On June 7, 1943, 16 black workers at Buckeye Cotton Oil Company in Memphis, a Proctor & Gamble owned operation, went on a wildcat strike in protest of continued workplace discrimination despite federal orders to integrate the defense industry, a sign of the poor enforcement of the Roosevelt administration anti-discrimination initiatives.
Racism was as reflected in the American workplace as much as anywhere else in the nation’s life. White workers had long fought hard to keep workplaces all-white. As the nation prepared for World War II, many defense industry plants refused to hire black workers, even as they were beginning to lose employees to the military. When FDR refused to do anything about it, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters head A. Philip Randolph led the March on Washington Movement, announcing a huge rally to publicize the issue. Roosevelt, who very much did not want the nation embarrassed as it prepared to fight against enemies with horrible racist ideologies, caved and desegregated the defense industry. But it was one thing to issue an executive order. It was another to get white workers and white employers to play along. White workers could respond with great violence to integrated workplaces, as 1943 saw the Detroit Hate Strike, when Packard workers walked off the job in protest of black workers, not to mention participating in the race riots of that year. Roosevelt’s own commitment to racial equality was shaky at best, unlike Eleanor Roosevelt. So for most black workers, not all that much changed.
Black workers in Memphis, a deeply racist city, were stuck in menial and dangerous jobs and if they did work the same jobs as whites, they were paid less. But the tide of unionism that had swept the nation in the previous decades could not help but change work relations in the South too. The workforce at Buckeye Cotton Oil was divided into two unions. White workers were mostly in what was effectively a company union, even if the National Labor Relations Act had declared those illegal. But black workers had joined the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), a multi-racial union focused on some of the nation’s most oppressed workers and with a strong communist tint, including working with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. These mills were among the nation’s biggest supplies of cottonseed oil and cotton linters, which was a fiber product. There were two plants, one 90 percent African-American and the other 70 percent. And they paid white workers a higher wage than black workers.
UCAPAWA and the black workers were understandably angry and fought to change it. The National War Labor Board was concerned. Said a NWLB mediator, black wages were so low, “they are unable to purchase sufficient food and other necessities without falling into debt,” which is exactly where most of them were. Meanwhile, UCAPAWA officials claimed Proctor & Gamble was bribing white workers to form the quasi-company union, which it had in fact done in other factories. The CIO was more or less for racial equality, at least in theory and certainly with many of its organizers. But that didn’t often extend very far down into the rank and file and even leaders opposed it. In fact, the black Buckeye workers faced opposition to their quest from the head of the CIO in Memphis, who was as racist as any other white guy.
UCAPAWA officials also accused P&G of working with the city’s Crump political machine that controlled Memphis politics to send investigators to black workers’ homes to prove the terrible charge that the CIO advocated for racial equality. In fact, Memphis mayor E.H. Crump and A. Philip Randolph spent much of the war as enemies because the latter was doing so much to fight against discrimination on the job. When Randolph and the Porters decided to hold a mass labor meeting in Memphis, Crump used all his power in the black community to squelch it. He did so by having black leaders called in to the local jail and told that if Randolph spoke, whites would start a race riot. Randolph responded by saying at the Porters’ convention, “fascists are represented not only by Mussolini, Hitler, and Hirohito, but by local politicians.” Buckeye was happy to work with a politician like Crump to keep black workers in their place.
And it wasn’t like Buckeye was denying any of the UCAPAWA allegations. They baited UCAPAWA to white workers as a “n—-r union.” Their executives told black workers that they paid whites more because whites had greater intelligence. The strike began over a NWLB hearing on differential pay rates among bleach tub operators. Whites made 64 cents an hour and blacks 53.5 cents. When the arbiter ruled in favor of the company on May 28, anger festered and finally, on June 7, 16 workers walked off the job. Now, like most wildcat strikes of World War II, this was very short-lived and didn’t lead to much in itself. The workers came back when UCAPAWA officials said they would appeal the decision. When the board refused to reconsider it a few weeks later, not much happened.
But this anger over racism on the job and the government’s unwillingness to really do anything about it continued to roil the workforce. More strike threats were made into 1944. Local plant leader Edwin Johnson wrote directly to FDR that they would strike in 30 days if progress was not made. UCAPAWA Local 19, like the other communist-led unions, were outright opposed to any strike that would get in the way of communist policy for all-out war support, but that didn’t much sway the rank and file workers. Interestingly, when the company transferred Johnson off his regular job later in 1944, nearly 900 workers, including many whites, engaged in a 5-day wildcat strike, suggesting at least some racial solidarity in the plant, although I cannot find any details.
We often celebrate the March on Washington Movement for its big success in getting Roosevelt to desegregate the defense industry. We are right to do so. But widespread discrimination continued to exist on the job and black workers suffered tremendously through the war. The government’s unwillingness to prosecute nondiscrimination with any vigor was in no small part because a lot of people largely agreed with white employers about black workers’ role in society and economy. The struggle for civil rights on the job continued for a very long time and indeed, continues today.
The information for this post comes from Laurie Green, Battling the Plantation Mentality: Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle.
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