It is one of the great ironies of American labor history that enslaved workers toiled at a wider variety of skilled tasks than did their descendants who were free. Slave owners had an economic incentive to exploit the multifaceted talents of blacks in the craft shop as well as in the kitchen and field. But after emancipation, whites attempted to limit blacks to menial jobs. Throughout the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, blacks as a group were barred from machine work within the industrial sector, and from white-collar clerical and service work. "Modernization" wore a white face.
The interviews contained in this volume shine a harsh light on the nuts-and-bolts scaffolding of American workplace apartheid. Eyewitness testimony reveals not only the political economy that undergirded racial segregation on the job, but also the wide range of tactics on the part of African-American labor organizers who resisted it. Focusing on the city of Memphis, Tennessee, editor Michael Honey has assembled a story told through more than two dozen voices, a story about African-American men and women workers who literally risked their lives on the shop floor, day in and day out, trying to provide for their families.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Memphis was a place where blacks were concentrated in the lowest-paying, dirtiest, and most hazardous jobs, and where the political establishment (the noxious, violent Boss Crump machine) routinely colluded with employers to harass and assault union organizers. Within this state-sanctioned system of segregation, industrial unionism represented the most progressive force for change, and the leaders interviewed here recount their toughest battles in the period immediately following World War II. We hear from workers who were employed by large corporations such as Firestone, Fisher Body, and International Harvester; from those who worked as Pullman porters, domestic employees, and longshoremen; and from low-wage workers in furniture factories, commercial laundries, and food processing plants.
Many had moved to Memphis from the surrounding countryside, where their parents had labored as sharecroppers, receiving their pay more often in promises than in cash. Factory work represented a step up and out of the plantations, sawmills, and lumber camps, and the steady wages offered by the biggest plants, especially Firestone, were higher than the pay earned by African-American post office employees, nurses, or school teachers.
Throughout the city's work sites, two Jim Crow principles pertained. First, work with sophisticated machinery was off-limits to black workers. In the words of Lonnie Roland, a worker at Firestone, "There was an unwritten law that black people couldn't work high-skilled jobs, couldn't have no top jobs operating no machine." Second, as a group, blacks could not aspire to promotions. Unlike their white counterparts, who often began working at menial tasks and then progressed to different departments and better-paying jobs, blacks remained in "black" departments regardless of their age, skills, or experience.
Employers and white employees went out of their way to engage in what can only be termed the ritual humiliation of blacks. It was not enough to have separate bathrooms for blacks and whites; the "black" bathrooms were often located far from specific workplaces, forcing employees to spend a good deal of their break getting there and coming back. It was not enough to have separate water fountains for blacks and whites; the "black" fountains were never cleaned, and the water was always warm. Federal Compress (where bales of cotton were readied for textile mills) resisted installing electric fans, though black workers were sweltering in concrete buildings that approached 100 degrees. The owner of a Memphis dry-cleaner fired women employees rather than let them talk to one another on the job.
Out of self-interest, the white-led unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor worked hard to exclude blacks from higher-paying jobs. Still, the perversities of Jim Crow are fascinating: By refusing to grant their black employees minimally decent working conditions, many employers faced constant turnover and other disruptions to their operations. Rather than reward black workers who performed well at their jobs, employers, police, and white co-workers alike attacked them. Black men who had a new car to show for their efforts ran the risk of being ticketed or having their tires slashed; in particular, apparently the sight of a shiny red car driven by a black man enraged white men of all classes.
In the late 1930s, the entering wedge against this system consisted of African-American organizers for relatively egalitarian international unions affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), including the United Auto Workers, the United Furniture Workers of America, and the United Rubber Workers. The odds against their success were formidable. White workers rejected the unions that welcomed blacks, and employers conspired with the local police to harass and intimidate black activists (Memphis Furniture made special clubs that the cops wielded against strikers).
The FBI helped to foster the delu-sion that racial justice and industrial unionism were synonymous with communism throughout the South. Of a black man elected president of a local United Furniture Workers union and assumed by whites to be a communist, union organizer and civil rights activist Leroy Clark noted, "It wasn't a question of him being a Communist, it was just a black young fellow who was a way ahead of his time in fightin' racism--he was just way ahead of his time." For the most part, even CIO unions purged their ranks of radicals, and the internationals deferred to local white business agents and shop stewards bent on upholding the status quo.
In fact, the hard-won victories of CIO affiliates cracked a number of job barriers but also created a new battleground: the integrated shop floor. Supervisors gave black employees misleading or confusing instructions and then fired them for failing on the job. In an upholstery plant, blacks had the right to apply for "white" jobs; but if they did not qualify, they were fired. White co-workers kept up the pressure. At Firestone, Evelyn Bates went from sorting tires outside, standing in water and fending off snakes and wasps, to working as the first black woman in the rubber-testing lab, where she had to contend with resentful white co-workers. ("They would treat you so bad, until you couldn't do the work.") Whites sabotaged the machines operated by blacks and refused to do their part on hazardous assembly lines, putting blacks constantly in fear for their lives.
One of the remarkable themes to emerge from these interviews is the idea of accommodation as a form of resistance. Several men and women speak defiantly of their ability to "take it," to endure harassment in the workplace for years on end--for Leroy Boyd, 44 years at Federal Compress; for Irene Branch, 25 years of night work at Firestone. Branch tells of working with the carcinogen lampblack (used in making tires) and of swallowing her anger in the presence of white co-workers: "It was really tough. You could be working side by side with a white person, and they'd get double the money you got... . But you had to take it, see!" Through sheer determination, several workers were able not only to care for their families, but even to put their children through college and professional school, an act of ultimate defiance against Jim Crow.
Readers who pick up Black Workers Remember hoping to find evidence of interracial solidarity on the job will be sorely disappointed. There are no white heroes in this book. White men came to work each day prepared to do physical battle with black men, and took their fight outside the workplace if they felt they had to. White women tended to be less physical but just as mean in their behavior toward black women. Toward black men, they could level accusations (of rape, lewdness) that were downright deadly.
During the 65-day strike of municipal sanitation workers in 1968, black workers wedded union activism with civil rights protests in an effort to defy the "plantation mentality" of Mayor Henry Loeb, one of the worst of Memphis's racist, anti-union employers. (In the city as a whole, nearly six out of 10 black people lived below the poverty line.) It was only with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4 that public opinion finally pressured Loeb to recognize American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1733.
Yet in a bitter twist of fate, just as Memphis blacks achieved a measure of justice in the workplace, the largest employers closed their doors in search of cheaper labor elsewhere, in the process shredding the stable working class and increasing the number of the working poor. When Firestone and International Harvester left town in the 1980s, white workers blamed black activists--didn't the unions drive these plants out?--and dismissed the devastation that deindustrialization wrought on black community and family life.
To some readers, the stories of these black workers might amount to little more than quaint relics of the past. Yet it would be a mistake to label this book as history pure and simple. The African Americans interviewed here claim that economic rights must form a key component of citizenship rights, and that claim resonates today in the global marketplace.
It is not necessarily true that "any job is a good job" (the mantra of welfare "reformers"). For people without much in the way of formal education, a good job consists of a decent wage; a safe workplace, one free of occupational hazards and co-worker harassment; and the opportunity to seek a higher-paying position within the company. The African-American community continues to nourish an oral tradition that links bad jobs to the slave past (the plantation transferred to the modern service sector, for example), and cynicism as well as job-turnover rates will remain high among people who can hope for nothing more than the minimum wage and dead-end work.
In Memphis in the 1960s, sanitation workers were paid so little they qualified for food stamps, blurring the line between gainful employment and government assistance. Today, the insistence that poor women find a job, any job, means that the state continues to subsidize low-wage employers. Just as whites used blacks as scapegoats for the disappearance of factory jobs in the 1970s and 1980s, so whites today blame affirmative action policies for the disappearance of jobs claimed by the global economy and technological innovation.
Finally, these stories remind us of the strangely bifurcated ideologies of citizenship and workers' rights. As a nation, we no longer tolerate the idea that the right to vote should be denied to certain groups of citizens (with the exception of convicted felons); but we accommodate ourselves quite easily to the fact that many millions of full-time gainfully employed people cannot support their families. By linking economic well-being to citizenship, the workers interviewed in this volume give voice to the enduring ideal of a living wage as a right, not a privilege. That ideal isn't history, but perhaps it's just a way ahead of its time.
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