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This Day in Labor History: August 6, 1944

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On August 6, 1944, Philadelphia’s transit strike over hiring black drivers ends. This strike, done shortly after D-Day and when the nation was moving toward winning the war, demonstrates the intensely felt white supremacy of the white working class and the difficulties of interracial organizing in American history. Once again, white Americans placed their white ideology over their class ideology. But this time, it didn’t work.

World War II brought unprecedented opportunities for Black workers. They had to struggle for every one of them. A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington Movement forced a reluctant FDR to issue Executive Order 8802, requiring the desegregation of the defense industry. But it was a hard struggle even from there. Many firms hired as few Black workers as possible and the white workers, many of whom were now women filling the jobs of men in the war, resisted this the entire way. Even at the end of the war, the number of Black workers in decent union jobs remained too small, even though what did happen helped build a middle class that would help support the burgeoning civil rights movement. Moreover, the law got stronger over the war. In 1943, Roosevelt issued another executive order mandating non-discrimination clauses in government contracts.

White workers would and did respond to the arrival of Black workers with violence. During the war, as happened in World War II, both white and Black workers arrived from the South and those white workers brought their racial ideology with them. It took very little to convince the immigrant workers and now the children of those immigrants that white supremacy was in their interests. They had already done so, by and large. And so the arrival, hiring, and especially promotion of Black workers could lead to violence and strikes. The most notorious example of this was the Detroit Hate Strike, when Packard decided to try and bust the United Auto Workers by promoting Black workers and provoking the white workers to strike. Sometimes, this example is dismissed by labor people who for ideological reasons want to downplay the problem of racism in the American labor movement. But the only way they can do that is if no one knows all the other examples. Philadelphia in 1944 is one of them.

The federal government got fed up with Philadelphia’s intransigence on hiring Black workers by the second half of the war. The city was causing the administration problems. The city was the second largest military production center in the nation and it was not following national mandates on hiring Black workers. The NAACP protested and put pressure on the Roosevelt administration to enforce the law. The Philadelphia Transit Company only hired Black workers in menial jobs. Because of federal pressure, it finally hired eight Black workers as motormen, paying them equal to whites. Management was hostile to this too and it took about 18 months of consistent federal pressure to accomplish this.

The response of the white workers for the PTC was walk off the job in racist protest. These workers were unionized with a variety of unions. One was the Transport Workers Union, though they were a small minority in Philadelphia. The TWU was generally a progressive union and it supported the hiring of the Black workers. But the white workers didn’t care. They weren’t going to support a union that didn’t reinforce their own racism. The TWU tried to get the workers back on the job, but they kept calling out sick in an organized sick-out. Most of the workers were in the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Employees Union, led by Frank Carney, who led the strike. For years, Carney had resisted any movement to hire Black workers in anything but the most menial jobs.

Once the strike started, Carney appealed to the odious Howard Smith, the segregationist Virginia congressmen and chair of the House Committee to Investigate Executive Agencies. Carney wanted Smith to destroy the Fair Employment Practices Commission that would allow for Black workers to enter white jobs. Smith gladly moved forward on this and immediately scheduled a hearing, much to the anger of the administration. Meanwhile, Black workers made the argument that if they could use a tank in a war, they could work running a streetcar. There was plenty of tensions on the streets during the strike, but the police presence kept actual violence to a minimum, even if the cops were racist too. One of the reasons for this was the wartime nature of the strike, in which many people, racist themselves, felt that such a strike was unpatriotic and hurting the soldiers.

Finally, the Roosevelt administration used the Smith-Connolly Act. It did so reluctantly. FDR had vetoed the bill the year before, after the 1943 coal strike which led right-wingers to seek to repeal much of the labor protections of the New Deal. Roosevelt was furious with John L. Lewis over that strike, but he also saw the bigger issues at hand. The law allowed the federal government to operate industries where unions struck during the war. So it used the tool it had. If Roosevelt was going to use this law, it was going to be to strike against a racist strike. He brought in the military on August 3. The streetcars started again. Even this was not enough to immediately end the racist strike. Roosevelt had Major General Philip Hayes in charge of the operation. On August 6, Hayes stated that he would strip these striking workers of their draft deferments and take away their War Manpower Commission certificates that allowed them to get good jobs during the war. This ended the strike immediately. Angry and bitter, the racist whites returned to the job.

One lesson here–strikes are not always good. What matters is not just the use of worker power. It’s what workers use their power for. In the case of using their power for racism, which throughout labor history has been right at the top of many white American workers’ agenda, the strike must be condemned.

As workers came back on the job on August 7, all were welcomed back except for the four strike leaders, including Carney.

The number of Black car drivers doubled by the end of the September and grew rapidly from there. By the end of the war, 537 Black workers labored for the PTC, out of the 11,000 workers. At least in this case, white supremacy lost.

This is the 449th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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