The head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters takes on FDR.
Whatever else he may have lost in America–and it sometimes looks like everything–the Negro has not lost his sense of the dramatic. A. Philip Randolph, who marches at the head of all the Pullman porters, has just proved that in a way which ought to make the embattled railroad brotherhoods squirm.
On November 5 the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Engine Men decided with the other big railroad brotherhoods that the recommendations of the President’s emergency fact-finding board on their demands for higher wages were not satisfactory. Indeed, they felt, as they formally announced two days later, that the time had come to give the thirty-day notice required by law of a strike to begin on December 5, “exactly thirty days to the minute from the time the board handed its report to the President.” December 5 was also exactly thirty days after A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, had written a letter to a good many Americans whom he considered friends of labor. In it he stated that by union contract Negro firemen in the South not only are not going to get more wages; they are going to be deprived of any wages at all–of any jobs.
Mr. Randolph may have chosen an embarrassing time to bring the question up; he also chose a dramatic time to suggest that the brotherhoods have a good deal to learn about brotherhood. Indeed, he made some of their present pleas for the masses of workers seem almost comic when he showed that the contract shutting the door in the face of Negro firemen went into effect on George Washington’s birthday, February 22, 1941. The negotiations must have approached agreement on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday ten days before. Just as the cause of white labor in this whole railroad-strike business may be, Mr. Randolph has made it look at least a little comic-greedy. The big brotherhoods are not only demanding a fairer share of the railroads’ profits, but they have already prepared to take all the wages and hope of wages of Negro firemen.
This contract is the culmination of the long process of grabbing colored men’s jobs in the engine cabs which has been going on for nearly two decades. In some lights it may be made to look like progress. Not many years ago down in Mississippi one way of getting rid of Negroes in these jobs was to shoot them off the engines. Now the result is attained without the necessity of a rifleman waiting in ambush in the pine trees for the train to go by. Indeed, all the “orderly processes” of negotiation and contract are preserved, but there are bullet holes where Negroes used to be working just the same. A paragraph written by informed Negroes from Southern state that appeared in 1940 in “The Negro in Virginia” tells the story:
Negroes are excluded from membership by constitutional provisions in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Engineers, the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen (AFL), and the Switchmen’s Union of North America (AFL), although as recently at 1930, 211 Negro firemen were employed on Virginia railroads, and Negroes constituted about a third of the total number of brakemen and switchmen in Virginia. A movement to eliminate Negro trainmen began in the 1920’s with the ardent support of white railway labor unions in Virgina, and so far as is known, there is not a Negro fireman or brakeman now employed by any Virginia railroad. A Negro was employed as a locomotive engineer on the Newport News shipyard railway but was discharged after working twelve days because the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, which would not admit him to membership, threatened to call out the white engineers on strike.
That is not a very pretty story, even if it is an old one. And now it seems to me the story has come to a climax in the question whether those who demand justice are ready to give it, whether those who operate as brotherhoods are ready to be brotherhoods. However inadequate their pay may seem to them now, organized American railroad men have come a long way out of oppression in the years behind us. But at least their older members must remember how utterly arrogant, how careless of the welfare of the men down below them, the old toughtime railroad operators were. Some of them undoubtedly are tough still. But white railroad workers today cannot escape the question: Must it not seem now to a Negro fireman–a Negro ex-fireman–that the brotherhoods exercise the same sort of power with the same sort of inhuman indifference? The result is the same whether a man is starved to death by a brotherhood or a corporation or both together. The result is the same whether the man is black or white. And grabbing from a littler man will never seem any prettier merely because the grabbers work under the label of brotherhood. This label certainly looks no fresher when those who wear it ask for more wages in the same year that they have made it certain that the Negro firemen will get none.