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


Compiled by Rudolph Lewis





Can Texas Labor Help the Poor?

The Texas Observer

(San Antonio, January 21, 1966)


            Something new appears to be happening in organized labor in Texas. Texas AFL-CIO President Hank Brown's repeated declarations that the organized workers have a duty to organize those who are poor and divided, even though doing so will cost union money and will require some of the organizing zeal of the thirties, led to a new kind of labor meeting in San Antonio early this month. Here were the assembled brass of Texas labor and representatives of many of the international unions, standing and wildly applauding a Catholic priest who had just told them to get out of town and stay out if they didn't organize the poor into unions.

            The internationals are to organized labor what the great national companies are to U.S. business; the state labor offices are to labor what the state manufacturers' associations are to business. Only if the internationals commit their treasure and their men to a labor project can it really have substance. Repeated declarations by Texas AFL-CIO that the poor Mexicano and Negro workers must be organized could have no effect unless and until the big internationals decided to go to work on the organizing.

            Thus it mattered that during a recent labor meeting in San Francisco, representatives of ten internationals met with Brown and listened to his appeal for the commitment and wherewithal to organize the Latin-American workers in San Antonio and in the toes of Texas, the lower Valley. This month's meeting in San Antonio was intended to convince staffers of the internationals who were present to go back to their bosses and sell them on committing the internationals to the project. Brown wants a quarter of a million dollars and at least ten internationals involved in a two-year drive. He said in San Antonio that seven internationals have already said yes, but their names were not given out.

            Apart from the fact that the real power in labor lies with the internationals, "organizing the unorganized" in Texas has two other kinds of preliminary difficulties: the union men themselves have lost much of their crusading zeal, so that not many volunteers can be mustered for pioneering in the unorganized fields; and in Texas, the poorest, most underpaid, most numerous unorganized workers are Negroes and Mexican-Americans, which weakens organized labor's zeal for organizing them to whatever extent racial hostilities persist among Texas union men.

            Kermit Davison, Huntsville, has been put on Texas AFL-CIO's staff as a public information officer for labor in East Texas. Father of one of the student leaders in the Huntsville civil rights movement, (who Davison says is now in college in Huntsville, giving most of his time to his studies, not to civil rights,) the elder Davison's work now consists of encouraging Negroes to pay their poll taxes. Where, the Observer asked him, would he start, organizing the unorganized workers of East Texas? He said in the wood industry--lumber, pulp wood. The two big companies, he said, are Champion Paper and fiber Co. and International Paper co. In addition, he said, there are a number of sawmills; he specified Temple Industries, L&M, Park, Batcher Lumber Co. Wages for the thousands of workers, many of them Negroes, in this industry, Davison said, run as low as 50 or 75 cents an hour, and on the average are perhaps $1.25.

            Brown began the conference in San Antonio with the fact that the industrial wage average in San Antonio is $79 a week, the lowest of any U.S. city with a quarter million people or more. J. Elro Brown, international oilworkers' staffer, says unorganized workers in the Valley make 50 cents an hour up to $1.90 an our, to. Only eight out of 100 workers in San Antonio belong to unions, Brown said. Challenging racial discrimination in clear words--as he and his secretary-treasurer, Roy Evans, have done since they took over the Texas AFL-CIO, carrying on the traditions of their immediate predecessors, Jerry Holleman and Fred Schmidt--Brown said any union member who was guilty of racial discrimination would be cast out as "unworthy of membership."

            It appeared, from the round of self-introductions that then followed, that representatives of the international unions of the brickworkers, meatcutters, oilworkers, ironworkers, bookbinders, and communications workers were present. In addition, local representatives, any of whom might have been commissioned to represent their internationals at the meeting, were present from the operating engineers, rubber workers, painters, carpenters, pipefitters, electrical workers, cement workers, stone masons, machinists, transit workers, rubber workers, auto workers, retail clerks, brewery workers, federal employees, printers.

            Lester Graham, regional director of labor for the state of Texas, said that with three and a half million workers, Texas has fewer than half a million in unions. But he discussed the problem of volunteers for organizing with candor. "We do not have many more volunteer workers, not too many," he allowed. "They don't have time, and they have to make a living. It costs money to organize. But it's just like bread on the water, it comes back in the form of cake." National labor, he said, would provide a coordinator and as much manpower as other duties permitted, if the relevant union authorities agreed.

            The Industrial Union Department (IUD) of the national AFL-CIO is in effect the old CIO; Walter Reuther is the IUD president. Its national director of organizing is a fiery, pudgy orator named Nick Zonarich, who came out of the mines in Pennsylvania and was formerly president of the aluminum workers. Zonarich had a number of his staffers present in San Antonio, and his message was plain: IUD is ready now to start a drive in Brownsville and didn't need to wait until March (when Brown had another meeting of the internationals and get started in earnest).

            The most impressive characteristic of the San Antonio meeting was the way the speakers felt moved to say the truth that the labor movement, (implicitly as compared with the civil rights movement) has gone soft. "Many of us have attended many meetings about the organizing of the unorganized," Zonarich said. "It's true of all our conventions--we're talking and passing resolutions and it seems we get very little action out of it." But IUD has been doing the work for "the past couple of years now," and is in "the business of organizing the unorganized," he said. (Elections have been going labor's way in Texas the past couple of months; the day before, Steve Williams, IUD's coordinator in Texas, had won an election involving 500 workers at the Dallas Automotive Parts Shop, Zonarich said.)

            "Texas needs a strong and powerful labor movement," he said. "You can only get your rights with a labor union. They employ you for whatever they can hire you for, except for minimum wage standards. Another reason is a great gentleman that comes from the State of Texas."

            Texas< Zonarich said, is "a barefoot economy" from El Paso to Brownsville, and IUD is prepared to go into the "Brownsville area" with money and manpower, calling on all the local unions there now to help. "The climate is ripe now to hit this area of organizing Texas," Zonarich said. "If the President announced to the world that his Administration has declared war on poverty, I don't know of a better place for the labor unions to start than Texas."

            The internationals, Zonarich said, "have the dough. Don't be mistaken--there's money in the labor movement. All we need to do is convince them of what the believe."

            The voice of the next speaker, Gerald Brown, executive secretary of the State Building Trades Council and spokesman for the counterpart national council, came from a network of concerns quite different from Zonarich's.

            The United Mineworkers, who are not members of national AFL-CIO, are raiding the construction trades in the area along the coast from Beaumont-Port Arthur to Corpus Christi. "We got news from 'em--we're gonna out-organize 'em," Brown said. He said the mineworkers "like to ruin us all" in Oakland, Cal., and Baton Rouge, La. "They're trying to price us out of business, is what it amounts to," he said. "They are not excluding anyone. They're hittin' everyplace, raidin' everyone."

             Gerald Brown gave the example of the construction of a hospital in the coast area. The standard building trades had a contract for the job. "District N. 50," the mineworkers, wrote the contractor, saying that while the building trades would use six journeymen plumbers and six apprentices, the mineworkers would use one journeyman and six apprentices and save them 60% of their labor costs; "which," Brown said, "--they were right, and they woulda done it." Brown said in effect the mineworkers give the contractors whatever contract terms they want, as long as the mineworkers get the work and the members. The mineworkers' pay scales on construction work vary from $1 to $3 an hour, Brown said. Texas AFL-CIO is backing up the established trades.

            In open discussion, before the "buzz sessions" that were closed to the two reporters present, (one from the San Antonio Express, the other the Observer) Elro Brown of the oilworkers asked Zonarich what had happened to an idea that the initial union dues for the unorganized poor be very low, Zonarich said that couldn't be settled for the internationals at once; that each would have to make its own decisions on it. This led to informed speculation later that George Meany or those close to him may have nixed the idea.

            How much money would be involved? Zonarich said if ten internationals took part, the cost might be $100,000, $10,000 for each international on the average, and this could be kicked in with organizers, figured at the rate of $1,200 per man per month, or in cash. There would be an area coordinating committee, with the target companies selected in advance. Brown said a coordinating drive in San Antonio alone, not counting manpower, would cost $10,000.

            Zonarich said of the mineworkers' organizing in the crafts on the Gulf Coast, "believe me, the only reason District 50 has been raiding is because we haven't been working at it." With coordination, he said, the mineworkers might be told, "You take some plants and we'll take some."

            Brown said Texas AFL-CIO's resolution to set up a broad-based organizing drive on its own if the internationals won't do it has caused displeasure in national labor, with some talk even of putting Texas AFL-CIO "in trusteeship," but he meant it anyway. "We've got to organize this town come hell or high water," he said. "I'm gonna scream and holler and lie and cheat until we get this town organized!" The president of the San Antonio labor council backed him up, noting that the industrial wage in San Antonio is $42 a week lower than in Houston.

            The last speaker was also the roughest -- Father Sherrill Smith, director of the social action department of the Catholic diocese of San Antonio.

            "Labor this part of the country ought to put up or shut up," he said. "If you don't I don't want to see you back in this place. I don't want to see you around any more, I don't want to pray for you any more--I'm too busy praying for the slaves around here.

            "If you can't do the job--if you can't work out your jurisdictional difficulties, then you haven't achieved the point of maturity--if you can't do it, then in a way you're a failure. You have your own little group, you're fat, and you don't give a damn about the others."

            He had earned his credentials on many picket lines, Father Smith said; he had been to the labor conventions and heard the oratory. "The chips are down as far as I'm concerned, in San Antonio and the Valley. I wonder why only ten internationals are aimed at--why not twenty? If this thing has to be done--why not twenty?" Send organizers, some of whom could and would speak some Spanish, he pleaded.

            He wanted to see, the priest concluded, "if all these hi-faluti' words here will be turned into actions." Something in his manner--insulting, furious, heedless, and slightly profane--got to these salaried bureaucrats of the working men, and they stood up and applauded with passion; were they younger they'd have cheered.

            One of them turned to a reporter and said, "Those are words, too."

            But since then, the words have begun to become action. The IUD has begun interviewing in the lower Valley for the hiring of ten organizers from among Valley people, Evans told the Observer. Hank Brown has announced that Steve Williams will direct expanded IUD operations in South Texas beginning March 1, and Lester Graham will head the San Antonio drive. And this time the additional words from Brown--that "Far too long, we have talked of organizing South Texas. The time for action is at hand. Labor must meet its responsibilities and raise the standards of one-half million poverty stricken workers in Texas"--had the quieter sound that words have sometimes.

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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.

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