On July 6, 1968, the first Chicago bus drivers’ wildcat strike of that summer ended, a key moment to discuss the relationship between Black Power, the workplace, and racial issues within union locals in the late 1960s.
There’s no way around that the fact that the American labor movement was extremely undemocratic by 1968. That was true on the international level, but it was often equally true in the locals, run by people holding on to their small fiefdoms. Moreover, a lot of the aging leadership in these unions were white while the workforce was increasingly African-American. When black workers demanded their voice be heard in their unions, those white union leaders often didn’t want to hear it.
That’s what happened on June 30, 1968, at the meeting of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 241 in Chicago. By the mid-1960s, black drivers held a small majority of Chicago bus driving jobs, but held no leadership positions in the unions because retirees had voting rights and the white leadership made sure they continued to vote in order to keep the leadership white. Over the past few meetings before June 30, black workers had risen to air their grievances, mostly demanding that the retirees voting be limited to issues that immediately affected them, such as their pensions. But immediately the local’s white president would end the meeting by banging the gavel. On June 30, a black driver named Eugene Barnes told union leadership that if the meeting was not reopened, black drivers would walk off the job the next day. The leadership blew him off.
This was a risky move. Striking outside the contract and without the support of the union meant these workers could be fired. But this was also a period where growing black militancy for their rights gave their organized action a lot of force. Some of it was local, including growing anger at the Daley machine for keeping black jobs lower paid and black politics out of power. But much of it was national–the growth of the civil rights movement, as well as the rise of Black Power and the Black Panther Party, which many workers sympathized with. Many of the black driver leaders were Black Power activists as well. For many parts of the black Chicago, driving a bus was about a good a job as you could get. But tensions grew. In December 1967, as black drivers parked their cars outside the building to get their stuff before going home, the all white transportation security force began harassing them. An altercation resulted, the security officers attacked a black worker, a few black workers were friend, and a 1-day walkout got them rehired. Very angry, in February, the black workers formed a caucus inside the union called the Concerned Transit Workers, which for many black drivers, was the first time they felt comfortable inside a union meeting.
The announcement of the walkout on the night of June 30 required some quick organizing. But it worked. Bus service nearly stopped on the west and south sides of Chicago. Despite the Black Power commitments of some of the drivers, they were also quite conscious of the need to organize white drivers and did bring a few along, but the North Side was a rough row to hoe for them. On July 6, Mayor Daley convened a meeting that led to an agreement to eleven of the CTW’s twelve demands, which included safer working conditions, better scheduling methods, transparent disciplinary procedures, and at least consideration of black workers for Local 241 leadership positions. They only thing they did not win was back pay for the strikers. But the ATU leadership was not at that meeting and did not respect its result. Local 241 president James Hill responded that “the strikers are in for a rude awakening” if they “think there are any commitments.”
The next union meeting was in early August. It was tense. Hill ignored the black drivers’ motions and refused to consider the retiree issue. When he moved on and called on a white driver, that guy told him the black drivers were right. Hill declared it was too humid to continue the meeting and adjourned it. On August 6, they announced a new strike to begin on August 24, the same day the infamous Democratic National Convention was to begin. This was definitely not a coincidence. In response, Hill asked international ATU leadership to put the local into receivership. The international then attempted to appoint some non-active black drivers to temporary appointments to buy off the militants, but each and every one rejected the appointment. There was no compromise.
When the second strike began, the union’s white leadership, Mayor Daley, and the media blamed it on crazy black militants who would enforce the strike with violence. The police responded with typical thuggery and some arrests, but the strike was almost totally non-violent, with nothing more than some nails in bus tires. The strikers made a little more impact on the North Side this time, but only reduced bus service there by about 20 percent. White workers simply weren’t going to show solidarity with black workers, with a few exceptions. The local asked for and received an injunction from a white judge. But the workers said they didn’t have to follow it since the CTW wasn’t a real organization with actual membership. It was just an affinity group, not an incorporated organization. CTW leaders stayed at home and their wives and children picketed instead. Nothing an injunction could do about that, or at least they hoped, falsely as it turned out in the end.
Moreover, the strike tapped into Chicago’s civil rights community. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Jesse Jackson both came out in solidarity with the black drivers. Many of the strikers had of course supported King’s 1966 campaign to desegregate Chicago housing and had driven buses through the riots after King’s assassination just a few months before their strike. Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket and the CTW began organizing alternative modes of transportation to get black workers to their jobs so they weren’t hurt by the strike. And then, on September 4, Muhammad Ali addressed the strikers. The workers may not have been Nation of Islam members, but Ali was a hero. Said one driver named Ozie Davis, “there was a lot of talk of black power and you felt it in your bones.” All of this inspired the strikers and gave them a sense that standing together in solidarity could lead to a victory.
It certainly wasn’t easy. The strikers soon ran out of money. The police especially harassed anyone on the North Side to keep the strike from spreading there. At the DNC protests, Bobby Seale implored the white student protestors to give money to the strikers. But the crackdown on the protests made that not really workable. Still, it seemed like they might win. Solidarity efforts with the elevated train workers were coming to fruition and shutting those down seemed possible in the near future. But on September 8, one of the strike leaders urged workers to return to the job based on a vague promise from a judge. Workers became confused and the thing started to fall apart. It lasted another week, but ended then. The workers had to go ask for their jobs back. At least 100 were fired. The white union leaders were ecstatic.
Sure, the strike failed, but the movement continued. The fired drivers worked with Jesse Jackson to create a secret alternative union that would go public as the real bargaining agent once they had a majority of the drivers. That didn’t work as the judge’s vague promise that helped divide workers proved false when he wouldn’t certify a new union election. They ran an alternative slate of candidates for the new leadership elections in 1969, ironically led by a white man named George Wallace, but narrowly lost. A lot of the fired strike leaders went into other black activism work, including fighting against raising bus fares and for equitable transportation access, of all which did force the city to respond.
Like the rest of the Black Power movement in Chicago, the black workers didn’t win. But they did create long-term challenges to white supremacy in the city’s politics and unions that paid off in the long run, including in the Harold Washington campaign. Some of the strike leaders became major black politicos in Chicago over the next several decades. For many of the strikers, Black Power on the job meant both race and class solidarity. The two things could not be separated and they were more than happy to organize with white workers for greater justice for all, if only the white workers would organize across race too. Most would not, but that’s on the white workers, not the black ones.
I borrowed from Erik Gellman’s 2014 article in Labor, “In the Driver’s Seat: Chicago’s Bus Drivers and Labor Insurgency in the Era of Black Power” to write this post.
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