A Union of Railroad Workers Sets the Pace

Article excerpt

During the century spanning the years 1868-1968, the African-American railroad attendant's presence on the train became an American tradition. By the 1920s, a peak decade for the railroads, more than twenty thousand African-Americans were working as porters, providing a variety services for passengers on the sleeping cars. The railroad was the largest employer of black labor at that time in the United States and Canada. Other jobs held by African Americans were dining car waiters, chefs, and track layers.

"Service not Servitude"

The Pullman Porters organized and founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925. The BSCP was the very first African-American labor union to sign a collective bargaining agreement with a major U.S. corporation. A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979) was the determined, dedicated, and articulate president of this union who fought to improve the working conditions and pay for the Pullman Porters. During this era, the railroad companies were among the most powerful corporations in the nation.

The porters had tried to organize since the beginning of the century. The wages and working conditions were below average for decades. For example, the porters were required to work 400 hours per month or 11,000 miles (whichever occurred first) to receive full pay. Porters depended on the passengers' tips in order to earn a decent level of pay. Typically, the porters' tips were more than their monthly salary earned from the Pullman Company.

Founding a Labor Union

After many years of suffering these types of conditions, the porters united with A. Philip Randolph as their leader. Finally, having endured threats from the Pullman Company such as job loss and harassment, the BSCP forced the company to the bargaining table. On August 25, 1937, after 12 years of battle, the BSCP was recognized as the official union of the Pullman Porters. Today, many railroad workers are members of the Transportation Communications Union (TCU), which carries on the work of the BSCP.

Protected by the union, the job of a Pullman Porter was one of economic stability and held high social prestige in the African-American community. A. Philip Randolph utilized the power of the labor union and the unity that it represented to demand significant social changes for African-Americans nationally. Randolph and the members of the BSCP understood the power of collective work and community involvement. They improved the quality of life for themselves and made sure that their efforts improved the lives of those who were to follow. Their story is one of ordinary men who did extraordinary things.

March on Washington 1941 (halted)

Randolph first planned a March on Washington in 1941 to protest against governmental hiring practices that excluded African-Americans from federal employment and federal contracts. …