Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality

Article excerpt

Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality. By Eric Arnesen. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001. Pp. 332. Prologue, illustrations, conclusion, notes, acknowledgments, index. $39.95.)

Brotherhoods of Color provides a comprehensive history of African American railroad workers' organizing efforts from the industry's beginnings through the 1990s. Enlivened by stories of individual leaders and rank and file workers, the narrative includes a balanced assessment of divergent strategies and organizations and a careful evaluation of complex legal cases.

Excluded from the supervisory positions of conductors and engineers and from membership in white craft unions, blacks were concentrated in service jobs where they experienced many indignities connected with the Jim Crow system. Blacks also worked as construction and maintenance-ofway workers, yard laborers, and freight handlers. In the South, blacks did gain jobs as locomotive firemen and brakemen but were paid less than their white counterparts. World War I brought new job opportunities and federal promises of equal pay for equal work. After the war, however, white workers conducted a sometimes murderous campaign to drive African Americans out of skilled jobs and secured contract provisions benefitting whites at the expense of blacks. The first significant gains came when unions representing predominately black work groups won collective bargaining elections under New Deal labor laws.

Arnesen integrates the well-known story of A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) into a narrative of numerous organizations pursuing varied strategies to improve the lives of distinct categories of African-American railroad workers. Arnesen sees the Socialist-led BSCP and the Communist-led Joint Council of Dining Car Employees as "racial unions that turned the disadvantage of race into organizational assets and transformed trade unions into civil rights associations" (p. 101). Both organizations received support from community groups, improved their members' work lives, and promoted civil rights activism. The United Transport Service Employees of America organized station red caps and played a similar role. All three black-led unions participated in the larger white-led labor movement.

Independent associations existed among black craft workers excluded from white unions. The independents sought help from managers and federal agencies, worked for legislation against discriminatory contracts and the killing of black railroaders, and pursued redress through the courts. …

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