It's Black History Month, a good time to honor the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, one of the most important yet too often overlooked leaders in the long struggle for racial equality and union rights.
The union, the first to be founded by African Americans, was involved deeply in political as well as economic activity, joining with the NAACP to serve as the major political vehicle of African Americans from the late 1930s through the 1950s.
Together, the two organizations led the drives in those years against racial discrimination in employment, housing, education and other areas that laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement of the1960s.
The need for a porters' union was painfully obvious. Porters commonly worked 12 or more hours a day on the Pullman Company's sleeping car coaches for less than $100 a month. And out of that, they had to pay for their meals, uniforms, even the polish they used to shine passengers' shoes. And they got no fringe benefits.
In order to meet their basic living expenses, most porters had to draw on the equally meager earnings of their wives, who were almost invariably employed as domestics.
It was a marginal and humiliating experience for porters. They were rightly proud of their work, a pride that showed in their smiling, dignified bearing. But porters knew that no matter how well they performed, they would never be promoted to higher-paying conductors' jobs. Those jobs were reserved for white men.
Porters knew most of all that their white passengers and white employers controlled everything. It was they alone who decided what the porters must do and what they'd get for doing it.
When a passenger pulled the bell cord, porters were to answer swiftly and cheerfully. Just do what the passengers asked – or demanded. Shine their shoes, fetch them drinks, make their beds, empty their cuspidors, and more. No questions, no complaints, no protests. No rights. Nothing better epitomized the vast distance between black and white in American society.
Hundreds of porters who challenged the status quo by daring to engage in union activity or other concerted action were fired. But finally, the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt granted workers, black and white, the legal right to unionize. And finally, in 1937 the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters won a union contract from Pullman.
The contract was signed exactly 12 years after union president and founder A. Philip Randolph had called the union's first organizing meeting in New York City. It was a long arduous struggle, but it brought the porters out of poverty. It won them pay at least equal to that of unionized workers in many other fields, a standard workweek, a full range of employer financed benefits. Most important, porters won the right to continue to bargain collectively with Pullman on those and other vital matters.
Union President Randolph and Vice President C.L. Dellums, who succeeded Randolph in 1968, led the drive that pressured President Roosevelt into several key actions against discrimination. That included creation of a Fair Employment practices Commission in housing as well as employment.
FDR agreed to set up the commission – a model for several state commissions – and take other anti-discrimination steps only after Randolph and Dellums threatened to lead a march on Washington by more than 100,000 black workers and others who were demanding federal action against racial discrimination.
Randolph and Dellums struggled as hard against discrimination inside the labor movement . . . particularly against the practice of unions setting up segregated locals, one for white members, one for black members.
Randolph, elected in 1957 as the AFL-CIO's first African–American vice president, long was known as the civil rights conscience of the labor movement, often prodding federation President George Meany and other conservative AFL-CIO leaders to take firm stands against racial discrimination.
The sleeping car coaches that once were the height of travel luxury have long since disappeared. And there are very few sleeping car porters in this era of less-than-luxurious train travel. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters is gone, too. But before the union disappeared, it had reached goals as important as any ever sought by an American union or any other organization.
Dick Meister is a San Francisco based columnist who has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.