The Pullman Porters Win
By Edward Berman, The Nation, August 21, 1935
Editor’s Note: The Pullman Porters organized and founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925. The BSCP was the very first African-American labor union to sign a collective bargaining agreement with a major U.S. corporation. A. Philip Randolph was the determined, dedicated, and articulate president of this union who fought to improve the working conditions and pay for the Pullman Porters. The images were added to enhance the article published in The Nation.
Working-class Negroes won a decisive victory on July 1 when the National Mediation Board certified the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters as the duly authorized representative of the porters and maids employed by the Pullman Company. This certification and the election which preceded it were the climax in a courageous struggle for labor organization and collective bargaining which has been carried on for more than a decade against great odds.
Aggressive attempts to organize the Pullman porters in an independent union attracted public attention about 1920. Toward the end of that year the Pullman Company countered with the usual device of company unionism. From that time on the efforts of the porters to make the employee-representation scheme function effectively in the workers’ interest or to organize an independent union were met by the whole barrage of opposition which employers developed so effectively in the decade of the twenties. In February, 1921, the company established its Pullman Porters’ Benefit Association to provide sickness, incapacity, and death benefits. As early as 1914 it had put into effect a pension plan for aged employees. In February, 1926, it introduced an employee stock-ownership plan. It also put into operation an extensive scheme of welfare work, with a newspaper for employees, as well as workers’ choruses, bands and orchestras.
The porters and their leaders at first attempted to use these devices for the purpose of improving the lot of the workers. The company countered by employing spies and discharging porters who were too active in the interest of their fellows. The leaders finally realized that the condition of the workers could be improved only by organizing an absolutely independent union not subject to the influence of the Pullman Company, and on August 25, 1925, steps were taken to establish the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Its officers, with one exception, were porters of long standing in the company’s service. They gave up their jobs to become leaders of the union or were soon discharged for their activities. The one exception was A. Philip Randolph, a prominent publicist and leader among Negroes. Since 1925 all the officers have stayed with the organization, generally without salaries of any kind, eking out an often precarious living for themselves and their families by engaging in various small business enterprises.
of their fellows. The leaders finally realized that the condition of the workers could be improved only by organizing an absolutely independent union not subject to the influence of the Pullman Company, and on August 25, 1925, steps were taken to establish the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Its officers, with one exception, were porters of long standing in the company’s service. They gave up their jobs to become leaders of the union or were soon discharged for their activities. The one exception was A. Philip Randolph, a prominent publicist and leader among Negroes. Since 1925 all the officers have stayed with the organization, generally without salaries of any kind, eking out an often precarious living for themselves and their families by engaging in various small business enterprises.
The organization of the independent union led to increased opposition by the Pullman Company. Spying became more intense and effective, and discharges of active unionists became common. Porters many years in the service found themselves let out for reasons which were mere subterfuges. It came to be worth a man’s job to show an active interest in the new union. Yet hundreds of porters continued to pay dues and to attend meetings.
In 1926 the union tried unsuccessfully to get consideration from the Interstate Commerce Commission on the question of wages. From 1930 to the beginning of 1934 it attempted with equal lack of success to get an injunction against the company under the terms of the Railway Labor Act of 1926. Meanwhile in 1933 the Railway Emergency Act had been passed. Among its provisions was one which had the effect of outlawing the company unions. Unfortunately, however, whether by oversight or otherwise, the act made no reference to the Pullman Company or to the express companies. In the autumn of 1933 the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters began a campaign of publicity to have the Pullman Company brought within the scope of the act. With the aid of Coordinator Eastman, who included proposals to this effect in his recommendations to Congress, an act was passed in June, 1934, correcting the defects in the previous legislation. The porters could now appeal to the National Mediation Board for the right to be recognized as the official agency of the porters for the purposes of collective bargaining. In preparation for the test it knew was coming, the Pullman Company, in October, 1934, reorganized its company union. The grosser forms of company influence were not so apparent in the new constitution. Presumably the organization was to be financed exclusively by the employees themselves, but it was specified that its officers should be employees of the company.
The fight between the new company union and the Brotherhood to secure official recognition from the National Mediation Board began late in 1934. At the direction of the board an election to enable the porters and maids to express their preference was conducted from May 27 to June 27. It resulted in an overwhelming victory for the Brotherhood. Of a total of 8,316 eligible votes, the Brotherhood captured 5,931 and the company union only 1,422. In only three cities, Louisville, Memphis, and Atlanta, did the company union receive a majority of the eligible votes. The Brotherhood won majorities in 25 cities; it also received the overwhelming majority of votes cast by mail. The Brotherhood has already taken steps to initiate negotiations with the Pullman Company. The real fruits of victory will not be realized until a collective agreement is secured, but the chances for such an agreement are excellent.
The reason for the porters’ long and determined fight for an independent union is to be found of course in wages that are unbelievably low and conditions of work that most unskilled white workers would consider intolerable. The Pullman porter is regarded as an aristocrat by the workers of his race. The Pullman Company itself not only depends upon him to furnish courteous and efficient service to its patrons, but frankly acknowledges that the opinion which the traveling public has of the Pullman service largely depends upon him. It imposes upon him an enormous variety of tasks, skilled and unskilled; and the traveling public knows how well he performs those tasks.
It is one of the ironies of the status of the Negro in American life, however, that the Pullman porter is one of the worst-exploited workers in the country. A survey covering the year from March, 1934, to February, 1935, shows that the annual income of all porters covered by the sample investigation was $880. Porters on regular assignment received in that year $1,056, while those on extra service received $624. ( Since extra porters must constantly hold themselves in readiness for duty, they have no opportunity to earn additional income.) This income was received only in part from the company. The average wage received by all porters directly from the company was $879; the sum of $237 was received in tips, but $236 was spent for occupational expenses. The weekly income of all porters covered in the survey was only $16.92, that of porters on regular assignment $20.30, and that of extra porters only $12. Obviously the common impression that porters get large sums in tips is erroneous. Some do, but on the average the amount is about offset by the sum which goes for occupational expenses. The status of the porter is well indicated by the nature and extent of these expenses. He is compelled to furnish his own brushes and shoe-polishing materials. He must pay for his uniforms until he has been in service for ten years. He must eat his meals from the dining car, paying half price for what he gets–and the middle-class American of small income knows that even half-price on a Pullman diner is too much. Moreover, he must sleep at night in the smoking compartment of his car unless a certain upper berth near that compartment happens to be vacant. He does not retire until the occupants of the smoking compartment go to bed. He is subject to call at every moment of the day or night while on service.
As against an average weekly income for the porters of $16.02, the average wage of all workers in manufacturing industries in the United States in 1934 was $19.12, in New York State $23.19, in Illinois $20.50, and in Wisconsin $18.29. Against the porters’ annual average income of $880 may be set the “minimum comfort budget” calculated by Professor Ogburn for the War Labor Board for a family of five, which would have cost $1,516 in 1934. Against it may also be set the “minimum American standard budget” for a family of four established by an employers’ organization, the National Industrial Conference Board. In a small city such as Marion, Ohio, this would have cost $1,129 in 1934. In New York City (and it should be remembered that most porters live in large cities) it would have cost $1,299.
But this is not the whole story. Hours of service are barbarously long. The porters are paid on a mileage basis, the basic wage being earned when they have traveled 11,000 miles per month. But they work before and after the trains get into motion, and for this “preparatory” and “terminal” time, as it is called, they get no pay. A survey made at the beginning of the present year indicates that on regular runs the porters put in an average of 9.2 per cent of their working time in getting cars ready for occupancy and receiving passengers, and 3.5 per cent in arranging cars after the train has arrived at its terminal. These hours of service are required by the company. Not infrequently, more than the stated time is required after a car has reached the terminal. The variations among individual porters are great. Some put in more than 50 per cent of all their service in the form of preparatory and terminal time. For example, there was the case of a porter required to put in 14 hours and 52 minutes of preparatory time and 3 hours and 5 minutes of terminal time out of a total service period per round trip of 26 hours and 30 minutes. Such cases are not uncommon. The important point is that an average of 12.7 per cent of all the time the porters spend in service is not paid for.
Investigation shows that in 1934 porters on regular runs worked an average of 317 hours per month, or over 73 hours per week. Contrast this figure with the fact that in the year 1934 workers in all manufacturing industries in the United States averaged just under 35 hours per week. The average net income for porters on regular assignment for the year from March, 1934, to February, 1935, was 27.8 cents an hour. In 1934 workers in all manufacturing industries received an average of 54.8 cents; and workers on federal public works projects, 57.8 cents per hour.
Here then is a group of skilled workers receiving an average annual income of $880, an average weekly income of $16.92, and an working hourly income, if they work regularly, of 27.8 cents. While many hundreds of thousands of their fellow-workers remain partly or wholly unemployed, they work 317 hours per month under conditions which are little short of disgraceful They work, moreover, for a company which has consistently made large profits.
After many years of struggle and persistent devotion, the porters have succeeded in obtaining recognition of their union. It marks a most important step in their fight for decent working conditions. Their victory should give courage to the Negro working class.
For further reading and study:
Bates, B.T. (2001). Pullman porters and the rise of protest politics in Black America, 1925-1945. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Reframing Randolph: Labor, black freedom, and the legacies of A. Philip Randolph. New York: New York University Press.
Osborne, Brad (Director). (2006). Rising from the Rails: The Story of the Pullman Porter. Documentary film (47 min).
The Pullman Porter. Pamphlet. Digital Collections for the Classroom. The Newberry.
Tye, L. (2004). Rising from the rails: Pullman porters and the making of the Black middle class. New York: Henry Holt.
Source: New Deal Network: Documents – The Pullman Porters Win, by Edward Berman in The Nation, Vol. 141, No. 3659, August 21, 1935, p. 217. – http://newdeal.feri.org/nation/na35217.htm
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Berman, E. (1935, August 21). The Pullman Porters win. The Nation. Retrieved from https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/great-depression/brotherhood-of-sleeping-car-porters-win-over-pullman-company/