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This Day in Labor History: November 22, 1887

[ 15 ] November 22, 2012 |

On November 22, 1887, a group of white vigilantes crushed a Knights of Labor led strike of black sugar workers in the fields around Thibodaux, Louisiana. Fighting back against largest black social movement in the state since the end of Reconstruction, whites killed dozens and perhaps hundreds of black workers, seeking to take control of the racial hierarchy, state politics, and labor relations back from empowered African-Americans.

Slaves had made up the sugar workforce before 1865 and with the failure of Reconstruction to give blacks meaningful rights, the white plantation owners sought to reinstitute conditions as close to slavery as possible. The Louisiana Sugar Planters Association determined to keep wages as low as possible. Workers made about 60 to 65 cents a day, paid in company scrip that kept them dependent upon the white economic structure. But black workers never accepted white attempts to recreate dependence. They fought back in many ways, including by striking. Beginning in 1880, sugar workers engaged in some sort of protest each year over the conditions they faced.

By 1886, the determined struggle of the Louisiana workers attracted the Knights of Labor. Although the Knights would fall into decline after the Haymarket Riot, in 1886 it was at its height and the sugar workers welcomed its organizing expertise and national following. In a world where the American Federation of Labor, founded in that year of 1886, would explicitly exclude black workers (among a lot of others), the Knights being willing to cross racial boundaries is notable and important. Many of the Knights’ local assemblies were segregated, but sometimes they were integrated. With the Knights’ support, worker organizing increased rapidly. A planter wrote in 1886 that employees “are becoming more and more unmanageable. By degrees they are bringing the planter to their way of thinking in regard to how they should work and no telling at what moment there will be a serious move to compel the planter to comply with any request.”

Boarding House for Sugar Workers, Louisiana

Workers took serious actions as 1887 went on. As early as January, 15 workers went on strike. For instance, a striker named Adam Elles was arrested and charged with preventing Nelson Christian, a black Union veteran, from working. As the summer slid into fall and the harvest season approached, whites became increasingly fearful of mass action. Local newspapers began reminding readers of the horrors of black political action, tying that into larger paranoia of black-on-white violence that southern whites had connected to mobile and empowered black labor going back at least a century.

On October 19, the Knights local in Morgan City met to fashion its list of demands for regional sugar workers. This included a raise to $1.25 a day, biweekly payments, and cash pay instead of the company store scrip. Junius Bailey, a former slave who was now president of the Knights’ joint local executive board, sent a letter to the sugar planters that read, “should this demand be considered exorbitant by the sugar planters…we ask them to submit such information with reason therewith to this board not later than Saturday, Oct. 29 inst. or appoint a special committee to confer with this board on said date.” The sheer existence of such demands and such a letter were outrageous to a white elite who still considered enslavement the rightful status of its labor force.

At its height up to 10,000 workers were on strike, although there’s no way to actually know and the number may have been created for journalistic shock value. In response, Thibodaux whites organized the Peace and Order Committee. Led by Judge Taylor Beattie, an ex-Confederate, planter, and former member of the Knights of the White Camelia (a Louisiana white supremacist paramilitary organization similar to the KKK), the Peace and Order Committee declared martial law over Thibodaux’s black population. It also made blacks show a pass to stay in the city, a policy reminiscent of the slave passes that regulated black movement before 1865.

Over the next two weeks, tensions continued to rise. On November 22, the Peace and Order Committee closed the roads into Thibodaux and decided to end the labor uprising once and for all. Mary Pugh, owner of the Live Oak plantation said that unless this strike was repressed, “white people could live in this country no longer.” On the morning of the 22nd, the militia walked into town and just started killing black people. A couple of strikers fought back, wounding two militia members. But the militia went house to house, pulling out black people and executing them in cold blood. Black workers fled out of the city and the strike effectively ended.

The numbers of dead remain unknown. At least 35 were killed. But some have estimated that number could be as high as 300. That’s a big disparity. Counting numbers of dead black people or dead striker was not exactly a priority of Gilded Age America and so you see significant death toll disparities in cases like this. The aftermath was one of joy for the region’s white elite. The editor of the Thibodaux Star, who had been a member of the murderous militia, wrote of “negroes jumping over fences and making for the swamps at double quick time. We’ll bet five cents that our people never before saw so large a black-burying as they have seen this week.” Mary Pugh wrote, “I think this will settle the question of who is to rule, the nigger or the white man? For the next 50 years but it has been well done & I hope all trouble is ended.”

Even after the Thibodaux Massacre, the sugar workers continued to fight. The Knights of Labor proved useless in organizing in the wake of violence; like with Haymarket, this was not what Terence Powderly had planned for. But these workers were politically mobilized and in 1888, despite the repression, black voters outnumbered white voters. Segregation and Jim Crow was not just about political control. As the whites of Louisiana made very clear as they repealed black voting rights with maximum violence during the late 1880s and 1890s, this was about keeping labor under control–cheap, exploitable, and within the racial hierarchy.

I used Rebecca Scott’s Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery as the major reference for this piece. Check it out if interested.

This is the 45th post in this series. The rest are digested here.

Oh yeah, Happy Thanksgiving. Maybe give a few thanks to the workers who suffered and died over the years to make your lives better.

Dozens and Dozens of Black People

[ 92 ] November 15, 2012 |

Charlie Webster, Chair of the Maine Republican Party:

In some parts of rural Maine, there were dozens, dozens of black people who came in and voted on Election Day. Everybody has a right to vote, but nobody in town knows anyone who’s black. How did that happen? I don’t know. We’re going to find out….

I’m not politically correct and maybe I shouldn’t have said these voters were black, but anyone who suggests I have a bias toward any race or group, frankly, that’s sleazy.

As a Democrat, let me say how much I love this version of the Republican Party. Can I suggest a prominent speaking role for Webster at the 2016 Republican National Convention?

Dunham

[ 86 ] October 11, 2012 |

Ta-Nehisi Coates is correct. The attacks on Lena Dunham as the ultimate purveyor of white privilege in the arts are utterly bizarre. This isn’t to say Dunham doesn’t benefit from white privilege or shouldn’t think of casting non-whites in her show, but she hardly benefits more than anyone else and is hardly more guilty than anyone else.

Race, Not Abortion

[ 61 ] September 28, 2012 |

I can’t recommend this Amanda Marcotte piece enough. Abortion has no negative net effect on the Democratic Party’s struggles with the white working-class over the past 40 years. Those problems revolve around white people’s racism.

This Day in Labor History: September 22, 1946

[ 22 ] September 22, 2012 |

On September 22, 1946, the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural & Allied Workers of America (FTA) reached a contract agreement with the Piedmont Tobacco Company, marking an early victory in the CIO’s Operation Dixie campaign.

In the aftermath of the World War II, the Congress of Industrial Organizations wanted to expand American unionism to southern factory work. It faced a huge problem in doing this–a problem it had experienced in northern unionized factories–racial animosity at the workplace. Could class solidarity overcome the combined enemies of racial prejudice and employer race-baiting? The CIO bet that it could. Moreover, the CIO knew it had better work because it could see the writing on the wall. It knew that companies were already looking for cheap, nonunion labor in the South. If it couldn’t organize the South, then what was already happening in the textile industry would decimate American unions throughout the North.

As the CIO was planning Operation Dixie, tobacco workers in Winston-Salem, North Carolina went on strike. The tobacco leaf houses were highly segregated workplaces. The CIO knew it could not organize the South without breaking down segregation at work. Among the most segregated workplaces were the tobacco factories. Low-wage black labor made up the majority of the workforce for the job of stripping tobacco leaves from the stems, a difficult process to mechanize.

One of the largest factories was the R.J. Reynolds factory in Winston-Salem. Workers had joined Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural & Allied Workers of America in 1943, winning collective bargaining rights and giving African-American workers access to political power for the first time since the white supremacist crushing of the biracial Populist coalition in eastern North Carolina at the end of the 19th century. The FTA was a radical union with significant connections to communists in the North and a deep commitment to fighting for class inequalities and racial prejudice.

By 1946, R.J. Reynolds was an extremely profitable company as it fully benefited from the postwar economic boom. Workers around the nation were striking for better wages since their earning power had been so negatively effected by inflation and price controls stemming back to 1942. The contract the FTA signed in 1943 was up that May and the union determined to fight for better rights for all its workers. Local 22 had several demands–reduction of racial inequity in wages, paid holidays, and a seniority system that would prevent the company from eliminating areas of the workforce strongly union through mechanization. In fact, R.J. Reynolds had been doing just that–since the 1943 contract, the company had invested heavily into stemming technologies to undermine the black union militants in that job. In 1945, RJ Reynolds employed 3533 workers in the stemmeries. In 1946, that number had fallen to 1415. Nearly every one of those laid off workers was a black union member.

At first, R.J. Reynolds refused to negotiate on any issue, especially the seniority system. But fearful of a strike affecting the opening of the yearly tobacco markets, the company flinched when Local 22 called for a strike to begin on July 15. The company caved on most issues, including taking power away from foremen to play workers off each other through granting arbitrary raises to workers they liked.

That was the easy part. The independent tobacco houses were even more intransigent. Attention focused on the Piedmont Tobacco Company. Growing militant leadership at the small leaf houses were ready to provide a strong challenge to racial segregation and poor pay and working conditions in these companies. The union and its supporters believed that the intransigence of the small companies came from racial prejudice, with executives angry that black workers had gained rights. One small company fell on July 31, signing a contract with Local 22. The other companies attempted to hold out. Strikers marched in downtown Winston-Salem, showing pictures of the shacks where they lived on their placards, asking onlookers, “Would you like to live here?”

The strike continued. On August 23, the police cracked down. A truck broke the picket line. The police facilitated this but didn’t give the strikers time to move. The strikers fought back. One, a woman named Margaret DeGraffenreid, was arrested and beaten, suffering a head injury. Reynolds workers joined the fray and scuffles with police broke out along the line, fights that were essentially racial in nature. 3 workers, including a writer for The Workers’ Voice, a communist newspaper out of New York, were sentenced to hard labor.

Despite this repression, the black workers of Winston-Salem continued pressing on. They worked with the largely white farmers of the North Carolina Farm Bureau to build a farmer-worker alliance. Despite the racial tensions that I’m sure were there, it was so much in the interests of the tobacco farmers to get their crops to market, that the Farm Bureau put pressure on the leaf companies to agree to a contract.

On September 22, the FTA and Piedmont signed a contract that was a minor victory for the union–no union shop (although the companies were 90% unionized at this point), but some wage hikes and the first paid holidays these workers ever had–July 4, Labor Day, and Christmas. But the fact that they even agreed to a contract in the first place was an important victory.

After winning in Winston-Salem, the union expanded quickly through the tobacco factories of North Carolina, winning 22 of 24 union elections, a total of around 10,000 workers. The CIO officially announced Operation Dixie in its aftermath, sending 200 organizers around the South to organize the region on an industrial basis.

Ultimately, Operation Dixie failed, a topic that will receive attention again in this series. Despite the early victory in Winston-Salem an the other regional tobacco factories, McCarthyism and Taft-Hartley combined to destroy Operation Dixie and undermine CIO radicalism. The northern communists the CIO relied upon for organizers and publicists were expelled from the labor movement. The right to work rules in the Taft-Hartley Act gave southern states a major tool to beat back the incipient unionization they faced during Operation Dixie. Without the radical edge, there really wasn’t much of a reason for the CIO to exist independently of the American Federation of Labor, leading to their reunion in 1955. And the strike didn’t really lead to long-term unionization of the leaf factories. With the ejection of the communists from the FTA, the CIO sought to undermine its own union to purge the left. In 1950, divided, R.J. Reynolds busted the union entirely.

All in all then, the defeat of Operation Dixie is a fundamental moment in the history of American labor’s decline. Maybe it didn’t have to be that way.

Much of the information for this post comes from Robert Korstad’s Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South. You should read this book.

This is the 42nd post in this series. You can read the rest of the series here.

What, No Blackface?

[ 104 ] September 2, 2012 |

Civil War reenactors are, by and large, a depressing lot:

Some re-enactors have formed camp bands to play music that soldiers enjoyed hearing around battlefield campfires. The most popular tunes included songs from the minstrel stage.

Groups such as the 2nd South Carolina String Band pride themselves on their accurate impressions — right down to the exaggerated black dialect of songs with inescapably racist overtones.

Unfortunately, the AP story is short and underdeveloped. However, here’s an interview with the 2nd South Carolina String Band, an interview which jaw-droppingly openly discussed the performance of minstrel songs without a single mention of the racism of the time.

This Day in Labor History: September 2, 1885

[ 68 ] September 2, 2012 |

On September 2, 1885, white miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming decided to exterminate the town’s entire Chinese community. Whites killed at least 28 Chinese miners in the Rock Springs Massacre, demonstrated the power of white supremacy to the Gilded Age white working class, and is a prime example of how employers have fomented racial tension throughout much of American history.

White Americans hated the Chinese.

There isn’t really much reason to complicate the above sentence when talking about the 19th century. Its truth is indisputable. From the moment, whites crossed the deserts in search of California gold and realized, what!, there are Chinese people here! (and Mexicans and Indians and Chileans and a lot of other non-whites), they wanted to eliminate them. In California, they very quickly stole the mine claims from the Chinese and forced them do to traditional female labor in this all-male society (this is the root of the Chinese laundry and ubiquitous small-town Chinese restaurant). The Chinese, desperate to find economic opportunities not existent in their home country, still continued to come to the United States, despite the racism and violence they faced.

This led to the first successful labor movement in the American history–the working-class led movement to end Chinese immigration. This is an important point–the Chinese Exclusion Act was the culmination of a working-class movement. That 1882 act ended Chinese immigration for 10 years, but was no guarantee to the permanent dominance of white supremacy.

Of course, employers understood how they could take advantage of this racial animosity to divide their labor forces. The railroads jumped all over Chinese labor. The Central Pacific Railroad used the Chinese as nearly slave labor to build the Transcontinental Railroad, starving them when they protested over their terrible conditions. 10% of the 12,000 Chinese laborers who worked on building that railroad over the Sierra Nevada died on the job. The conditions weren’t that much better for the Chinese in Wyoming in the 1870s and 80s.

The Union Pacific Railroad, who owned a tremendous amount of western land thanks to federal handouts to entice railroad construction, first brought in the Chinese to their western Wyoming coal mines in 1875 after white labor struck over low wages. When Union Pacific broke the white union, only 50 whites were hired back to go with the 150 Chinese laborers. The numbers of Chinese miners grew over the next few years, with whites angry first that the Chinese were taking away jobs that rightfully belonged to whites and second that they took jobs for less money and worse conditions than whites would tolerate. Many of the white miners belonged to the Knights of Labor, which opposed Chinese immigration (as did most labor organizations during these years). Throughout 1885, beatings of the Chinese increased in towns throughout Wyoming. In August, miners placed notices across the western Wyoming mining camps demanding the expulsion of the Chinese.

On September 1, white miners met at night and while we don’t know exactly what happened in that meeting, it seems clear that the plans for the next day were set. The next morning, 10 members of the Knights walked up Chinese laborers in a mine and told them they had no right to work. They then beat 2 Chinese miners, 1 to death. Over the next few hours, a mob gathered in the center of town. Armed with rifles, around 150 whites marched into Chinatown.

At first, the miners gave the Chinese an hour to pack up and leave. But they got tired of waiting around. 30 minutes later, they opened fire, killing a Chinese miner named Lor Sun Kit. The Chinese panicked and began fleeing out of town in any possible direction while the whites beat, robbed, or killed everyone they could find.

Said the survivors in a report to the Chinese consulate in New York:

Whenever the mob met a Chinese they stopped him and, pointing a weapon at him, asked him if he had any revolver, and then approaching him they searched his person, robbing him of his watch or any gold or silver that he might have about him, before letting him go. Some of the rioters would let a Chinese go after depriving him of all his gold and silver, while another Chinese would be beaten with the butt ends of the weapons before being let go. Some of the rioters, when they could not stop a Chinese, would shoot him dead on the spot, and then search and rob him. Some would overtake a Chinese, throw him down and search and rob him before they would let him go. Some of the rioters would not fire their weapons, but would only use the butt ends to beat the Chinese with. Some would not beat a Chinese, but rob him of whatever he had and let him go, yelling to him to go quickly. Some, who took no part either in beating or robbing the Chinese, stood by, shouting loudly and laughing and clapping their hands

That night, nearly every building in Chinatown was burned. The majority of the dead were burned in their homes, either unable to leave because of illness or injury, or unwilling to leave and tried to hide in a cellar or some other seemingly safe place.

The survivors fled to Evanston, after being picked up by passing Union Pacific trains, but that town was no more welcoming to the Chinese than Rock Springs. The governor of Wyoming appealed to President Grover Cleveland for federal troops to quell the rioting; the latter, always willing to send in federal troops to crush organized labor (even if in this case they deserved it), obliged. Six companies of troops arrived in Rock Springs a week later to escort the Chinese back to Rock Springs where they found ashes and the unburied bodies of their friends and family, half-eaten by dogs and vultures. The Chinese just wanted out of Wyoming at this point, but Union Pacific had no interest in giving up their cheap, exploitable labor. They first asked for railroad tickets to another state and then asked for two months of back pay the company owed them. Union Pacific refused all requests. The Chinese at first refused to work, fearful for their lives, but then the company stopped feeding them, leaving them a choice of whether to work or leave Wyoming on their own.

White miners throughout Wyoming went on strike to protest the return of Chinese labor to the mines, but the strike was defeated and the Chinese remained. A few whites were arrested, but all were released in a month. No one ever faced charges for the murders.

The expulsion of Chinese laborers from workplaces and towns around the West continued through the 1890s.

On a closely related note, I sadly must mention the passing of Alexander Saxton, author of The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California. This powerful book opened new doors in American labor history, complicating traditional narratives of a heroic labor movement bound by democracy, noting that racial ideology was absolutely central to any understanding of working-class history. One of my critiques of the field of labor history is that, more than any other U.S. history subfield and the social movements to which they relate, many of its practitioners seek to serve the labor movement. This is often deeply problematic, as a lot of labor historians buy into the myths and grand narratives of labor’s past. Saxton helped defuse some of these myths. I also didn’t know his own personal history, which is pretty amazing.

This is the 41st post in this series. The other posts are archived here.

Fear of a Black President

[ 49 ] August 25, 2012 |

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay, “Fear of a Black President,” is probably the best essay on this country I’ve read in 2012. It’s hard to even know what to excerpt here. Of many excellent passages, I’ll go with this one:

What we are now witnessing is not some new and complicated expression of white racism—rather, it’s the dying embers of the same old racism that once rendered the best pickings of America the exclusive province of unblackness. Confronted by the thoroughly racialized backlash to Obama’s presidency, a stranger to American politics might conclude that Obama provoked the response by relentlessly pushing an agenda of radical racial reform. Hardly. Daniel Gillion, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies race and politics, examined the Public Papers of the Presidents, a compilation of nearly all public presidential utterances—­proclamations, news-conference remarks, executive orders—and found that in his first two years as president, Obama talked less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961. Obama’s racial strategy has been, if anything, the opposite of radical: he declines to use his bully pulpit to address racism, using it instead to engage in the time-honored tradition of black self-hectoring, railing against the perceived failings of black culture.

His approach is not new. It is the approach of Booker T. Washington, who, amid a sea of white terrorists during the era of Jim Crow, endorsed segregation and proclaimed the South to be a land of black opportunity. It is the approach of L. Douglas Wilder, who, in 1986, not long before he became Virginia’s first black governor, kept his distance from Jesse Jackson and told an NAACP audience: “Yes, dear Brutus, the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves … Some blacks don’t particularly care for me to say these things, to speak to values … Somebody’s got to. We’ve been too excusing.” It was even, at times, the approach of Jesse Jackson himself, who railed against “the rising use of drugs, and babies making babies, and violence … cutting away our opportunity.”

The strategy can work. Booker T.’s Tuskegee University still stands. Wilder became the first black governor in America since Reconstruction. Jackson’s campaign moved the Democratic nominating process toward proportional allocation of delegates, a shift that Obama exploited in the 2008 Democratic primaries by staying competitive enough in big states to rack up delegates even where he was losing, and rolling up huge vote margins (and delegate-count victories) in smaller ones.

And yet what are we to make of an integration premised, first, on the entire black community’s emulating the Huxt­ables? An equality that requires blacks to be twice as good is not equality—it’s a double standard. That double standard haunts and constrains the Obama presidency, warning him away from candor about America’s sordid birthmark.

All I can say is that I am extremely excited for Coates’ book on African-Americans and Civil War memory to come out.

And if you haven’t read this essay, put down what you are doing and spend the next 10 minutes on it. It’s amazing.

Southern Man

[ 11 ] August 25, 2012 |

This is the kind of politician that really makes one respect southern state legislatures:

State Sen. Jim Summerville, of Dickson, was removed as chairman of the Senate’s higher education subcommittee after sending an email stating he didn’t “give a rat’s ass what the black caucus thinks” after the group of black lawmakers criticized the subcommittee’s inquiry into a grading controversy at Tennessee State University.

When asked about the email Thursday at Dickson Municipal Court, where Summerville represented himself and was found not guilty for violating the state dogs-at-large law, the senator replied: “Is there anything about the (email) statement that’s unclear?”

Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham announced Thursday that Summerville, R-Dickson, would be replaced immediately.

Although I suppose one should note that a southern white man being punished for saying this does show improvement, despite what is no doubt the massive sympathy he is getting behind the scenes from his Republican colleagues.

The Quiet Part Loud

[ 34 ] August 20, 2012 |

Republicans are really on top of their game today:

Why do Ohio Republicans suddenly feel so strongly about limiting early voting hours in Democratic counties? Franklin County (Columbus) GOP Chair Doug Preisse gave a surprisingly blunt answer to the Columbus Dispatch on Sunday: “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban—read African-American—voter-turnout machine.” Preisse is not some rogue operative but the chairman of the Republican Party in Ohio’s second-largest county and a close adviser to Ohio Governor John Kasich.

The biggest weakness of the Voting Rights Act is that it doesn’t apply to the entire country.

Is West Virginia America’s Most Racist State?

[ 93 ] June 11, 2012 |

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s piece from a couple of days ago explaining his research connecting racially charged Google searches with voting patterns for Barack Obama has made the rounds. And while I’m not a political scientist and so won’t judge the quality of the research, it certainly passes the plausibility test in my mind. Since very few people will self-identify as racist, going to Google searches to find high concentrations of racially charged searches is as good a way as any to get a spatial sense of modern racism. Where do people make lots of racist Google searches?

The state with the highest racially charged search rate in the country was West Virginia. Other areas with high percentages included western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, upstate New York and southern Mississippi.

Little of this surprises, except maybe that eastern Kentucky isn’t listed. Appalachia was always the biggest spot of resistance to Obama, where you had insanely high vote totals for Hillary Clinton in the 08 primaries because a whole lot of people in Appalachia just weren’t going to vote for a black man. And just a few weeks ago, a convicted felon won 41% of the vote in the Democratic primary for president in West Virginia–I know it wasn’t a serious race, but there’s a good number of Democratic West Virginians who are flat out racist.

On the other hand, Obama also faces pressure from the Latino population for his continued record rate of deportations. I expressed optimism when Obama announced he would deprioritize the deportations of non-criminals, but that’s had almost no effect. Unfortunately, Obama used undocumented immigrants as pawns in his game to gain credibility from Republicans that he should have seen was never going to come. Given the massive resistance Obama faces from the people who hate him, some of which is racial and some of which is just political extremism on the right, the right way to govern would be back way off all deportations and work hard to bring Latinos deep into the Democratic coalition. Most Latinos aren’t going to vote for Romney anyway but with their rapidly growing numbers, making the Democrats the party of immigrants and their families is smart long-term strategy.

This Day in Labor History: June 6, 1943

[ 11 ] June 6, 2012 |

On June 6, 1943, nearly 30 leaders of the Packard Hate Strike in a United Auto Workers-organized plant in Detroit were suspended from their jobs. The culmination of a series of white supremacist wildcat strikes in the first half of 1943, the Packard Hate Strike shows both the tenuousness of the white working class’ commitment to their unions as well as the progressive leadership of the United Auto Workers in standing up to its own members in support of class solidarity regardless of race.

Labor was in flux during World War II, with great anger over rising prices without an increase in wages, workers who both wanted to use their newfound militancy to improve their lives while being patriotic workers at the same time, union leaders who had to walk a fine line between satisfying their militant workers and keeping them working while at the same time learn how to sit at the tables of power with those who hated everything unions stood for and government officials who despised the militant tactics that got them there.

This volatility was exacerbated by the migration of African-Americans to defense plants during the war. The Great Migration of African-Americans from the South began during World War I, but continued right on through World War II. African-Americans were looking to escape their own terrible labor and social conditions: sharecropping, exploitation, lynching. Between 1915 and 1970, approximately 6 million African-Americans left their homes in the South for the cities of the North and, increasingly, the West. They were looking for good industrial jobs in the factories. Sometimes, white factory owners would recruit them explicitly as a union-busting tool, either as scab labor or to create racial tensions that would preclude organization. Fights on the factory floor were part of doing business, unionization was not. White labor was migrating from the South as well. This was especially true from Appalachia, as people left the impoverished coal fields of Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee for the same jobs African-Americans wanted. When African-Americans arrived in the cities, they did generally find more opportunities than at home, but faced all sorts of problems, including a horrible housing situation, which only got worse because the strict boundaries of segregated neighborhoods did not easily grow when more blacks moved in and thus overcrowding was a major issue.

All of this created an unstable stew of resentment in Detroit. The already existing white population in Detroit may not have had as defined and aggressive a sense of white identity as the southern whites, but they proved ready learners. As companies had done for decades, the auto manufactures intentionally promoted black labor in order to divide the union and the workers allowed their racial identity to trump their class identity. Or more specifically, racial and class identities were one in their belief of a white working class. Non-white labor was thus as great a threat as the worst boss or anti-labor legislation.

As blacks moved into the auto plants during the war, white labor revolted. Throughout early 1943, about a dozen wildcat (unauthorized) strikes broke out. At times, black workers walked off the job, sick of the discrimination they faced that extended into the shop stewards and other elected union leadership. The biggest white racial job action was at Packard. There, on June 3, 25,000 white workers went on strike when the company promoted three black workers. Packard did this not out a commitment to racial equality, but to destroy the union from within. Packard’s personnel director, C.E. Weiss, was a horrid racist who talked about his inability to promote blacks because they played dice on the job. Weiss also bragged about being the first executive to bring blacks north to bust unions, when he worked for Chrysler in 1917. Equally anti-union, Weiss decided to divide the UAW through promoting a few blacks. Racial division became a useful strategy in a post-NLRA world when overt union-busting was harder to pull off.

Whites walking off the job at Packard, June 3, 1943

Both UAW leadership and the federal government reacted very strongly to this racial walkout. UAW leadership, including Walter Reuther, were committed to racial equality on the job, but the feelings of high-ranking leadership don’t necessarily have much power over the vast and deeply held racism of the membership. The UAW ordered their members back to work the next day, but thousands remained on the racist picket line. The UAW blamed Packard for this and went to Washington for help ending it. The War Labor Board sent a telegram telling the workers to go back on the job to “resume production of vitally needed war material at once.” The government sent out the message that it would fire anyone who did not go back to work. The combined opposition of the government and the union, two institutions most of these workers believed in very strongly, ended the strike. Thirty of the strike ringleaders were suspended on June 6 and the strike ended the next day. The UAW had already created alliances with the NAACP and local black organizations. Their strong response in favor of black labor cemented that alliance, earning the union great respect within the black community and the national civil rights movement as a whole.

The Packard Hate Strike was just a foretaste of the racist feast to come that summer, when a mere two weeks later, the Detroit Race Riot of 1943 would break out, leading to 34 dead over three days after a fight, with all the white hatred over black incursions into their jobs and neighborhoods spilled over. It took federal troops to put this down. Japanese propagandists began to use the racism in Detroit to try and convince blacks to stop fighting.

Racial tension remained a major issue within the UAW for several decades after the war, something the union constantly tried to educate their workers on while not giving an inch on its overall program of graduated civil rights. The UAW would be the greatest union ally to Martin Luther King.

Much of the information about this strike came from August Meier and Elliott Rudwick’s 1979 book, Black Detroit and the Rise of the UAW.

This series has also discussed the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and the Oakland General Strike of 1946.

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