Skip to main content

The Urban League and the A.F. of L.

The Urban League and the A. F. of L.  — A Statement on Racial Discrimination


Note: This statement was read by Reginald A. Johnson, executive secretary of the Atlanta Urban League, at the Hearing of the American Federation of Labor Committee of Five to Deal with Negro Problems at Washington, D. C., July 9, 1935.

SINCE the earliest statement of policy by Samuel Gompers and supporting resolutions by the Executive Council, the American Federation of Labor has stood firmly behind its position that the ranks of organized labor must be open to all workers regardless of color or creed. This position has been reaffirmed by the present leadership and in conventions for the past fifteen or twenty years, as witnessed by Federation resolutions from 1917 up to now.

Because of this fact, the National Urban League has consistently, since 1918, endeavored to work with the American Federation of Labor to accomplish, on the one hand, the easier infiltration of Negroes into the organized labor movement through removal of color bars and other discriminatory union practices; and, on the other hand, to promote better understanding and readier acceptance by Negroes of trade union principles and a greater willingness to affiliate with organized labor. Unfortunately, however, the greatest obstacle which the League has had to face has been the unwillingness of unions to accept Negroes freely and to deal with them fairly rather than the unwillingness of Negroes to join unions.

The National Urban League has stood squarely behind collective bargaining and organized action for Negro and white workers together, opposing dual unionism and strike-breaking. Practically all of the Urban League Branches, although independently administered, have followed this policy in spite of distressing experiences which many of these branches have had with the A. F. of L. locals in their territory. It is unnecessary to repeat in detail a recital of the various types of discrimination which Negroes suffer when they attempt to join the organized labor movement. It is sufficient to say that experiences of the past several years are conclusive proof that the liberal position taken by the American Federation of Labor and by a few enlightened and progressive unions has not been effective in decreasing appreciably the organized resistance in many internationals and numerous locals against the full participation of Negro membership.

The City of St. Louis is a classical example of a bitter and blindly stupid prejudice which often bars the door of organized labor to Negroes. The building trades unions of that city show a determined and complete opposition to the employment of Negroes as skilled mechanics on building jobs. They refuse to admit Negroes. The Bricklayers, Painters and Carpenters unions have refused to permit Negro locals to be set up. They have even refused to recognize union cards of Negroes when brought to St. Louis from other cities. Thus far, they have been successful in shutting Negro skilled workers almost completely out of public building program jobs of that city. Last summer we had the unbelievable picture of City Hospital No. 2 being erected for Negro patients, in a Negro neighborhood with Negro mechanics barred from skilled work on the building. Buildings costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, financed by Negro money, such as Poro College and the People’s Finance Building, have been put up by white mechanics with the union effectively shutting out colored workmen.

The Hoisting Engineers provide a striking case by barring the application of William Hodges, Negro, expert operator, employed by the Carlo Construction Company. Hodges is an unusually valuable man. In fact, he invented an improvement for his machine which enabled an old-fashioned model to do the work of the latest machine type. His employer wished to sign up with the union but wished to employ Hodges. The union refused to take him. It accepted Hodges’ application fee of $110 and cashed his check, but to this day has not replied to his application nor summoned him for an interview. Hodges was forced to seek the services of a lawyer in order to have his money refunded.

A skilled electrician employed in City Hospital No. 2 was forced to accept membership in the Coal Passers Union in order to keep his job, although he had been a skilled electrician for a dozen years and was doing only electrician’s work at the Hospital.

Reports from Atlanta inform us that at the present time the Painters Union refuses to admit Negro painters but insists that they must join the Hod Carriers and Common Laborers Union.

In Richmond, Virginia, white union plasterers refuse to work with Negroes although Negroes established the original A. F. of L. local and in a spirit of mistaken generosity approved the setting up of a white local.

These are only a few of the flagrant cases which flourish throughout the country-North and South-indicating ways in which the liberal policy of the American Federation of Labor has been consistently flouted by locals and internationals in the absence of strong means of enforcing A. F. of L. rulings. Many more cases are available in our files and can be produced when and if desired.

It is interesting to note that many of our Urban League representatives feel that color bars are being maintained artificially by an entrenched official clique rather than by a representative sentiment of the union membership. In St. Louis, for instance, the Urban League Secretary challenged the Business Agent of the Hoisting Engineers Union to allow him to discuss the case of Hodges on the floor of the union but he was curtly rebuffed.

There is a growing sentiment among the rank and file membership of the various locals and internationals which recognizes the unfairness and folly of dividing labor’s strength. The case of the Railway Clerks of Council Bluffs, Iowa, who defied the international’s constitution and admitted a Negro to membership, is an example. Only recently, several members of the Brotherhood of Blacksmiths approached Negro railway workers in the Washington district and asked their cooperation in breaking through an “official” opposition to the admittance of Negroes into the union. For one reason and another, reactionary leaders such as find their way into any organization feel it to be of profit to their clique to keep up the color bar, and direct action will be needed to break through their opposition.

The futility of “resolution passing” is indicated by the fact that from 1917 onward well-meaning resolutions have been approved by the A. F. of L. in convention assembled. For instance, Resolution No. 58 at the Buffalo convention in 1917 called for a Negro organizer in Southern cities and was approved “if funds permitted.” Needless to say, funds did not permit. In 1918, a joint letter from a number of Negro organizations including the National Urban League, the N.A.A.C.P. and others repeated the request for Negro organizers. The request was “referred for further consideration.” In that same year, the Urban League offered to assist such an organizer through the facilities of its nation-wide branches. In 1918 at the Atlantic City convention, Resolutions No. 76, 101, 118 and 120, offered by the Railway Coach Cleaners of St. Louis, the Boilermakers of Mobile, Alabama, and the Freight Handlers and Station Employees of the Southern roads all referred to discriminatory practices and asked for action.

In 1920 at Montreal, Resolution No. 48 by Negro railway employees asked for a Negro organizer and an advisory committee to deal with their intolerable conditions-a request which was stricken out by the Committee on Resolutions. Delegate Burford of Richmond, Virginia, requested an amendment to strike out the “white only” clause of the Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks. Resolution No. 38 requested an international charter for the Coach and Car Cleaners, but it was denied. Resolution No. 37, dealing with discrimination, was met with shoddy evasion in your committee’s report.

In 1921 at Denver, Resolutions No. 72 and 73 again complained of intolerable discrimination in the railroad employees’ and boilermakers’ requests.

In 1924, the N.A.A.C.P. addressed a strong letter to the American Federation of Labor offering its cooperation and asking effective support to the Negroes in their fight for trade union democracy. The letter was politely acknowledged.

In 1925 and 1926 there was a considerable exchange of correspondence between T. Arnold Hill of the National Urban League and William Green, your president, concerning the matter of Negro organizers and a strong campaign by the A. F. of L. to enlist colored workers. This exchange was climaxed by Mr. Hill’s appearance on two occasions before the Executive Council of the A. F. of L. and the offer of the National Urban League to raise one-half the expenses of a Negro organizer if the A. F. of L. would make the appointment and furnish the other half. “Funds of the Federation did not permit.”

And so on down the line to 1934, when the convention took intelligent action on Resolution No. 141 of Delegate A. Philip Randolph.

Our intention today is to urge this point: that fifty-five years of A. F. of L. history have proven that good intentions on the part of its official leadership are not sufficient. Some progress has been made toward a real democracy in unions, but the progress is too slow to make safe the future of the one and one-half million Negro workers in organizable industry. Negro labor is in a state of flux at the present time unparalleled in former history. There are strong movements toward dual unionism, toward company unionism, toward anti-A. F. of L. unionism, and any one of these movements may soon gain sufficient headway to alienate Negro workers so far from organized labor that decades will be required to bring them back to the approachable position in which they now stand. If the American Federation of Labor really is sincere in its desire to align the support of Negro workers with white workers, it must take definite and positive action immediately. This action must be strong along several lines.

We specifically urge the adoption by the A. F. of L. of legislation which will carry forward the provisions of Delegate Philip Randolph’s original resolution providing for the exclusion from A. F. of L. membership of internationals which refuse to abide by its spirit of fair play to all races. Legislation must be enacted which will bring real penalties against those unions which refuse to comply with the spirit of organized labor and the pronouncement of the A. F. of L. Executive Council on the subject of interracial brotherhood. An international which specifically admits “only white workers” has no place in the membership of the A. F. of L. A local which defies its international’s constitution and refuses to accord equality to all workers regardless of race must be expelled or otherwise disciplined if the international is to have the respect of its members- white and black.

We urge, moreover, the adoption of Mr. Randolph’s Resolution No. 145 of the 1934 convention calling for the appointment of Negro organizers and a program of education among Negro workers. To make special appeal and approach to Negro workers, Negro organizers must be appointed as has been done by some liberal unions, notably, the United Mine Workers of America, the International Longshoremen’s Association, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers’ Union.

The Urban League is at present sponsoring a workers’ education program in the form of its Negro Workers’ Councils which are organized to discourage dual unionism, to fight blind anti-organized labor sentiment and to instill in Negro workers a true appreciation of the needs and benefits of labor unions and to make easier their entrance into existing labor organizations. We have offered the services of these Councils to the A. F. of L. through communications addressed to Mr. William Green, your president, and to heads of various internationals. We here and now again extend this invitation.

We strongly urge that the American Federation of Labor accept the challenge of Negro labor by doing something definite to eradicate a cancerous situation which has been winked at for a half century.

Source:  New Deal Network: Documents — An article in Opportunity, Journal of Negro Life published by the National Urban League. August, 1935.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): The Urban League and the A. F. of L. — A statement on racial discrimination. (1935, August). Opportunity, Journal of Negro Life. Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=9408.