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Blacks, Unions, & Organizing in the South, 1956-1996


Compiled by Rudolph Lewis





By Rudolph Lewis


With the exception of several summaries, an address by Thurgood Marshall to the AFL-CIO Convention, an article from the New York Times Magazine, and Section 6, the materials contained in this manuscript can be found in the AFL-CIO Department of Organization Collection (1955-1973), housed at the George Meany Memorial Archives (GMMA). While a Fellow at GMMA, I participated in processing this collection. These records contain a number of series, including Directors' Files, Activity and Monthly Round-Up Reports, Correspondence, and Subject Files. What presented here is a mere snapshot of the nearly seventy cubic feet of historical documents.

This work intended as a teaching instrument for future organizers and leaders of the AFL-CIO unions provides documents relevant to today's issues in the so-called union movement. This compilation of documents brings attention to the wealth of material contained in the GMMA that would be of interest to the staff of locals who often do not have the opportunity or freedom to search the records of their Union.

Though forty years old or more, these documents speak to today's difficulties the AFL-CIO unions have to keep a respectable share of the labor force organized. Many problems faced in the first twenty years of the AFL-CIO are still being dealt with in our contemporary world (or as Reuther called it, "the third phase of the industrial revolution"), namely, the changing labor force, the development of new technologies, and a younger more diverse work force.

Other issues also have relevance still at the end of the twentieth-century: a hostile government that supports or spawns unfavorable legislation, the lack of cooperation between internationals, the lack of effective local and central bodies, the stress of the life of the organizers, the inhibitions of organizing in the South and organizing among minorities, the difficulty of establishing a minimum wage, the expansion of service and white collar workers. So, in a sense, these documents -- letters and other correspondence, newspaper articles, handbills, essays, reports and conference notes -- are a distant mirror of our own time.

Intended as a resource book, I have divided the materials into six sections: 1) AFL-CIO Union History, 2) Life of the Organizer, 3) Techniques & Methods of Organizing, 4) Obstacles to Organizing, 5) Organizing in the South, and Organizing in Baltimore. Unlike a history text, this book does not make any definite argument or take any point of view, other than contained in its topic, namely, union organizing and all that that entailed during the 50s and 60s, and 70s. The reader can start at any point in the text. The "Table of Contents" contains topic summaries, under which there may be more than one document.

This work however does have an emphasis: Blacks and the South. The first section contains, however, a brief history of unionism from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s. A brief summary of activities of the AFL-CIO Department of Organization is also included here. The reader unaware of U.S. union history might want to read this section initially as a means of orientation. These pieces provide an overview of some of the problems and successes of union organizing during the period between 1955 and 1973.

In this first section, a stirring address by Martin Luther King, Jr. is present to point toward the relationship of labor and the Negro freedom movement. Thurgood Marshall's address in the fifth section could have been included here, but his legal emphasis highlights the legal problems the AFL-CIO had in the South, with its system of legalized Jim Crow. Also present is material that provides background to the development of Chavez's farm workers union in the late 1960s.

The most poignant documents in this book are letters written by union organizers. We hear the gasp and cry of committed men in the field working day and night for labor. The John Wiggs Case is heartbreaking. This situation reveals the lack of power and respect AFL-CIO organizers have in dealing with their superiors and their ability to make life a living hell for the man or woman who fails to be a "team player." It is hoped, nevertheless, that placing such issues before the rank and file workers will bring about vibrant reforms that the AFL-CIO can become a more relevant organization in American life.

Some other issues contained within these letters include the job opportunities (or the lack thereof) for organizers, the problems of accounting for seniority on the merger of two organizations (when record-keeping is haphazard and intentions are unclear), health and stress issues, the phobia and scare of Communism, the use of union dues to defeat an incumbent Republican, and, of course, race.

What organizers of the 50s and 60s had to say about organizing and organizing in the South still has relevance in the 90s, especially in light of the many failures still being encountered in the South as well as other sections of the country by today's organizers. (See, for example, the final piece in the book about organizing in Mississippi.) The detailed methods and approaches contained within some of these pieces can be a useful checklist for organizers in what needs to be done and avoided in an organizing campaign.

Included also are qualities thought useful in a good organizer.

The fourth section contains some of the problems that stood in the way of organizers. Some result from internal problems and others with social or legal barriers to organizing. The first piece in this section is very poignant. A New Orleans woman cleaning woman, employed at a union office, wrote a letter to George Meany and complained about the money she was paid. Here's a curious irony that should not be forgotten.

There were jurisdictional problems between the old AFL and the old CIO unions. There are accusations of communists among CIO locals. The 1958 layoffs created great strain on many organizers and limited what could be done by the national AFL-CIO. The perennial argument of servicing versus organizing continues today among service employees unions. The question of corruption among Teamsters is as relevant as yesterday's news. The problems of race among certain unions is still a hot issue.

The fifth and largest section contains material on the South. What is revealed here is the storm released after the 1954 Supreme Court decision on segregation that affected not only the Negro's freedom movement but also the labor and union movement in the South. Included also are numerous pieces on attempts to organize Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1959 and 1969. Those were glorious years of militant unionism when the poorest workers in Baltimore gained integrity and dignity never known or even dreamed of.

Some of the pieces of the six section also come from the GMMA archives and has mostly to so with organization attempts in Baltimore by BSEIU and especially the organizing of health care workers, mostly black and poor, and efforts at organizing them at one of the most powerful institutions in Baltimore, namely, Johns Hopkins Hospital. These efforts culminated in a union win in 1969 by Local 1199. It was mostly the so-called  non-professional workers, the black and the poor, who were able to see the benefits of joining the union movement. These struggles of health care workers in Baltimore and other cities continue. There are still thousands of health care workers in Baltimore who do not make a living wage and many retire with a meager pension after twenty to thirty years of devoted service.

Some of the pieces of section six are recent. One of the more interesting pieces, written by me, resulted from an interview of the present president of Local 1199E-DC, Robert Moore. This piece ties perceptively the civil rights movement, the black consciousness movements, and the movement of poor black workers to organize themselves against large non-profits like Johns Hopkins Hospital to gain dignity and integrity. In addition, the piece on Walter Lively should also be read to give further context for the efforts of activists to make a better world for the poor in Baltimore.

This little slice of the Department of Organization Collection provides a curious organizer's view of the 50s and 60s that can be of interest also to those who have no vested interest in union organizing. There is material here for the sociologist, the psychologist, and the novelist, or for anyone who is interested in the human drama. My fondest hope is that the reader enjoys reading these archival documents as much as I have had in pulling them altogether.

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By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.


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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

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posted 24 July 2008 




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