C.L. Dellums, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters president in 1968
Any talk of discussing class instead of racism is disingenuous in a country which uses every opportunity to indulge in anti-Black racism. The history of racism in the labor movement is just one example of how white supremacy trumps all other interests.
With its swath of shuttered shops, empty cafes, dwindling crowds and shimmering seaside vistas, San Francisco’s Embarcadero resembles an abandoned amusement park in the post-pandemic era, but a century ago this tourist attraction was known as the “slave market,” where dozens of longshoremen would gather each weekday hoping to land a job loading and unloading the freighters docked in the bay.
Seldom were there enough jobs to go around, however, and the hiring boss who was assigned by the shipping companies to choose the daily work crews would often go about the task with the same contemptuous air that an overseer might display while inspecting chattel slaves at auction, sneering as he rejected some longshoremen while doling out preferential treatment to others, many of whom had agreed to kick back a portion of their wages to him.
This humiliating ritual was known as the “shape-up,” and as the Great Depression worsened, so too did the hiring bosses’ microaggressions. Finally, in 1934, with the longshoremen’s patience wearing thin, it was decided: call a strike.
But if the dockworkers had any hope of winning a pay raise, and negotiating the construction of a hiring hall that they controlled, they would have to attack the racism within their own ranks that had heretofore been the employers’ most effective weapon against their employees. If, for example, the Embarcadero was indeed a slave market then perhaps it was worth noting that it was a “whites only” slave market because West Coast dockworkers would not allow African Americans to join their union.
This suited industry executives just fine. When the San Francisco’s Riggers and Stevedores Unions went on strike for higher wages in 1919, shipowners responded by hiring African American strikebreakers for even less money. Black longshoremen had for years proposed integrating the locals, but the Pacific Coast International Longshoremen’s Association, or ILA, had barred “coloreds” since its inception in the mid-19th century. Weary of pleading with white workers for an opportunity to unite and fight the bosses together, Black workers didn’t hesitate to pounce on any opportunity to earn a paycheck. One African American explained his motivation for crossing the 1919 picket line thusly:
I was living in Oakland and I had a wife and ten kids, out of work, and the news came out that they had a strike on the waterfront, which the Negroes weren’t allowed to work.
It was an Australian longshoreman and former Wobbly by the name of Harry Bridges who broke the ice, according to the African American journalist, Thomas Fleming, co-founder of the Bay Area’s African American weekly newspaper, the Sun-Reporter:
Bridges went to black churches on both sides of San Francisco Bay and asked the ministers: could he say a few words during the Sunday services? He begged the congregation to join the strikers on the picket line, and promised that when the strike ended, blacks would work on every dock on the West Coast.
Two Blacks were appointed to the strike committee headed by Bridges, and whites and Blacks collaborated in outreach efforts on the docks as well as in the broader African American community. Their most high-profile convert was the union organizer C.L. Dellums—uncle of the future Congressman and Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums—of the Sleeping Car Porters Union who helped discourage Blacks from crossing the picket line. Recounting the initial awkwardness of the nascent rainbow coalition, Dellums recalled one meeting that was intended to take the temperature of the African American workers who had no reason to trust their white co-workers to do the right thing:
There was a white man and a Negro running the meeting. ... They whispered and told me to sit down, that I couldn’t take the floor, I couldn’t speak. So I turned to the crowd and said ‘Most of you fellows know me by sight. I am C.L. Dellums. I want to speak to you. ... If you want to hear what I have to say, make this guy shut up and let me talk.’ And so they did . ... So I gave them a good rabble-rousing. I gave them first a good educational talk on labor and civil rights where we had so much in common. Then I asked them to give me their word, and I told them, ‘I know you’ll keep your word with me, I always keep mine with you. Give me your word you will not break the strike, all who will stand.’ And they stood almost to the man. So I said ‘Ok, since we’re not going to break the strike, the meeting is over. Let’s get the hell out of here.’
A trickle of Black workers crossed the picket line but the strike shut down all incoming and outbound traffic, leaving perishables like fish, fruit and wine to rot in the summer sun. When the shipowners tried to forcibly reopen the port on July 5th, 1934–Bloody Sunday as it is still known to this day– police fatally shot two white dockworkers; upping the ante, the striking workers buried their dead and called for a citywide general strike 11 days later.
The 83-day strike culminated in a coastwide contract, wage increases, a reduction in work shift hours, and a hiring hall that was jointly controlled by the employers and the union but with a dispatcher chosen by the union who effectively tipped the balance of power in favor of the employees. The arrangement meant that the companies could not discriminate against either workers who were blacklisted because of their union organizing activities, or Black longshoremen.
As part of the deal, African Americans insisted on a “last-shall-be-first” hiring process in which longshoremen who had gone jobless the longest moved automatically to the front of the line the next shift. The historian Philip S. Foner quoted a dockworker saying:
Negro-white unity has proved to be the most effective weapon against the shipowners, against the raiders and all our enemies.
The 1934 West Coast longshoremen’s strike vanquished the tradition of segregated unions that had defined labor organizing for nearly 40 years, dating back to the advent of Jim Crow. And in so doing, the West Coast maritime workers fused industrial relations with race relations, empowering the New Deal, modernizing the American workplace, and fueling the rise of the most prosperous middle class in world history.
In a tense exchange on the Jimmy Dore Show, the comedian and podcaster Jimmy Dore counseled the public intellectual Cornel West to omit from his presidential campaign any acknowledgement of the role that white supremacy has played in dissolving Americans’ prosperity, and instead focus on class as an issue that “unites” voters of all races. White Trump supporters, Dore said, are prone to tune out all talk of “identity politics.”
West pushed back aggressively, saying that he refused to focus on class and “put up with white supremacy.” And while I believe that Dore is correct in insisting that there is scarcely a dime’s worth of difference between Trump and Biden, his class-over-race strategy reflects a horrific truth: Time and again, From Abraham Lincoln to Joe Biden, the sons and daughters of Africa have proven their mettle as class warriors, responding to catastrophe by hurtling into the abyss alongside European emigres, and relying on little more than grit and guile and each other, we, the people, rise, like Spartans in crayon war paint, advancing on higher ground and glory.
And yet every victory is undone, every insurrection put down, with the 99 percent in full retreat, chased by the betrayal of a radical Black vanguard by their white allies who refuse to be held accountable for consorting with the proletariat’s class enemies.
The 1934 West Coast longshoremen’s strike planted the seeds for the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations the following year. The CIO set out to rebuke the racist practices of the American Federation of Labor, and white labor leaders consciously embraced African Americans’ struggle against discrimination in housing, employment, police misconduct, and the criminal justice system. As one example, the CIO played a critical role in winning the release of James Hickman, a Black, Chicago steelworker who was on trial in 1947 for fatally shooting the slumlord who deliberately set fire to his apartment, killing his four youngest children.
It wasn’t that the CIO’s ethos of racial solidarity managed to erase white supremacy altogether, but it was able to offer white workers a glimpse of what an American proletariat united across racial (and gender) lines might achieve.
One example is the proliferation of unauthorized work stoppages protesting the promotions of Black employees to job classifications traditionally reserved for whites. The CIO locals representing steel, electrical, and shipbuilding employees in Baltimore managed to put down one such “hate strike” at the Sparrows Point Bethlehem shipyards in July 1943, but had no such luck five months later when white employees at the Western Electric Company’s Point Breeze plant in Baltimore demanded separate toilet facilities for their 1,750 Black coworkers. Unable to convince the striking workers to return to work, the CIO asserted that they were exploiting the race issue “in the interests of the nation's enemies” and asked Roosevelt to intervene. He complied, ordering the army to take over the plant; the strikers returned to work.
Eight months later on August 3rd, 1944, the worst “'hate strike” of the war era began when white streetcar workers in Philadelphia walked off the job to protest the hiring of eight Blacks to the job of motorman—rather than in the traditional menial positions of porters or sweepers—leaving the city without public transportation for six days. Read one flier exhorting white transit workers to take action:
Your buddies are in the Army fighting and dying to protect the life of you and your family and you are too yellow to protect their jobs until they return. Call a strike and refuse to teach the Negroes. The public is with you. The CIO sold you out.
In all, the country lost nearly 2.5 million man-hours to hate strikes between March 1st and May 31st, 1943, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But with the CIO eschewing racial appeals, the divisive messaging inherent in these hate strikes never took off, allowing employees to demand a larger and larger share of the spoils.
But no sooner had the War ended than the workers’ tenuous coalition began to fray, beginning with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1946, which outlawed general strikes and mandated loyalty boards for the purpose of purging the most radical workers, communists and Blacks. Among the questions put to African Americans were:
Have you ever had dinner with a mixed group?
Have you ever danced with a white girl?
White employees were asked whether they had ever entertained Blacks as guests and white witnesses were asked:
Have you had any conversations that would lead you to believe [the accused] is rather advanced in his thinking on racial matters?
Walter Reuther, president of the United Autoworkers warned:
So let's all be careful that we don't play the bosses' game by falling for the Red scare. Let's stand by our union and fellow unionists. No union man, worthy of the name, will play the bosses' game. Some may do so through ignorance. But those who peddle the Red scare and know what they are doing are dangerous enemies of the union.
The irony is that no one played the bosses’ game better, or with more relish, than National Maritime Union President Joseph Curran, or Reuther who, as the head of his local union, led the sit-down strikes at Flint’s General Motors plant that made the UAW a household name nationally. The two headed a purge of 11 unions, representing nearly a million workers, from the CIO over a two-year period beginning in 1949.
Among progressives, the scouting report on Reuther was that he always feinted left and drove right. As evidenced by his exhortation urging workers to reject the bosses’ Red Scare tactics, Reuther talked a good game, helping to quell hate strikes and championing civil rights during the war. The UAW was, in fact, the only predominantly white institution to defend the Black community and denounce police brutality following the 1943 Detroit race riot, when police and marauding white mobs murdered 25 African Americans. Yet, from the moment he defeated African Americans’ preferred candidate, George Addes, for the UAW’s presidency in 1946, he seemed as obsessed with ridding the union of Marxists as he was with negotiating contracts for rank-and-file auto workers. His antagonism of African Americans and their strongest allies within the UAW fulfilled Reuther’s short-term objectives of consolidating his support among second-generation Polish and Hungarian skilled tradesmen and assembly line workers who had no investment in colorblind shop floor policies that would eat away at their racial privileges.
At the 1943 UAW convention, Reuther and his supporters managed to defeat a resolution introduced by Addes’ supporters calling for a special Negro representative. Reuther’s response was that this was tantamount to “racism in reverse,” an argument he deployed again in defeating a 1949 proposal calling for a Black vice president to advocate for African American workers with as much energy as Reuther and his lieutenants advocated for white workers.
As head of the UAW, Reuther’s hand-picked choice to head Local 600 was Carl Stellato, who was elected to the top post in 1950. His first order of business was to remove five unit officers from their positions on the grounds that they were communists failed, however, and the blowback nearly cost him his re-election in 1951.
If Reuther couldn’t purge a CIO union that was, in his estimation, too “Red,” he would challenge the local in a certification election, known in organizing circles as a “raid.” That was the case with the United Farm Equipment and Metal Workers Union. With more than 70,000 members spread among 22 union locals at its zenith in 1948, the FE, as it was widely known, was the dominant union in the farm equipment industry, but there was some overlap with the UAW.
While both unions belonged to the CIO, they had vastly different visions for industrial unionism. Similar to the dockworkers’ Bridges, the radical leadership of the United Farm Equipment and Metal Workers Union believed that capital and labor had nothing in common and as such, any agreement reached with management represented only a truce in the class struggle, not its end. Under Reuther, on the other hand, the UAW subscribed to a more conciliatory model of organized labor. “We make collective bargaining agreements,” Reuther was fond of boasting, “not revolutions.” The differing viewpoints were reflected in the number of work stoppages undertaken by the rival unions. Between October 1, 1945, and October 31, 1952, the UAW held 185 strikes compared to 971 by the FE.
The United Farm Equipment and Metal Workers Union and UAW first clashed in 1946 at the International Harvester plant in the Chicago suburb of Melrose Park. Constructed in 1941, the shop manufactured the Pratt & Whitney radial aircraft engines used in the B-24 bomber. International Harvester purchased the site from General Motors after the war and in 1946, the FE challenged UAW Local 6 in a certification election. The UAW won handily but the margin was split largely along racial lines, with whites—many of them returning servicemen—preferring the UAW, and African Americans—representing only a fraction of the workforce and mostly relegated to janitorial positions—casting ballots for the more progressive FE, which had a reputation of coaxing employers to hire and promote Blacks to the assembly line or machinist positions.
In the spring of 1949, an acrimonious jurisdictional dispute erupted between the UAW and the FE at International Harvester’s McCormick Works factory in Chicago. Leading up to the vote, UAW organizers distributed leaflets accusing the FE of being “Communist-dominated” and the FE countered with charges of the UAW’s red-baiting. A full-page FE ad in the Midwest edition of the Pittsburgh Courier asked:
Why hasn't the UAW ever elected a Negro to national office, to its international executive board or as a district director? At the recent national convention of the FE, CIO, William Smith of Chicago, a worker in the McCormick Works plant, was elected vice-president of the union . ...
WALTER REUTHER'S MACHINE IN THE UAW DOESN'T WANT
NEGROES IN ITS LEADERSHIP. This union is currently trying to raid the FE-CIO at McCormick.
With the Black vote playing a decisive role, the FE won the election, but the UAW continued to favor white workers, even agreeing with the automakers to promote only whites to supervisory and skilled trade positions. By the time California Governor Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, organized labor was a spent force, undone by its own racial contradictions. So loathed was Reuther by African American workers at the end of his life in the early 1970s, that they would organize wildcat strikes that protested not only the Big Three but also Reuther’s leadership, with placards suggesting that he was a whore:
Put a halter on Walter.
The slain Black political prisoner George Jackson once summed up the situation in a letter to another Black inmate at California’s Soledad Correctional Facility:
I'm always telling the brothers some of those whites are willing to work with us against the pigs. All they got to do is stop talking honky. When the races start fighting, all you have is one maniac group against another.
A former Washington Post foreign correspondent, Jon Jeter is the author of Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People. This article is excerpted from his upcoming book, Class War in America: How the Elites Divide the Nation by asking ‘Are You a Worker or Are You White?’