Joe Debro on racism in construction, Part 6

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, Part 5 in June, and this is Part 6 of the report.

The labor movement from the Civil War to the present (continued)

NAACP-NYC-HQ-banner-‘A-man-was-lynched-yesterday’-1938-by-NAACP-300x226, Joe Debro on racism in construction, Part 6, Local News & Views
A banner announcing a lynching flies from a window of the NAACP headquarters in New York City, 1936. Since the organization’s founding in 1909, the NAACP drew attention to every one of the thousands of lynchings occurring in the U.S. – Photo: NAACP

As more and more white unions gained entrance into the AFL, more and more Negroes lost jobs and the opportunity to enter others. Astute observers of the time such as Durham (1898:222-31), noted that Negroes were being excluded from occupations which they once held under slavery, that Negroes were being segregated into separate locals in trades where whites and Blacks formerly worked side by side, and that the economic plight of the Black was growing worse while unionism advanced. But these cogent arguments for more equitable treatment of Negroes fell on deaf ears within the AFL.

In 1909, the traditional pattern of Black acceptance of his lot began to change with the appearance of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a vociferous organization which protested strenuously the AFL and its anti-Negro policies. DuBois, who was a frequent contributor to The Crisis and other journals, wrote a great number of articles critical of the AFL. Strikebreaking was encouraged when Blacks could not make significant inroads into the unions. Strikebreaking led to bloody racial violence such as the riots in East St. Louis in 1917 and in Chicago in 1919.

Lynchings continued to be a frequent outlet for “cracker” hostility to Black economic strength in the South. The Ku Klux Klan, organized in 1915 partly in response to perceived economic competition with Blacks, claimed a larger following in the North than in Dixie. During the last six months of 1919, at least 25 race riots ripped American cities; mob rule prevailed accompanied by “flogging, burning, shooting and torturing at will” (Woodward, 1957:100). And as Negroes and whites resorted to violence and retaliation, the image of the Black was even further depressed in the eyes of the white, acutely race-conscious public.

The next two decades mirrored the ones which preceded them.

The NAACP, in 1934, sent a delegation to William Green, Gompers’ successor, to present signed statements testifying to acts of racial discrimination by many AFL affiliates. Green assigned a five man committee to investigate the general conditions of Black workers; when the report was submitted and the extremely embarrassing testimony heard, Green refused permission to conduct further investigations.

The AFL remained unchanged in temperament until its merger with the CIO in 1955. By and large, its member unions have not altered their classical stance on white laborers. The main techniques used by AFL unions, and the railroad brotherhoods as well, to exclude Blacks from competition with whites have been enumerated by Hill (1967: 392):

  1. exclusion from membership by racial provisions in union constitutions or ritual bylaws;
  2. exclusion of Negroes by tacit agreement in the absence of written provisions;
  3. segregated locals;
  4. “auxiliary” locals;
  5. agreements with employers not to hire colored workers and other forms of collusion;
  6. separate racial seniority and promotional provisions in contracts, limiting Negro workers to menial or unskilled jobs;
  7. control of licensing boards to exclude Negro workers from craft occupations;
  8. refusal to admit Negroes into union-controlled apprenticeship training programs;
  9. negotiating wages and other terms of employment affecting Negroes while denying them admission into the collective bargaining unit; and
  10. denial of access to union hiring halls, where such hiring halls are the exclusive source of labor supply.

The Negro was not alone in being the object of discrimination in employment after the Civil War, but whereas white Southern and Eastern Europeans and Jews were able to eventually merge into most occupations controlled by the AFL, Negroes and Mexican Americans were systematically denied entry.

Negroes did make more headway in mining and heavy industries requiring techniques of mass production than in the trades and crafts. In 1937, with the formation of the more egalitarian-based CIO headed by John L. Lewis, Negroes found themselves better represented in the United Mine Workers, United Steel Workers of America, United Auto Workers, in the rubber industries, in the packinghouse and textile industries, and so on. Partly because of the inclusion of so many Negroes in the organization and partly because of ideological differences related to the role of the working men in American society, the CIO was expelled from the AFL in the very year of its formation, not to merge again for almost 20 years.

Map-of-US-showing-numbers-of-lynchings-by-state-1889-1918-300x221, Joe Debro on racism in construction, Part 6, Local News & Views
This map shows the numbers of lynchings by state from 1889-1918. Southern states each exceeded 100 lynchings, but only Utah reported none at all. Lynching and organized terrorism like that of the Ku Klux Klan was widely recognized as an effort to put down economic competition from Blacks who operated their own businesses or made demands as workers.

Although the CIO did not display the blatant discriminatory practices against Blacks so strenuously pursued by the AFL, it was far from ideal in its attitudes or relations with non-whites. Many more Negroes were organized by the CIO, but by tradition they were relegated to the least desirable and dirtiest jobs. There were still patterns of segregation in jobs and union meetings and in the fraternal aspects of union life, especially in the South.

Until the merger of the AFL and the CIO, the national leaders of the CIO, and in particular men like John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther, took far more liberal stands concerning fair employment practices for Negroes than Gompers, Green or George Meany, the present AFL-CIO leader, ever considered appropriate. However, local CIO bosses, particularly in the South, most frequently paralleled typical AFL “red neck” treatment of Blacks, with some notable exceptions. On the whole, the Negro labor movement was encouraged by the CIO through its joint efforts with the NAACP and other groups to eliminate impediments to hiring, training and promotion of Negroes.

Hutchinson in his study of the AFL-CIO and the Negro succinctly compared the moieties in terms of general philosophical outlook (1967:420-22):

“The AFL came to maturity in an age when discrimination was popular and nearly universal. White men ran the nation and the crafts; the crafts dominated the AFL. The federation was in fact a confederacy, a creature of delegated and very limited powers, almost impotent on racial questions … The white crafts were the great majority, virtually immune to federal reprisal, jealous of intervention, faithful to the mores, and not at all amused by Negro claims.

“The CIO overshadowed the AFL in both the litany and fact of tolerance. The decade of its birth had a spirit of equality. The leadership of the new movement was ideologically committed to racial justice. Its industrial structure necessarily brought membership to Negroes in large numbers and greater disciplinary power to national offices. Best of all, the system and the payroll brought new strength to Southern men of generous mind. Integrated meetings were an early feature of the CIO in the South. In Texas and elsewhere, the CIO brought Negroes into state and local political organizations and helped them win their right to vote. Interracial social affairs began to take place in the 1940s.

“During the 1950s, the CIO was perhaps the largest institutional contributor to civil rights campaign funds in the South. In 1955, long before any federation mandate, the Texas CIO instructed its officers to hold integrated conventions, and other Southern state bodies followed suit. Organizational power was a factor in conversion, but so were the effects of example. Young racists became mature egalitarians in the ranks. Adolescents who had sought out ‘red-boned niggers’ to molest for sport turned into advocates of racial justice, often at the cost of bodily harm to themselves … There are those who argue that the CIO was the vanguard of the civil rights movement in the South.”

The heartening progress toward union integration was again slowed when the AFL and CIO merged in 1955. Meier explained that:

“The merged labor federation, despite the existence of a civil rights committee, seemed more characterized by the old AFL attitude than by that of the former CIO. This situation led to increasing Negro disillusionment with labor unions … Toward the end of the decade, the situation worsened as a result of the tightening labor market. With fewer available jobs and declining membership rolls, unions were less likely than before to open new opportunities for Negro workers (1967:188-9).”

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.