Asa Philip Randolph demonstrates to black leaders how to build coalitions. Randolph was also realistic about the limitations of his organization. The realization of his limitations led him to seek strategic alliances. While in these alliances he was able to keep control of his union and stay focused on his goal.
Randolph also understood that some organizations could derail his union. If he were to ally with a group that was too radical he would not only hinder the Brotherhood, he would also put many porters in danger. Randolph sought alliances with other mainstream organizations.
As most of the readers already know, Asa Philip Randolph organized The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and obtained a charter from the American Federation of Labor (AFL). He was successful in his efforts because he made strategic alliances to increase his power. An evaluation of the porter’s previous attempts to unionize will be used to demonstrate how “going it alone” is not realistic.
The first attempt to create a porter’s union was in 1890 with the Charles Sumner Association. Charles Sumner was a Senator that fought for Civil Rights. The Pullman Company threatened to fire all the porter’s and hire white replacements. The 1890 strike never happened. The second strike threat occurred in 1897, and again the company threatened to hire white replacements to stop the strike. The closest any porter got to making an appeal for higher wages was getting an editorial in a local newspaper in 1901.
The porter’s primary barrier to successful organizing was a lack of money. In the 1920’s a porter made $1,200 a year. The poverty line in the 1920’s was $1,500 a year. So most porters did not have money for savings or union dues. In addition to only making $1,200, tips composed twenty percent of the salary. As anyone that has worked for tips knows, tips fluctuate, leaving the porter in an even more precarious position.
Not having sufficient income made porter’s even more dependent on the Pullman Company. The company had a porter rule book with two hundred and seventeen rules. When that many rules are in place, every worker made numerous transgression every shift. Pullman had grounds to fire a porter at any time. In addition to not having income or job security, a porter would have a difficult time finding new employment. Pullman specifically recruited dark-skinned black people for the porter job. The job market discriminated against dark-skinned people. The loss of a porter job could be a setback that a black man would never recover.
In 1925, Randolph was selected to run the Brotherhood of Pullman Porters. His job is to finally give the porters a much-needed raise and change the rules to allow for porters to stand up to abuse. Randolph faces many of the same problems previous organizers will face. Membership fluctuates because people can not pay their dues. Instead of simply berating members, he went out to find allies with deep pockets.
Randolph sought out donations from liberal white churches. Donations from white churches keep the Brotherhood afloat for the tumultuous early years. Many of these churches were concerned with the welfare of black people. They have established wealthy membership that kept a steady stream of money flowing to the Brotherhood.
The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was another organization courted by Randolph. The AFL was the largest federation of unions at the time and had deep connections with the Democratic party. Both the AFL and the Democratic party had a long history of racism. In the North, blacks were not allowed in most unions. When unions went on strike, black workers would cross the picket line and fill the empty jobs. The AFL and Democratic party often conspired to create laws and reduce funding that would help black people as a way to retaliate.
Randolph knew that the AFL was the only union organization that could give the Brotherhood validity. Affiliation with the AFL would also give Randolph inside information on various initiatives in Congress. Most importantly the AFL could supply the Brotherhood with money in the event of a strike.
The Brotherhood received AFL affiliate status in 1929. The Brotherhood would pay the AFL $0.35 per member. A full AFL membership union only pays $0.01 per member. Many critics saw this not only as a “slap in the face,” but a poor use of scarce resources. Randolph understood that the AFL membership would be a long and arduous road. If the Brotherhood could survive this probationary period, they could obtain real government influence.
The Democratic party heavily pressured the AFL to begin to incorporate black members. The AFL had a long history of segregation in its affiliate unions. At one AFL conference, the group stated its official goal was to protect the livelihoods of native-born white men. The pressure came from the Democratic party’s need to keep control of the mayorship of many major cities, which had sharp increases in their black population. Also, the Democratic party wanted to pull membership away from third parties such as Democratic Socialists and Communists. The Democratic party could reduce the threat of a third party by being more inclusive.
Randolph garnered the most criticism for his introduction of AFL president William Green in Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. He said Green was the second Abraham Lincoln coming to rescue the black worker from industrial bondage. Many critics used this overly enthusiastic introduction as proof Randolph was using the porters as inroads into the AFL. The AFL had a long history of excluding black people and had not allowed the porters to enter as full members.
The election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt 1932 was the jumpstart that both the Brotherhood and the AFL needed to merge. FDR instituted the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 and expanded the Railway Labor Act to include airlines. These laws set specific procedures to form a union, address grievances, and to go on strike. The introduction of a union-friendly administration increased membership in the Brotherhood of Pullman Porters. It is not a coincidence that the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters got an official charter from the AFL in 1935. Having an administration that was friendly to the cause of black liberation had substantial effects. In 1937, the Brotherhood signed a contract with the Pullman company for higher wages and improved working conditions.
Many of today’s black leaders speak of black people becoming independent. Black organizations talk about divorcing themselves from white money and white members. Historically, completely isolated organizations do not work. It would be advantageous to look at what A. Philip Randolph’s alternatives were in the fight against the Pullman Corporation.
The obvious ally would be various black organizations around at the time most notably, the black church. If all these black organizations “pooled their pennies together” they could have serious money to fight injustices. The only problem with the strategy is that all the other black organizations had similar, if not worse money problems. In fact, Pullman gave generous donations to black churches to help in the fight against the Brotherhood. The Chicago branch of the National Urban League fought against the Brotherhood because of a large Pullman donation. The National Urban League funded most of the black politicians. Therefore, many of Chicago’s black politicians were against unionization. The lack of money in the black community hurts black organizations. Most black organizations are more concerned with getting donations to stay afloat and are willing to compromise ethics to get the donations.
The Brotherhood could have enlisted wealthier members of the black community. There were some prominent members of the black community that could have provided money. However, many felt threatened by the prominence of the porter’s in the black community. The few black professionals in major cities enjoyed being the wealthiest black people in town. If the porters obtained fair wages, they could challenge their status in the community. Most black professionals were deeply invested in Orange Meme striving. They were not interested in helping others.
One could say if you were going to ally with white people at least partner with white people that were integrationist from the beginning. The biggest rival to the AFL at the time was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). IWW was integrationist from inception in 1905. One of the founding members, Lucy Parsons, was born a slave in Texas. The IWW wanted to do away with the wage system and put workers in charge of the means of production. The IWW put itself in direct opposition to the AFL that wanted “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.” If the Brotherhood joined IWW, they would have to challenge Pullmans validity in running the railroad.
The IWW radicalism also led to scrutiny by authorities. In 1906, the murder of an Idaho Governor implicated an IWW leader. Citizen accused IWW member of rioting in Butte, Montana in 1914. Migratory farmers were also a large part of the IWW membership. Unfortunately, migratory farmers were looked down upon and blamed for many unsolved crimes. Migratory farmers were called hobos in the 1920’s and viewed negatively by the general public. The activity that put the IWW the most at odds with the Federal government was its outspoken stance against World War I.
Many unionist believe the government systematically targeted the IWW to cause its downfall. Numerous high profile cases plagued the organization from the early 1910’s to 1920’s. By 1925, the organization was a shell of itself. The union will recover in 1960’s, but the 1920’s was a dark time for the IWW. Randolph understood what the IWW was going through and was smart to keep the Brotherhood away.
Eugene V. Debs, one of the founders of the IWW, was a hero of Randolph. Randolph wrote about Debs’ philosophy in college and his first years at “The Messenger.” Even though Randolph personally agreed with the philosophy of the IWW, including the IWW’s stance against war, he knew a partnership would not be practical. Randolph knew how to set his personal feelings aside for the good of the group.
Randolph’s life and work demonstrate effective leadership. It is a model that more black leaders should follow. He understood the limitations of his group and worked with organizations that would complement the Brotherhood. Once Randolph determined which organizations could be of service to him, he put aside his personal feelings a pursued the alliance. His efforts ultimately culminated in the first contract between a black union and a major corporation. Randolph’s pragmatism is something to admire.