"It Ain't Your Color, It's Your Scabbing": Literary Depictions of African American Strikebreakers

Article excerpt

I wonder why
They are so shortsighted
As not to realize
That every time
They keep any worker,
man or woman,
White, yellow, or black,
OUT of a UNION,
They are forcing a worker
To be a SCAB,
To be used AGAINST THEM?
--from "The Negro Worker"

These lines of verse, published in The Messenger in July 1919, make a point about strikes that is frequently disregarded in the hundreds of pages of fiction by social realists who addressed the major labor struggles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: "[A]ny worker / man or woman, / White, yellow, or black" could be a strikebreaker. In the West, for example, railroad and mining company managers used workers from countries such as China, Italy, Greece, Japan, and Mexico to break strikes, fully aware that these immigrants would have no allegiance to the ethnic groups who had thrown down their tools in protest. Surprisingly, strikebreaking even crossed class lines as upper and middle class male college students also took on the role of strikebreaker to express their antagonism toward workers. (1) The variety of sources of strikebreakers is not fully reflected in the fictional response to the strike. In some of the most significant radical fiction of the early twentieth century, black workers--more than any other group--are curiously cast in the villainous role of "scab." In the span of a few decades, these literary depictions ranged from collective racist stereotypes to sympathetic psychological portraits of the pressures faced by the African American laborer.

Ample evidence of friction between whites and blacks can be found in some of the U.S. labor movement's key strikes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (2) The use of black troops offers the earliest examples. Black soldiers were used against striking miners in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, in 1892 and 1899, because African Americans "were believed much less likely than white troops to fraternize with the strikers" (Norwood, Strikebreaking and Intimidation, 85). In addition, black troops guarded trains and railroad property during the Pullman Strike of 1894. Regarding African American civilians, the Knights of Labor and the newly developing American Federation of Labor (AFL) successfully attracted African American workers, and examples of interracial unity both in the workplace and during strikes can be found. But as the lines from "The Negro Worker" also imply, some unions excluded black members. If blacks were welcomed as members, they faced discriminatory policies under a second-class status. Blacks were denied work on union projects despite membership, or they were denied better jobs despite seniority. Unions failed to protect blacks from racial hostility, and blacks charged union leaders with ignoring their complaints of discrimination. The development of segregated locals was another sign of trouble. Before the Civil War, Frederick Douglass wrote in favor of labor unity between African American and white workers; however, when he realized that labor was doing little to lessen racial animosity, he came out in favor of blacks taking the jobs of strikers: "Colored men can feel under no obligation to hold out in a 'strike' with the whites, as the latter have never recognized them" (qtd. in Foner, Organized Labor, 7). As America's industrial revolution picked up steam, this issue came into greater prominence in most mass production industries in cities in the North. Racism fueled an African American labor force ready and willing to break strikes.

One of the earliest and most significant fictional treatments of African American strikebreakers is found in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906). The labor struggle in the canonical novel is based on the unsuccessful stockyard strike by thousands of packinghouse workers and mechanical tradesmen of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen in Chicago in 1904. African Americans had been used as strikebreakers in the meat packing industry at least as early as 1894, in response to a sympathy strike by packing and slaughterhouse workers who supported Eugene Debs and the American Railway Union during the Pullman Strike. …