Joe Debro on racism in construction, Part 5

by Joseph Debro

A 1968 book-length report, titled “A Study of the Manpower Implications of Small Business Financing: A Survey of 149 Minority and 202 Anglo-Owned Small Businesses in Oakland, California,” was sent to the Bay View by its author, Joseph Debro, prior to his death in November 2013, and his family has kindly permitted the Bay View to publish it. The survey it’s based on was conducted by the Oakland Small Business Development Center, which Debro headed, “in cooperation with the small businessmen of Oakland, supported in part by a grant, No. 91-05-67-29, from the U.S. Department of Labor, Manpower Administration, Office of Manpower, Policy, Evaluation and Research.” Project co-directors were Jack Brown and Joseph Debro, and survey coordinator was Agustin Jimenez. The Bay View is publishing the report as a series. A prolog appeared in the December 2013 Bay View, Part 1 in January 2014, Part 2 in February, Part 3 in April, Part 4 in May, and this is Part 5 of the report.

The labor movement from the Civil War to the present

We have seen the debilitating effects of slavery, discrimination and competition from European immigrants on Negro labor and business during antebellum (prior to the Civil War) days. The Civil War, ostensibly fought to liberate the slaves, did much to worsen Black employment problems in the United States.

Leon-A.-Waters-leads-Hidden-History-tour-New-Orleans-General-Strike-1892-first-Black-white-strike-300x225, Joe Debro on racism in construction, Part 5, Local News & Views
Griot Leon A. Waters leads a Hidden History tour on the New Orleans General Strike of 1892, the first one organized by Blacks and whites together. Three unions – two white and one Black – demanded a shorter work day of 10 hours, overtime pay after 60 hours and a union shop. The 25,000 striking workers won a 25 percent wage increase, a shorter work day and other gains. – Photo:

The fate of Negro labor and business during the Reconstruction period is intimately tied to the development of white trade unions, the disappearance of slavery as an institution, and the transformation of a rural, agricultural nation into an urban and industrialized one. Trade unions found their origins largely in the South among white artisans and craftsmen keenly aware of the threat posed by Negro low wage and strikebreaking potential to their economic security.

Competition was heightened through the realization that the country was shifting out of agriculture to a dependence upon urban employment. This change brought with it the simultaneous development of the feeling of a laboring class or proletariat, as well as a reinforcement of the caste relationships between whites and Blacks.

The movement from farm to city forced the proletariat to unite in order to wrest decent pay and working conditions from large corporations, which tended to control entire industries as well as to reduce competition from immigrants and others, including Negroes, who might, through acquiescence to lower wages and acceptance of inferior working conditions, displace native white workers. Thus, the history of the American labor unions, like that of big business itself, is filled with examples of racism, nationalism and exclusionism.

From its very beginning, organized labor in America exhibited elements of racism and exclusionism. DuBois noted the presence of several trade unions prior to the Civil War which excluded Blacks. These were the Caulkers of Boston (1724), the Shipwrights of New York (1803), the Carpenters of New York (1806), the New York Typographical Society (1817) and others (DuBois, 1902:154).

In 1866 and 1869, when the National Labor Union held its first and second conventions, Negroes were requested to form their own labor organization; this was swiftly accomplished, with Isaac Meyers elected as president of the National Negro Labor Congress. Blacks were already specifically excluded by the Cigar Makers National Union in 1868, the International Typographical Union in 1870, the Bricklayers National Union in 1871, and the Carpenters and Joiners Union in 1870 (Hill, 1967:370).

One organization which stood apart from the Negrophobic unions during this period was the short-lived Knights of Labor. At the time of its zenith, during the mid-1880s, of approximately 700,000 members, about 60,000 were Negroes. Blacks were accepted into mixed as well as separate, all-Negro unions.

With the disastrous and bloody riot of Haymaker Square in Chicago in 1885, the enemies of organized labor denounced the Knights of Labor as “anarchistic and communistic” and, by 1894, it was virtually dead. In its latter days, the Knights had compromised on Negro rights under pressure from the AFL.

The history of the American labor unions, like that of big business itself, is filled with examples of racism, nationalism and exclusionism.

The AFL (American Federation of Labor) did not begin with the strong anti-Negro and anti-foreign strains which characterized its later life. In 1890, for instance, the convention declared that “working people must unite and organize, irrespective of creed, color, sex, nationality or politics” (quoted from Proceedings of the 14th Annual Convention of the American Federation of Labor, 1894, p. 25, by Hill, 1967:367).

In 1892, the Marine Firemen’s Union struck when steamer owners refused to pay Negroes the same wages as whites. Also in 1892, the New Orleans General Strike took place in which both Black and white, skilled and unskilled laborers participated.

Anti-union-cartoon-depicts-labor-union-infighting-The-American-Employer-1912-300x181, Joe Debro on racism in construction, Part 5, Local News & Views
An anti-union cartoon published in The American Employer depicts labor union infighting in 1912. The race issue was involved in many of the disputes.

In 1890, the AFL excluded the National Association of Machinists from affiliation because of a limitation of the NAM’s membership to white persons only (Hill, 1967:367). Samuel Gompers, fiery AFL leader during these early years, spoke and wrote eloquently about the inclusion of Blacks into NAM:

“If the colored man is not permitted to organize, if he is not given the opportunity to protect and defend his interests, if a chance is not given him by which he could uplift his condition, the inevitable result must follow, that he will sink down lower and lower in his economic scale …

“If our fellow white wage worker will not allow the colored worker to co-operate with him, he will necessarily cling to the other hand (that of the employer) who also smites him, but at least recognizes his right to work. If we do not make friends of the colored men, they will of necessity be justified in proving themselves our enemies … I wish the slogan would come forth among the toilers of the South, working men organize regardless of color (Letter to Jerome Jones, March 8, 1893, quoted by Hill, 1967:368).

The AFL honeymoon with racial tolerance did not last long, unfortunately. Gompers reversed himself on the machinists, so that by 1895, the NAM changed its constitution to remove the objectionable clause of “white persons only,” thereby shifting discrimination to the union ritual, and gaining entry into the AFL. By 1896, the AFL was ready to accept the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen on a similar basis to that of the NAM, but the BLF members did not accept the dishonest ruse which Gompers proposed.

By 1899, all vestiges of the spirit which pervaded the New Orleans General Strike were gone, especially with the affiliation of such lily-white unions as the Boiler Makers Union and Iron Ship Builders in 1896, the International Brotherhood of Blacksmiths in 1897, the Order of Railroad Telegraphers and the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen in1899 and 1900.

When Booker T. Washington (Spencer, 1955:116-17) or W.E.B. DuBois or some other prominent Negro critic attacked the AFL for its acceptance of all-white unions, the federation would fire back with its references to the New Orleans General Strike and the many pro-Negro statements of the early ‘90s, or it would simply call the critic a liar and let it go at that.

Some member unions, although not the AFL itself, stated publicly that they wished no Negroes to number among their ranks. Gompers became more forward in his defense of white laborers and his indirect slurs on Negro and foreign labor after the turn of the century and allowed many extremely unfavorable articles to appear in the American Federalist, the journal of the AFL.

Joseph Debro, born Nov. 27, 1928, in Jackson, Miss., and a pillar of Oakland until his death on Nov. 5, 2013, was president of Bay Area Black Builders and of Transbay Builders, a general engineering contractor, former director of the Oakland Small Business Development Center and the California Office of Small Business, co-founder of the National Association of Minority Contractors and a bio-chemical engineer.