Blacks and the Great Depression

Lee Sustar describes the impact of the 1930s economic crisis on Blacks--and the new openings for resistance during the upsurge of the labor movement.

The History of Black America

THE GREAT Depression of the 1930s was catastrophic for all workers. But as usual, Blacks suffered worse, pushed out of unskilled jobs previously scorned by whites before the depression. Blacks faced unemployment of 50 percent or more, compared with about 30 percent for whites. Black wages were at least 30 percent below those of white workers, who themselves were barely at subsistence level.

There was no relief from the liberal Roosevelt administration, whose National Recovery Act (NRA) of 1933 was soon referred to by Blacks as the Negro Removal Act. Although its stated goal was nondiscriminatory hiring and an equal minimum wage for whites and Blacks, NRA public works projects rarely employed Blacks and maintained racist wage differentials when they did.

Nor did traditional organized labor offer any alternative. Although American Federation of Labor President William Green gave lip service to civil rights and claimed to oppose segregated Jim Crow locals, he did nothing to enforce this on affiliated unions.

Blacks were either excluded or forced to organize in separate unions, such as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Black workers who tried to organize often found themselves a target of lynch mobs, in both the North and South.

Only the Communist Party-led Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) seriously organized Black workers, notably in the National Miners Union. But the "red unions" of the TUUL were limited by their ultra-left tactics, which only reinforced the isolation of Blacks and leftists from the mainstream of organized labor.

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THIS BLEAK situation changed with the strike wave of 1934. Virtual general strikes swept Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco, showing the potential for a new industrial union movement that would organize the unskilled, mass production workers, including Blacks, long scorned by the elitist craft unions of the AFL.

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Racism was central to the debate over craft vs. industrial unionism. Industrial unionism organized a plant-wide union, regardless of particular jobs, meaning that Blacks in the most dangerous, dirty and low-paid jobs would be in the same local as better-paid whites.

But the well-entrenched bureaucrats of the AFL had long used racism to keep strict control over their membership, and could not countenance the threat of a racially united rank and file. The AFL bureaucrats' policy earned them a cozy relationship with the bosses, one they wouldn't risk on an organizing drive of the unskilled.

Following a violent debate at the 1935 AFL convention, a group of unionists led by United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis, formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), with the aim of unionizing auto, steel and other industries.

Drawing on the experience of Communist Party activists, the CIO made organizing Blacks a priority. William Mitch of the United Mineworkers had spectacular success transforming the Alabama UMW from an organization of two locals with 255 members in June 1933, to a union of 23,000 by 1935, 60 percent of whom were Black. This is a union that only a few years earlier had virtually excluded Black workers.

Another reason for CIO success in organizing Blacks was the support of the National Negro Congress, a Communist Party-initiated organization that brought the CIO together with civil rights organizations previously hostile to organized labor. The Congress played a crucial role in counteracting the influence of the antiunion, Black middle class preachers, who received financial support from corporations such as Ford, Chrysler and U.S. Steel.

But after years of experiencing racism at the hands of the AFL, Blacks were slow to join the new unions. By the end of the United Auto workers' month-long Chrysler sit-down strike in 1937, most of the 400 Black workers had left the plant. Racial divisions also persisted at the Briggs company's Mack Avenue plant in Detroit, where many white workers came from Southern backgrounds.

Since Blacks were a relatively small proportion of the workforce at Chrysler and 10 percent of the workforce at Briggs, the strike could be relatively successful even without their total support. This was not true at Ford's River Rouge plant, where 11,000 of 81,000 workers were Black.

Watching the growing strength of the UAW, Ford recruited Blacks into the company good squads that physically assaulted UAW organizers. The UAW responded by hiring several full-time Black organizers, some with CP backgrounds.

The UAW established an informal "Black Department" to help with the Ford organizing drive. The Black Department foundered during UAW factionalism in the 1930s, but it laid the basis for the tremendous strike victory in 1941, when the vast majority of 17,000 Black workers enthusiastically supported a strike against the company. About 1,500 Black who initially crossed the picket line were convinced to join the strike, frustrating Ford's efforts to stir up racial violence.

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BLACKS JOINED the CIO as a way to fight desperate poverty and racism. Often, they were convinced by the courageous, militant anti-racism of many CIO organizers, especially socialists and communists who faced the Ku Klux Klan, company thugs and police violence in their efforts to organize Blacks.

Before the rise of the CIO, there were 100,000 Blacks in unions. By 1940, half a million were organized.

But even these tremendous steps forward could not overcome the effects of unemployment during the Great Depression. The proportion of Blacks in manufacturing actually declined from 7.3 percent in 1930 to 5.5 percent in 1940.

And Jim Crow persisted. At a 1937 strike at Atlanta Southern Bed Company, a union local agreed to a Jim Crow picket line--whites on one side of the plant, Blacks on the other. Even in the North, Jim Crow company policies persisted. Blacks were rarely upgraded to skilled jobs in the auto or steel industries. Even the CP-dominated leadership of New York's Transport Workers Union refused to risk its position by challenging racist policies in TWU locals.

A promised all-out CIO organizing drive in the South was permanently delayed, a casualty of the increasingly conservative union leadership that used enforcement of the no-strike pledge during the Second World War as an excuse to put off organizing drives. Far from being a left-wing, working class alternative, the Communist Party popular front support for Roosevelt led it to become the strongest enforcer of the no-strike pledge and to ignore Black struggles against Jim Crow practices in the defense industries.

At its best, though, the CIO showed how racist ideas promoted by the bosses and their media can be broken down in struggle. Confronted by union-busting bosses, workers come to see that racism allows the bosses to divide and rule. Through struggle, Black and white workers can learn the real source of racism--the bosses and their system--and struggle to overcome it.

First published in the January 1986 issue of Socialist Worker.