The Role of the National Negro Labor Council in the Struggle for Civil Rights


2-15-07, 9:15 am

The period following World War II saw the US ruling class reject its alliance with the left and the Soviet Union in the struggle against fascism. Indeed, it swung the political pendulum so far to the right that internal repression, political witch hunts, and resurgent racism were the order of the day. While McCarthy and his cronies tramped through the private lives of movie stars, public school teachers, and government employees, corporate bureaucrats and political appointees began to dismantle civil rights regulations that abolished discrimination in government contracts, hiring practices, promotions, and wage and salary policies.

Even in many parts of the labor movement conservative values of blocking policies that leveled the playing field for workers of color became predominant. One of the most effective means of accomplishing this was through red-baiting and anti-Communism. Progressive union leaders and members were accused of being 'in league with the Soviet Union.' Black workers who demanded civil rights and 'fair practices' clauses in union charters or employer contracts were accused of being 'tools of Stalin.' Under this regime of hysteria, many trade union leaders were forced out of their positions. African American union members found few opportunities for leadership within the union structure.

Unfortunately, many African American workers felt they had no place to turn for redress. Major civil rights organizations rarely addressed labor issues, and prominent African American voices in the labor movement seemed more interested in purging the labor movement of Communist members than in moving forward on civil rights issues. Still others, like A. Philip Randolph, were sidelined by an increasingly conservative white labor leadership. The National Negro Council, which a decade earlier had sought to unite civil rights organizations and the labor movement, had been disbanded.

For this reason, 900 African American delegates gathered in Chicago in June of 1950 for a meeting titled the National Labor Conference for Negro Rights. African American labor leaders such as William R. Hood, recording secretary of UAW Local 600, Cleveland Robinson, vice-president of the independent Office Workers Union, and future Detroit Mayor Coleman Young (at the time a staff member of the Almagamated Clothing Workers union) were chosen to head the national confederation of Negro Labor Council (NLC) chapters that grew out of the conference. Paul Robeson spoke at the Chicago conference and denounced the divisiveness within labor caused by anti-Communism and racism and called for progress on civil rights policies and Black leadership of the labor movement.

By 1951, 23 NLC chapters were established in major cities across the country. The NLC launched a national campaign to have a 'model FEPC clause' inserted into union contracts. The FEPC clause took its name from the Fair Employment Practices Committee established during the Roosevelt presidency to oversee government hiring practices and to ensure that contractors that won federal contracts would prevent racial discrimination in hiring, promotion, and wages. Civil rights and labor movement activists considered the FEPC a major victory for the cause of racial equality. NLC chapters sought to make the FEPC clause official union policy as well.

The 'model FEPC clause' adopted by the NLC read thus: 'The Company agrees that it will not discriminate against any applicant for employment or any of the employees in their wages, training, upgrading, promotion, transfer, layoff, discipline, discharge, or otherwise because of race, creed, color, national original, political affiliation, sex or marital status.'

It is important to note that this clause was determined to protect the rights of women and immigrant workers as well.

While the only successful effort to win an FEPC clause came in the United Electrical workers union (UE), the NLC chapters scored a number of important victories. In January 1951, United Public Workers union Secretary-treasurer Ewart Guinier signed a non-discrimination agreement with the federal Bureau of Engraving and an affirmative action policy agreement to promote African American employees who had been denied advancement up to that point. While the agreement did not provide anti-discrimination measures for each of the categories listed in the 'model FEPC clause,' it was a signal advance for Black workers and their union representation.

That same year in Detroit, William R. Hood led a petition drive to pass a city FEPC ordinance. Unfortunately, the leadership of the UAW international ordered union members not to sign the petition, calling Hood's actions 'Communist-inspired.' The petition gathered 40,000 signatures, but failed to win the ordinance.

In October 1951, delegates from the 23 chapters met again in Cincinnati and founded the National Negro Labor Council (NNLC). Delegates, about one-third women workers, representing chapters in major cities in every region of the country gathered to denounce racial discrimination in the workplace, Jim Crowism in civil society, and the slow pace at which the labor movement as a whole addressed these problems. Delegates further rejected red-baiting charges. Joe Johnson of the National Union of Marine Cooks and stewards said:

'Those who label us communistic every time we open our mouths to gain our rights don't know the difference between Communism and rheumatism and know little about either. The darker people of the world want to choose their own kind of government and their own leaders. It makes me mad as hell for our administration to give away millions to maintain the rulers of their choice in colonial and European countries and don't want to give me my unemployment insurance.'

Estelle Holloway, a Winston-Salem, North Carolina tobacco worker, spoke of the importance of her union in improving her wages but regretted that discrimination by race and gender continued.

William Hood called for broad unity of Black and white workers for progress:

'For here we have gathered the basic forces of human progress, the proud Black sons and daughters of labor and our democratic white brothers and sisters whose increasing concern for democracy, equality, and peace is America’s bright hope for tomorrow.'

The NNLC conference called for full citizenship rights for African Americans and an end to Jim Crow, both legally and by custom. Conferees pledged to build greater unity between Black workers and the labor movement as a whole. The delegates adopted a program that called for 100,000 new jobs for African American workers, a national FEPC with a model FEPC clause in every union contract, and specifically addressed the need to protect the rights of African American women to 'work anywhere and everywhere.' Hood and Young were elected to the national leadership of the NNLC along with Octavia Hawkins of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Local 451 as treasurer.

Instead of addressing the concerns raised by the NNLC, trade union leaders in the AFL and the CIO chose to attack the NNLC as a tool of the Soviet Union, sparking investigations by the McCarthyite House Un-American Activities congressional committee. Coleman Young, who was forced to testify before HUAC, stated, 'I am fighting against un-American activities such as lynching and denial of the vote. I am dedicated to that fight, and I don't think I have to apologize or explain to anybody my position on that.'

In cities all over the country NNLC chapters led the struggle for access to jobs and for unionization. In Detroit, NNLC activists fought and won access for African Americans to administrative jobs at Sears, Ford Motor Company, and as ball players for the Detroit Tigers. In New York, Blacks won jobs on dairy trucks, in the breweries, in hotels and restaurants, and as flight attendants. In Chicago, NNLC protests forced the Drexel National Bank to hire African American executives. In San Francisco, hotels and restaurant work forces were integrated. In Louisville, Kentucky, an NNLC-led campaign forced General Electric to end discrimination in hiring. The local Board of Education was also pressured to open adult education classes that included African Americans. NNLC activists worked with NAACP and Urban League members, leaders in the faith community, and progressive whites to win many local battles such as these.

The NNLC also convinced several unions to adopt the FEPC clause as union policy, including the International Fur and Leather Workers, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the International Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, the United Packinghouse Workers, and others.

Some unions turned to the NNLC for assistance with local labor disputes. For example, the United Furniture Workers of America Local 266 asked the NNLC for help in a strike against the Thomasville Chair Company in North Carolina. The NNLC issued an appeal for local African Americans to support the strike. When sugar workers, mainly Black, in Louisiana sought unionization with the AFL's National Agricultural Workers Union and a rise in their pay, the NNLC helped build unity across racial lines and helped win support from community leaders and other unions for the workers.

Though many union leaders continued to regard the NNLC as 'subservient' to the USSR and the Communist Party, the effectiveness of the NNLC and its momentum forced major international unions in the AFL and the CIO to adopt non-discrimination policies. By the mid-1950s, labor sought to establish stronger ties with the civil rights community and sent delegates to the NAACP conventions. For their part, the NAACP and the Urban League began to focus again on the specific needs of African American workers. The Urban League launched a 1953 campaign for jobs, non-discrimination policies, and access to better paying jobs. When the AFL and CIO merged in 1952, its new leadership pledged itself to ending racial discrimination and to support the struggle for civil rights.

While African American workers understood that such pledges had to be followed by constant pressure in order to see them fulfilled, NNLC activists now viewed their struggle as being within the ranks of organized labor rather than outside of it. Because the NNLC never regarded itself as an alternative union and because it had won the first steps on the road to major changes, by 1956, the organization's membership saw a separate organization as no longer necessary. It had weathered severe anti-Communist political repression and ostracism to become one of the most important, if short-lived civil rights organizations in US history.