On April 17, 1937, tobacco workers in Richmond, Virginia went on strike in what became pioneering civil rights labor organizing in the South, laying the groundwork for the rise of the Black labor struggle after World War II.
The 1930s were a heady time for Black organizing in the South. The New Deal changed the equation of what was possible in America. Even given the many racist aspects of the Roosevelt era programs, Black organizers found new opportunities in the New Deal. Young Black organizers began to fight for greater rights and felt that they would not repeat the mistakes of the past. The Southern Negro Youth Conference (SNYC) formed spun out of the National Negro Congress. A young man named James Jackson became its leader. He was involved in rare interracial organizing among leftists at Virginia college in the 1930s. Meanwhile, tobacco work remained highly segregated in Virginia factories. Black workers were paid peanuts for doing very hard labor while whites held the more prestigious and better paid jobs in these factories.
On April 17, 1937, at the Carrington & Michaux Tobacco Factory in South Richmond, fifteen machine operators got sick of the conditions in which they worked and stopped laboring for fifteen minutes. After all, they were making about $1.20 a day for extremely difficult work. That’s about $24 a day today, so think of this as $2 an hour wages in the present. Absolutely unlivable. The restrooms were an abomination, it was tremendously hot and working fans were largely not provided. Workers had to buy food on credit, which kept them in permanent debt.
One woman yelled “Strike!!” and the message spread around the factory. The company threatened the workers with firing. During lunch break, the workers decided to strike. Three hundred refused to work. The company closed the factory for the day and fired the workers it considered leaders.
The workers wanted a union. They contacted both the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The CIO, brand new and without many resources, responded that it wasn’t ready to move into tobacco yet. The AFL’s tobacco-based craft union, the Tobacco Workers International Union (TWIU) were indifferent. That union, originally founded in the 1890s, had initially had Black workers in leadership but soon expelled them all and became an all-white union, typical of the AFL and accepted employers race-based job system that forced Black workers into the worst and lowest-paying jobs. This was a pretty ineffective union. Unable to really organize the big tobacco companies effectively, such as RJ Reynolds, it tried a boycott in the 1910s and 1920s, but almost no one paid attention. In any case, the TWIU refused to let these workers affiliate with them. TWIU president E. Lewis Evans noted that his union had not struck since 1900 and didn’t want to include strikers now. So yeah, real useful organization there.
But the workers did not lose faith because they couldn’t get the AFL or CIO to help them. Moreover, Black organizers in the South were ready to move, especially the Southern Negro Youth Congress. It brought an organizer down from Detroit to assist, got the editor of a local Black newspaper to represent the workers, and created a negotiating committee to bargain with the company for and with with the workers. They came up with a quick set of demands–better restrooms, shorter hours, higher wages, and no discrimination against union members. The company offered only a pittance, but finally agreed to a five cent an hour increase, as well as the restrooms and shorter hours. It was a big early victory for the workers. They then formed their own union, the Tobacco Stemmers and Laborers Union (TSLU).
The SNYC and tobacco workers quickly built on this win by expanding their labor militancy to other Richmond tobacco houses. A strike at a different factory five days later for similar demands led to reports of booming chants and songs coming from the strikers. The company was able to hire a few scabs to process the tobacco already in the factory, but the strikers threatened the scabs with sticks and they ran away. The company quickly caved, gave workers most of what they wanted though less so on the wages and now there was a second TSLU local.
A first victory can be an anomaly. A second victory meant a movement. Many workers credited Franklin Delano Roosevelt for giving workers the power to change their lives. Of course, now both the AFL and CIO showed interest after workers did all the hard work themselves. The CIO had sent an organizer to Richmond, but that was to work with white textile workers. He allowed Jackson and other TSLU organizers access to the office, but didn’t pay them so they had to work other jobs while also organizing. The TWIU also then entered the fray and offered the workers affiliation in segregated locals. To say the least, the workers had no interest in the AFL and made fun of the federation’s desperation in private letters. The TWIU then decided to try and get the companies to sign sweetheart deals that would give no power to the TSLU. Eventually, the TSLU did join the CIO as something called Local 472.
More workers at more companies soon joined the union and went on strike. Some started fighting against the racism of job classifications as much as anything else. The SNYC did a lot of organizing within Black Richmond itself. Older and wealthier members of the community were very nervous about this organizing and challenging Jim Crow. The union faced challenges too. The CIO was overextended with the steel campaign in the North and not really offering resources for TSLU. The companies counter-attacked and sought to bust unions. They also courted Black ministers to run anti-union propaganda for them. Shouting occurred in the churches as ministers denounced the union to their members who were in the union. No doubt the ministers got a nice donation for that. Meanwhile, any tentative alliances made with Richmond’s white liberals disappeared after Joe Louis defeated Max Schmeling, which led to Black celebrations in the street, a white driver plowing his car into the crowd, and a huge fight developing after that.
In 1938, the union kept pressing its advantage, leading to more strikes and more victories. The CIO really began to pay attention now. Other related unions such as United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), a leftist CIO union organizing a lot of Mexican-American workers in the West, gave a bunch of money. CIO speakers came down to rally the workers. White workers began to pay some limited attention too. CIO’s textile organizing led to white women holding a rally in favor of TSLU. James Jackson led the negotiations for TSLU and he was pretty uncompromising with the so-called “Virginia Way,” which was the less-aggressive white supremacy based more on ideas of “civility” than outright violence, completely rejecting the paternalism at the heart of it. Of course the companies were furious for even having to speak to a Black man as an equal across the negotiating table. And TSLU won. They got a new contract in 1938 that increased wages again and improved conditions.
After this, the companies got even more aggressive against the workers, using more scabs during strikes and ramping up the open racism instead of the genteel racism they preferred. The union ramped up the aggression too. But the SNYC and TSLU expanded its organizing across the Piedmont and into the giant corporation RJ Reynolds down in North Carolina. After the Fair Labor Standards Act forced companies to pay a federal minimum wage, it started rethinking the entire labor structure of the industry, laid off Black workers, and increased productivity for the remaining workers while also replacing Black workers with white workers.
Finally, as the CIO did nationally, the TSLU organizing finally forced the American Federation of Labor to actually organize workers. The TWIU issued its first strike in 39 years(!!). This actually hamstrung the TSLU as the companies sought to replace Black workers with white workers. The TWIU was not going to be the Black freedom organization that the TSLU was, to say the least. But while the TSLU was not going to become the dominant organization in the South, it laid the groundwork for Operation Dixie, the 1946 attempt by the CIO to organize the South. TSLU joined with UCAPAWA in 1942 and it was tobacco that was the most successful part of Operation Dixie.
I borrowed heavily from Erik Gellman’s excellent Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights in the writing of this post.
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