‘The Negro and Organized Labor’ by Ben Fletcher from The Messenger. Vol. 5 No. 7. July, 1923.
In these United States of America, the history of the Organized Labor Movement’s attitude and disposition toward the Negro Section of the world of Industry is replete with gross indifference and, excepting a few of its component parts, is a record of complete surrender before the color line. Directed, manipulated, and controlled by those bent on harmonizing the diametrically opposed interests of Labor and Capital, it is for the most part not only a “bulwark against” Industry of, by and for Labor, but in an overwhelming majority of instances is no less a bulwark against the economic, political and social betterment of Negro Labor.
The International Association of Machinists as well as several other International bodies of the A. F. L. along with the Railroad Brotherhoods, either by constitutional decree or general policy, forbid the enrollment of Negro members, while others if forced by his increasing presence in their jurisdictions, organize him into separate unions. There are but few exceptions that are not covered by these two policies and attitudes. It is needless to state that the employing class are the beneficiaries of these policies of Negro Labor exclusion and segregation. It is a fact indisputable that Negro Labor’s foothold nearly everywhere in organized labor’s domains, has been secured by scabbing them into defeat or into terms that provided for Negro Labor inclusion in their ranks. What a sad commentary upon Organized Labor’s shortsightedness and profound stupidity. In these United States of America less than 4 per cent of Negro Labor is organized. Fully 16 per cent of the Working Class in this country are Negroes. No genuine attempt by Organized Labor to wrest any worthwhile and lasting concessions from the Employing Class can succeed as long as Organized Labor for the most part is indifferent and in opposition to the fate of Negro Labor. As long as these facts are the facts, the Negro Section of the World of Industry can be safely counted upon by the Employing Class as a successful wedge to prevent any notable organized labor triumph. The millions of dollars which they have and continue to furnish Negro Institutions will continue to yield a magnificent interest in the shape of Negro Labor loyalty to the Employing Class.
Organized Labor can bring about a different situation. One that will speed the dawn of Industrial Freedom. First, by erasing their Race exclusion clauses. Secondly, by enrolling ALL workers in their Industrial or Craft jurisdictions, in the same union or unions, and where custom or the statutes prohibit in some Southern states, so educate their membership and develop the power and influence of their various unions as to force the repeal of these prohibition statutes and customs. Thirdly, by aiding and abetting his entrance into their various craft jurisdictions, unless he comes, of course, as a strike breaker. Fourth, by joining him in his fight in the South to secure political enfranchisement. Fifth, by inducting into the service of organized labor, Negro Labor Organizers and other officials in proportion to his numbers and ability.
The Organized Labor Movement has not begun to become a contender for its place in the Sun, until every man, woman and child in Industry is eligible to be identified with its Cause, regardless of Race, color or creed. The secret of Employing Class rule and Industry’s control, is the division and lack of cohesion existing in the ranks of Labor. None can dispute the fact that Organized Labor’s Attitude of indifference and often outspoken opposition to Negro Labor, con tributes a vast amount to this division and lack of cohesion.
Organized Labor Banks, Political Parties, Educational Institutions, cooperatives, nor any other of its efforts to get somewhere near the goal of economic emancipation from the thraldom of the rich, will avail naught, as long as the color line lies across their path way to their goal and before which they are doomed to halt arid surrender. Until organized labor, generally casts aside the bars of race exclusion, and enrolls Negro Labor within its ranks on a basis of complete sincere fraternity, no general effort of steel, railroad, packing house, building trades workers or any workers for that matter, to advance from the yoke of Industrial slavery can succeed. Just as certain as day follows night, the Negro will continue to contribute readily and generously toward the elements that will make for their defeat. Personally, the writer would not have it otherwise unless organized labor, majorly speaking, right about faces on its Negro Labor attitude and policy!
Signs are not wanting that men and women of vision in the ranks of organized labor, of both the radical and conservative wing, are alive to the necessity of a re formation of organized labor’s attitude on the Negro, and are attempting to bring their various organizations in line with such organizations as the United Mine Workers of America. Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the Industrial Workers of the World. Negro Labor has a part to play also in changing this present day attitude of organized labor. It should organize a nation-wide movement to encourage, promote and protect its employment and general welfare. Divided into central districts and branches thereof, it would be able to not only thereby force complete and unequivocable recognition and fraternal co-operation from organized labor, but at the same time render yeoman service in procuring the increased employment of tens of thousands of fully capable Negro workers in such positions as now are closed to them because of the lack of sufficient organized Negro Labor pressure in the right direction and with the right instrumentality of intelligent vision.
This organization would by virtue of its being comprised of Negro Labor of all Industries and crafts be able to safeguard its every advance and prevent any successful attack against same. Collective dealing with the Employing Class, is the only way by which Labor can procure any concessions from them of effect and meaning. It is the only way in which to establish industrial stability and uniformity in its administration and finally Industrial freedom. This holds good for Negro as well as white labor. There are fully 4.000,000 Negro men. women and children, eligible to participate in such a Negro Labor Federation.
The beginning of such an organization a generation ago, the attitude of organized labor to the Negro would be just the reverse today. Organized Labor for the most part be it radical or conservative, thinks and acts, in the terms of White Race. Like the preachers, politicians, who when preaching about the “immortality of the soul” or orating about the “glorious land of the free” have in mind and so explain, white folks. So with organized labor generally. To a large extent Negro Labor is responsible for this reprehensible exclusion, because of its failure to generate a force which when necessary could have rendered low the dragon head of Race prejudice, whenever and wherever it raised its head. It is not too late, however, to begin to rectify and to reap the benefits of united effort. Only by unifying our forces in such a way as to force organized labor to realize that we can do lasting good or lasting evil, will they, with the assistance of those men and women already in their ranks fighting to change their erroneous way, understand and “come over into Macedonia and help us.”
The Messenger was founded and published in New York City by A. Phillip Randolph and Chandler Owen in 1917 after they both joined the Socialist Party of America. The Messenger opposed World War I, conscription and supported the Bolshevik Revolution, though it remained loyal to the Socialist Party when the left split in 1919. It sought to promote a labor-orientated Black leadership, “New Crowd Negroes,” as explicitly opposed to the positions of both WEB DuBois and Booker T Washington at the time. Both Owen and Randolph were arrested under the Espionage Act in an attempt to disrupt The Messenger. Eventually, The Messenger became less political and more trade union focused. After the departure of and Owen, the focus again shifted to arts and culture. The Messenger ceased publishing in 1928. Its early issues contain invaluable articles on the early Black left.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/messenger/v5n07-jul-1923-Messenger-riaz-fix.pdf