The following is excerpted from a speech to the AFL-CIO 25th Constitutional Convention in July, 2007.
I know the mutual benefits that grew from the historic alliance between organized labor and the movement for civil rights–benefits we all must work to strengthen and extend today.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, most labor unions excluded blacks. Unorganized blacks were used as scabs when white unionists went on strike. The old divide-and-conquer strategy was put to good use by corporate bosses. The labor movement’s racism was used against it to great effect.
Things began to change when A. Philip Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in the 1920s. Blacks scored a major breakthrough in the struggle for admission to the ranks of organized labor in 1930 when the AFL recognized the Brotherhood.
In 1924, the NAACP helped create the Interracial Labor Commission. Its goal was to bring more blacks into the labor movement. It worked. Thousands of black workers joined the ranks of the organized rank-and-file in the ensuing years as widespread discrimination began to fall, and they quickly became some of labor’s most disciplined and dedicated foot soldiers, infusing the movement with renewed energy and vigor.
In many organizing campaigns in the 1930s and 1940s, especially in the South, black workers were the first to join, were the most steadfast and the most militant. This was true of campaigns to organize longshoremen along the Mississippi River, in ports of the Gulf of Mexico and on the Eastern Atlantic Coast and in largely black mining regions in Alabama and West Virginia.
Given our common interests, minority Americans and organized labor are both better off when we cooperate. Most of us are working people. Our interests and your interests are the same.