Racism, Railroad Unions, and Labor Regulations

By Bernstein, David E. | Independent Review, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Racism, Railroad Unions, and Labor Regulations


Bernstein, David E., Independent Review


Until recently, labor historians mostly ignored or whitewashed the role of racism in the American labor movement. Influenced by Marxist interest-group theory that attributes nearly all societal conflict to economic class conflict, these scholars assumed that labor conflicts involved oppressed workers with a common interest on one side and powerful employers or capitalists on the other. If labor unions treated African Americans, Latinos, and Chinese poorly, they did so because of the manipulation of capitalists who sought to divide the working class, not because of white workers' own endogenous racism.

Modern labor historians are less enamored of the cruder forms of Marxism and much more willing to recognize that racism suffused and to some extent even motivated organized labor from the post-Civil War period through at least the late 1930s. However, these labor historians ignore the significant role "progressive" labor laws played in giving racist labor unions the power to exclude African Americans and other minorities. For example, several recent articles and theses have discussed how the American railroad brotherhoods attempted to exclude African Americans from the occupations held by their members (Arnesen 1994, Sundstrom 1990, Taillon 1997). These works fail to note that labor laws granting those unions monopoly power were crucial to the ultimate exclusion of African Americans from many railroad occupations.

Origins of the Conflicts between African Americans and Railroad Unions

From the late nineteenth century through the New Deal era, tens of thousands of African Americans found relatively remunerative work on American railroads. Most of those workers were unskilled laborers, but African Americans were also well represented in semiskilled positions, such as fireman and trainman, particularly in the South.

The opportunities semiskilled African American workers found in the railroad industry were perpetually endangered by the racist policies of the railroad unions. The so-called operating unions, representing workers in train and engine service, launched collective bargaining in the 1880s and developed into some of the strongest unions in the United States. The shop-crafts unions and other so-called nonoperating unions developed more slowly, but gradually they too gained power.

Almost all of the major railroad unions banned African Americans from membership by constitutional provision. African Americans were also banned from other unions that had large memberships among railroad workers, including the Boiler-makers, the International Association of Machinists, and the Blacksmiths. White workers understood that excluding African Americans undermined labor solidarity and made it much more difficult for their unions to negotiate successfully with railroad management. One Texas fireman nevertheless declared that "we would rather be absolute slaves of capital, than to take the negro into our lodges as a [sic] equal and brother" (Arnesen 1994, 1629).

The brotherhoods were initially successful in excluding African Americans from jobs in which few African Americans were employed; railroad management did not want to risk racially motivated strikes if no ready reserve of African American workers existed to replace striking whites. For example, because African Americans had never acquired many jobs as conductors or engineers, it was not difficult to exclude them from those jobs (Sundstrom 1990). In the North and West, firemen and brakemen were initially overwhelmingly white. The entrenched white workers insisted on applying a stringent color line, and railroad managers usually capitulated (Harris 1982, 41; Arnesen 1994, 1608).

The trainmen and firemen brotherhoods had far more difficulty excluding African Americans from their crafts in the South, because many African Americans had entered those occupations at a time when the jobs were hot and dirty and therefore considered "Negro work. …

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