What If Labor Were Not
White and Male?
Before becoming the greatest historian of race and class of his generation, Alexander Saxton was a young activist working in the railroad industry. In a lengthy article for the Daily Worker during World War II, he captured the complexity of racial discrimination among railway unions. The brotherhoods that organized railroad labor included several unions that historically had the worst records of attempting to enforce what one commentator called the “Nordic closed shop” in their crafts. By the time Saxton wrote, however, the railway unions had joined in campaigns against the poll tax and against lynching. What they avoided was agitation against “alleged” racism in their own workplaces. When the Fair Employment Practices Committee canceled hearings inquiring into discrimination in railroad employment, the unions rejoiced. Their newspaper observed that in any case, such hearings would be illegitimate if African Americans joined in the deliberations. “There should be on the Committee, ” according to Labor, “no representative of any race or special interest. ” Saxton wryly added, “Apparently white men belong to no race. ” 1
Bernice Anita Reed's fine 1947 study of racial “accommodation” in a West Coast aircraft factory during the second world war likewise lay bare contradictions. Using plant records and hundreds of formal interviews to reconstruct how white and Black workers “harmonized” after the latter group gained entry into wartime aircraft industry jobs, Reed found that open opposition to working with African Americans was immediate and significant, but not at all simple. Frequent voluntary