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Keeping the Faith

White unionists seldom acknowledged that their opposition put blacks in the position of having to work as scabs. “It is idle and vain to hope or expect Negro workers, out of work and who receive less wages when at work than white workers, to refuse to scab upon white workers when an opportunity presents itself,” Randolph said. White scabs were not unknown, but the visibility of blacks made them easy targets. When white workers rioted in East St. Louis in 1917, fifty-nine blacks there were killed, and thousands were driven out of town. After this Du Bois lamented that it was impossible for a black to become anything from a boiler maker to a stone cutter “without encountering the open determination and unscrupulous opposition of the whole united labor movement of America.”

Incidents of this kind confirmed the feeling among blacks that if white unions didn’t want them then they didn’t need white unions. But Randolph saw that competition among “white and black dogs” for bones was causing them to lose sight of their common interests. He believed, with Debs, that the success of a workers’ movement depended on its maintaining the broadest possible appeal. Radical unions like the IWW called for unity among white and black workers, but most blacks were reluctant to be identified with what was considered the IWW’s anti-Americanism. Kelly Miller, dean of Howard University, was urging blacks in 1925 to “line up with the best element of American citizenship.” The Negro, he argued, “helpless as a leaf in the wind,” needed protection more than he did union alliances. “Prudence compels him to seek shelter from those who have rather than from those who have not.”

The blacks who worked for the railroads were isolated in a highly organized industry.6 The constitutions of the major railroad unions of locomotive engineers, conductors, firemen, and trainmen barred blacks from membership. These brotherhoods held aloof even from the AFL. They functioned as fraternal organizations and admitting black railway men would have meant accepting them as social equals. They controlled apprenticeships and thus denied blacks entrance to occupations. At most blacks were given segregated unions under the supervision of white locals, which meant that they had no job protection.

There had been talk among porters about the need to organize as early as 1909. At around that time two black unions, one for dining-car employees and the other for the rest of blacks on the railroads refused membership in white unions, were formed to improve the conditions of black railroad employees, but they were unable to accomplish much beyond token wage increases. In 1920 the porters attempted to form a bargaining organization but Pullman formed its own union, the Employee Representation Plan, or ERP. Four years later, in 1924, a group of porters attempted to press for higher wages. Pullman agreed to negotiate only through its ERP to prove that outside unions were unnecessary.

In early 1925 Randolph was addressing a street crowd in Harlem when a group of porters, who were later to become his right-hand men, passed by and were stirred by his presence. They decided at once that he was the man they needed. In addition to already having a reputation as a leader, he did not work for Pullman and was therefore not vulnerable to company reprisals. They asked him to speak before the Porters Athletic Association, and Randolph used the occasion to attack the porters’ participation in the ERP, insisting that they needed a union free of company control.

The very isolation of the porter, as Spero and Harris saw in 1930, would be among the union’s greatest strengths. The nature of the job made the porter accessible to Randolph’s organizers without their having to contest company turf. The porters were scattered throughout the country, sleeping in dormitories in black communities; their segregated life protected the union’s channels of communication. Union literature was easy to distribute by the expedient of throwing it from the trains. “His home is everywhere,” Randolph said of the porter. The Pullman Company, with a few exceptions, controlled the sleeping car and parlor service of the entire continent, which meant that the porters were a homogeneous group working for “a single employer with a single labor policy,” and therefore sharing the same grievances from city to city.

In 1925, the year the Brotherhood was founded, few blacks were hired for Pullman’s manufacturing or repair shops, and blacks were expressly excluded from service as conductors. The company refused to pay porters conductors’ wages when they were “in charge” of a car and did conductors’ work. What positions porters could aspire to within the company had to do with custodial duties, like that of storekeeper of linen supplies. A porter in 1925 earned $67.00 a month, $94.50 a month after fifteen years of service; the base pay was $810 a year and the yearly average in tips amounted to $600—a year before the Labor Bureau, Inc., of New York estimated that an average family needed an annual income of $2,088.

The Pullman Company also expected porters to buy their own uniforms during their first ten years of service and to bear the cost of maintaining themselves while away from home. Living and occupational expenses, including the cost of shoe polish for clients, amounted to $33, almost half the monthly wage. “Pillow punchers” worked much longer hours than other railroad workers. Instead of the standard 240 hours per month, Pullman porters were paid on the basis of 11,000 miles per month, or 400 hours, which did not include the time porters were required to prepare cars or to clean them up for storage after a run. “You had to touch up the men’s room, the ladies’ room, the vestibule,” a porter remembered in Studs Terkel’s Hard Times. “You carried a mop and a broom and the Company said: Just bring me the handle back.” Porters were also unable to rest under the “doubling out” system, which meant that they got off one train as soon as it stopped at the station and left on another. There was no overtime or compensation for delayed arrivals.

In the long, bitter, and complicated fight to persuade the porters and the general public of the importance of a black union, and to maintain legal pressure against Pullman and the ERP, Randolph’s primary concern was to preserve the Brotherhood. At the beginning he sometimes waived dues to attract new members, which made the Brotherhood dependent on white liberal philanthropy. Often because he put recognition of the union before pay increases he was criticized by sectors of the black community that did not share his belief in trade unionism. Besides, the war of briefs between the Brotherhood and Pullman struck at the porters’ earning capacity, and the years of litigation frustrated many members who wanted to confront Pullman directly. “We thought Randolph was crazy,” Noble Sissle said. Randolph was also accused of being a tool of the Communists and even of being used by Pullman to get porters out on strike so that the company could replace them with whites. To counter the formidable opposition, which included the “big Negroes” of the black church, black fraternal organizations, and the black press, Randolph revived The Messenger as The Black Worker, and, as William H. Harris relates in Keeping the Faith, hardly any other issue was more fiercely debated in the black press in the 1920s and 1930s than that of the Brotherhood.7

In 1925, the union had 1,904 members, but Pullman refused not only to recognize it, but even to mention the Brotherhood by name in any of its communications with government agencies. Meanwhile, Pullman’s intimidation of the porters continued: anyone suspected of helping the union was fired; Filipinos were placed in the club cars to remind blacks that they were expendable; prominent black politicians were hired to spread good words about the company; and there were many instances of physical assault on organizers. While the board of mediation established by the Railway Labor Act of 1926 had ruled that the Brotherhood represented the porters, and “requested” that Pullman submit to arbitration, it had no power to compel Pullman to do so.

Pullman made a few concessions at a wage conference in 1926, and even announced that individual porters’ names would be displayed to end the practice of addressing them as “George.” But Randolph was appealing to a sense of self within the porter that no company union ever could. The porters, he said, worked under conditions psychologically unchanged since 1867, a time when blacks hired by Pullman were “easily induced to accept any wage system” because they were not only incapable of thinking in terms of collective bargaining, but were uncertain even of emancipation. The Brotherhood’s triumph, as much as the contracts it eventually negotiated, was its symbolic value, that it existed. It was a campaign for the rights of blacks as integrated citizens, yet because it was a black organization it also encouraged racial identity.

By 1927 the Brotherhood claimed 5,700 members, almost half of all porters. Randolph, believing he had to do something more challenging than “letter-writing and speech-making,” announced a strike vote in March 1928 in the hope that Coolidge would intervene in the Brotherhood’s dispute with Pullman. But when the mediation board ruled that no emergency existed, on the advice of William Green of the AFL the strike was called off. Luckily Randolph had a talent for displaying defeats as moral victories: “That a large mass of Negroes, submarginal workers, conditioned as inferiors, threatened to project a strike on a national scale under Negro leadership,” the first such threat in US history, helped to create dramatic changes in the public consciousness of the black worker from servant to wage earner.8

The Brotherhood began to be perceived as “the guardian of black labor.” Not a mass movement, it nevertheless began to enjoy mass sympathy as a tiny group that was valiantly standing up to a powerful white corporation. It became news that the Brotherhood joined with the AFL and the NAACP to help defeat the appointment of John Parker to the Supreme Court in 1930, and when in the same year a porter was found hanged near the railroad tracks of Locust Grove, Georgia, the Brotherhood kept the unsolved crime in front of the public.

By 1932 the federal courts upheld the union’s right to sue on behalf of porters, and restrained Pullman from harassment. But the Depression meant fewer travelers, fewer jobs, and lower tips. Pullman unilaterally cut porters’ wages in 1932: “Here was the Brotherhood’s Valley Forge.” Confidence in the union virtually disappeared, the Brotherhood’s membership fell to 658 in 1933, The Black Worker closed down, and Randolph was evicted from his New York headquarters. Often, during the early years of the Depression, the Brotherhood seemed to exist mostly in Randolph’s imagination.

  1. 6

    See Howard W. Risher, Jr., The Negro and the Railroad Industry (Wharton School and University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971).

  2. 7

    Keeping the Faith: A. Philip Randolph, Milton P. Webster, and The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 1925–1937 (University of Illinois Press, 1977).

  3. 8

    See Brailsford Brazeal, The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (Harper Brothers, 1946).

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