the state to put down strikes or contract out convict labor, bribing conservative black leaders to oppose unions and break strikes, and fomenting mob violence in the name of protecting white womanhood or fighting communism. 

Foner’s three substantial chapters on the “Negro-Labor Alliance” anticipate recent scholarship “rediscovering” the civil rights movement’s economic agenda. He details the critical roles of figures such as A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Cleveland Robinson, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in empowering black workers, recruiting major labor leaders to the cause of civil rights, and drawing the connection between economic and racial justice. He pays special attention to the Negro American Labor Council (NALC), a lead sponsor of the March on Washington, which provided the glue that held together the often tenuous alliance between organized labor and the black freedom movement. The NALC organized local marches under the slogan, “Freedom from Poverty through Fair and Full Employment,” and threatened to hold a national one-day work stoppage to pressure Congress to pass the Civil Rights bill. It also fought to raise the federal minimum wage and extend its coverage to all workers, and backed efforts to organize domestic workers, abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee, and build up the American Labor Party as a third-party alternative. Shifting from the national to the local, Foner offers a detailed and riveting account of the Charleston hospital workers strike in 1969—an incredible example of the working-class character of the black freedom movement.

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Anyone serious about rebuilding the labor movement must recognize the fundamental role racism has played in undermining solidarity and internationalism, and concealing the structural relationship between the white middle class’s standard of living and the exploitation of immigrant labor. And rebuild the labor movement we must, for it has been under attack on a global scale for at least half a century. Today labor unions are portrayed as corrupt, bloated, a drain on the economy, and modern-day cartels that threaten workers “liberty.” Corporations and the CEOs who run them are portrayed as the most efficient and effective mode of organization. In our neoliberal age, emergency financial managers are sent in to replace elected governments during real or imagined economic crises; charter schools organized along corporate lines are replacing public schools; universities are adopting corporate strategies with presidents increasingly functioning like CEOs; a businessman with a checkered record, a history of improprieties and legal violations, and no experience whatsoever in government, is elected president of the United States. The once-powerful unions are doing little more than fighting to restore basic collective bargaining rights and deciding how much they are going to give back. Union leaders are struggling just to participate in crafting austerity measures.

Yet, when we shift our attention from the big industrial unions where we imagine the white working class resides to low-wage, marginalized workers in fast food, retail, home care, domestic work, and so on, the horizon looks radically different. Once powerful engines of racial and gender exclusion, often working with capital to impose glass ceilings and racially segmented wages, the twenty-first-century labor movement has largely embraced principles of social justice, antiracism, immigrant rights, and cross-border strategies. They have adopted new strategies, from passing minimum-wage laws at the municipal and state levels to using community benefits agreements to secure living-wage jobs, equitable working conditions, green building practices, and affordable housing, as well as childcare provisions. And in alliance with movements such as Occupy Wall Street, the Movement for Black Lives, the DREAMers, campaigns such as OUR Walmart, and the fast-food workers Fight for Fifteen, they are leading the way, building the most dynamic labor movement we have seen in generations. They are writing the next chapter.

  • Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619-1981

    A classic, radical history of Black workers' contribution to the American labor movement.
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