Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the Labor Movement

Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters it’s Affect on the Labor and Civil Rights Movement

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was a labor union organized by African American employees of the Pullman Company in August 1925 and led by A. Philip Randolph and Milton P. Webster. This paper will discuss the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) founders, the issues that caused its fight for organization and recognition, the Pullman Company, the American Federation of Labor and the affect on the labor movement and the affect on the civil rights movement. First let’s examine the beginning of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and its leadership. The beginning there were three Pullman porters, considered exemplary representatives of the field, chose to take a risk against the odds. Ashley Totten, Roy Lancaster, and William Des Verney they decided the Pullman porters needed a union.

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There is nothing to be found on the background of Roy Lancaster, and William Des Verney. Ashley L. Totten was born in Frederiksted, St Croix on October 11 1884. As an adult in 1915 he departed for New York City, he served in the US Navy as a bugler on the USS Algonquin before he started working as a porter for the Pullman Company. In the summer of 1925, New York’s black porters were persuaded that they needed a union. Something had to be done about the Pullman Company’s treatment of its black porters, and leaders were needed to take them into arenas beyond the reach of the company’s reprisals. Then a small group of porters held a number of secret meetings and worked out plans for founding a union. Their plans were formalized and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was organized in the Elks Hall in the Harlem section of New York City on August 25, 1925. Later, Asa Phillip Randolph was named general organizer of the union. Other officers were William H. Des Verney, vice-president and assistant organizer; Roy Lancaster, secretary-treasurer; and Ashley Totten, assistant organizer. Their motto or password was “solidarity,” which they called the key to freedom of the oppressed and exploited races and classes, and the group’s sign was a clinched left fist with arm extended downward, denoting that justice and freedom will come only through a fight. Asa Phillip Randolph gave the union leadership and direction. “A. Phillip Randolph was born April 15, 1889, in Crescent City, Florida, the second son of the Rev. James
William Randolph, a tailor and minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Elizabeth Robinson Randolph, a skilled seamstress. In 1891 the family moved to Jacksonville, Florida, which had a thriving, well-established African-American community.” (Pfeffer, 2000) From his father, Randolph learned that color was less important than a person’s character and conduct. From his mother, he learned the importance of education and of defending oneself physically against those who would seek to hurt one or one’s family, if necessary. Randolph remembered vividly the night his mother sat in the front room of their house with a loaded shotgun across her lap, while his father tucked a pistol under his coat and went off to prevent a mob from lynching a man at the local county jail. A. Phillip Randolph was a superior student. He attended the Cookman Institute in East Jacksonville, the only academic high school in Florida for African Americans. “A. Phillip Randolph excelled in literature, drama and public speaking; he also starred on the school’s baseball team, sang solos with its choir and was valedictorian of the 1907 graduating class.” (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia) After graduation, Randolph worked odd jobs and devoted his time to singing, acting and reading. Reading W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk convinced him that the fight for social equality was most important. Barred by discrimination from all but manual jobs in the South, Randolph moved to New York City in 1911, where he worked at odd jobs and took social sciences courses at City College.”(Pfeffer, 2000) In New York, Randolph became familiar with socialism and the ideologies espoused by the Industrial Workers of the World. He met Columbia University Law student Chandler Owen, and the two developed a synthesis of Marxist economics and the sociological ideas of Lester Frank Ward, arguing that people could only be free if not subject to economic deprivation. “At this point, Randolph developed what would become his distinctive form of civil rights activism, which emphasized the importance of collective action as a way for black people to gain legal and economic equality. To this end, he and Owen opened an employment office in Harlem to provide job training for southern migrants and encourage them to join trade unions.”(Pfeffer, 2000) In 1917 Randolph and Chandler Owen founded the Messenger with the help of the Socialist Party of America. It was a radical monthly magazine, which campaigned against lynching, opposed U.S. participation in World War I, urged African Americans
to resist being drafted, to fight for an integrated society, and urged them to join radical unions.

The Department of Justice called the Messenger “the most able and the most dangerous of all the Negro publications.” When the Messenger began publishing the work of black poets and authors, a critic called it “one of the most brilliantly edited magazines in the history of Negro journalism.” (Pfeffer, 2000) A. Phillip Randolph got his experience from trial and error this was not his first attempt at organized labor. “Randolph’s first experience with labor organization came in 1917, when he organized a union of elevator operators in New York City. In 1919 he became president of the National Brotherhood of Workers of America, a union which organized amongst African-American shipyard and dock workers in the Tidewater region of Virginia. The union dissolved in 1921, under pressure from the American Federation of Labor.” (Taylor, 2005). With A. Phillip Randolph in place as the head of the union getting others to join was the next order of business but was not as easy as it sounded. A. Phillip Randolph and Ashley Totten had difficulty persuading union men to work publicly for the union as they would do as organizers for the men feared retaliation from the Pullman Company if they did so. Some were apathetic, skeptical, and simply afraid. Soon they concluded that the company was trying to frighten them away, first by bringing in more blacks from the South who might be their replacement. “This was warning enough for Randolph and Totten to find a strong leader whom the Pullman officials could not intimidate; hence, they located Milton P. Webster, who became the most notable of the district organizers. The Chicago area was the Pullman Company’s most important district, its headquarters were there, and it employed more black porters than any other district. It ran cars in and out of the city to places throughout the country. Likewise, the Chicago area was important to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters for twelve years it would house the brotherhood’s most militant local who agitated against the company’s anti-union stance.

The persuasive Randolph was successful in getting Milton P. Webster to take the job.” (Harris,1982) About Milton P. Webster, virtually nothing is known about the circumstances of Milton Webster’s birth or about his early life. “It is known that he was the son of a Tennessee barber. While still a young man, Webster left Clarksville, Tennessee and moved to Chicago where for eighteen years he worked as a Pullman porter. Although the number of his siblings is unknown, he had an older brother, D. P. Webster, who may have founded the black postal workers’ protest group, the Phalanx Forum Club. With less than a ninth-grade education, Milton Webster had limited employment options.” (Gale, 2007). But Webster was determined to provide for his wife Elizabeth and their three children so that she could devote all of her energy to raising their son and daughters. In time he became frustrated with the Pullman Company and resigned from service. He also became interested in the work of political figures. At some point Webster’s political patron, Bernard Snow, who was chief bailiff of the municipal court, helped Webster to study law privately. In 1924 and in need of employment to support himself and his family, he became assistant bailiff under Snow. In this patronage position, he became a successful political operative in Republican politics. He held the position until 1930 and also managed at least two large apartment buildings in Chicago.

Although this was during the Great Depression, Webster was still able to separate himself from the Pullman Company and to earn enough money and have sufficient time for union opportunities that came to him. He also gave the union financial support. Webster was influential in Republican politics as early as 1925, when he became a ward leader among the party’s black membership. (Gale, 2007) The opposition was the Pullman Company. The Pullman Company has its beginnings in “February of 1867 originally known as the Pullman Palace Car Company, by George Pullman who was tired of riding on long train journeys with nothing but an uncomfortable bench seat to ride on the entire way and no type of sleeping arrangements.” (Wish, 2009) Pullman essentially created the market of sleeping arrangements aboard passenger trains when set up his company a few miles outside of Chicago, Illinois in a newly incorporated town known as Pullman, everything in the town, including the homes, were all company owned.

Pullman’s original sleeping cars were not the well remembered full/half bedroom arrangements that would come later in the 1930s and onwards, they were simple multipurpose “berths” whereby the seats could be laid out into a bed during the night. (Wish, 2009) These types of early sleeping car arrangements were quite common for years although Pullman’s early cars became just as famous for their luxurious interior decor as for the bedding they provided. In 1900 the Pullman Palace Car Company was renamed simply the Pullman Company to oversee the corporation’s numerous acquisitions it had gained over through the latter 1800s. The Pullman Company would eventually become the parent corporation to several subsidiaries, such as the Pullman Car & Manufacturing Company which actually built the passenger cars. The Pullman Company was not new to deal with organized labor or labor unions. The Pullman Company is more famous for dealing with the American Railway Union (ARU), and the Pullman Strike of 1894. “During a severe depression the Panic of 1893, the Pullman Palace Car Company cut wages as demand for new passenger cars plummeted and the company’s revenue dropped. A delegation of workers complained that wages had been cut but not rents at their company housing or other costs in the company town. The company owner, George Pullman, refused to lower rents or go to arbitration.” (Wish, 2009) Many of the Pullman factory workers joined the American Railway Union led by Eugene V. Debs, which supported their strike by launching a boycott in which ARU members refused to run trains containing Pullman cars. “The plan was to force the railroads to bring Pullman to compromise. Eugene V. Debs began the boycott on June 26, 1894. Within four days, 125,000 workers on twenty-nine railroads had “walked off” the job rather than handle Pullman cars.”(Wish, 2009)

The railroads coordinated their response through the General Managers’ Association, which had been formed in 1886 and included 24 lines linked to Chicago. The railroads began hiring replacement workers (strikebreakers), which increased hostilities. Many African Americans were recruited as strikebreakers and crossed picket lines, as they feared that the racism expressed by the American Railway Union would lock them out of another labor market. This added racial tension to the union’s predicament.”(Wish, 2009) On June 29, 1894, Debs hosted a peaceful meeting to rally support for the strike from railroad workers at Blue Island, Illinois. Afterward, groups within the crowd became enraged and set fire to nearby buildings and derailed a locomotive. Elsewhere in the western states, sympathy strikers prevented transportation of goods by walking off the job, obstructing railroad tracks, or threatening and attacking strikebreakers.

This increased national attention and the demand for federal action. Under direction from President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, the US Attorney General Richard Olney (formerly a lawyer for a railroad) dealt with the strike. Olney obtained an injunction in federal court barring union leaders from supporting the strike and demanding that the strikers cease their activities or face being fired. Debs and other leaders of the ARU ignored the injunction, and federal troops were called up to enforce it. While Debs had been reluctant to start the strike he threw his energies into organizing it. He called a general strike of all union members in Chicago, but this was opposed by Samuel Gompers, head of the AFL, and other established unions, and it failed. City by city the federal forces broke the ARU efforts to shut down the national transportation system. Thousands of United States Marshals and some twelve thousand United States Army troops, commanded by Brigadier General Nelson Miles, took action. President Cleveland wanted the trains moving again, based on his legal, constitutional responsibility for the mails. His lawyers argued that the boycott violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, and represented a threat to public safety. The arrival of the military and the subsequent deaths of workers in violence led to further outbreaks of violence. During the course of the strike, thirty strikers were killed and fifty-seven were wounded. Property damage exceeded eighty million dollars.

The issue that caused the union to be formed where the same issues that white workers of the day where fighting for fair wages, shorter work hours and a respectable work environment. The job of the Pullman porter included loading and unloading passengers and their luggage, keeping toilet and general-use areas and cabins clean, and turning down and putting up the folding upper and lower beds. The porter also took care of patrons’ personal needs, such as boxing ladies’ hats, sending letters and telegrams, setting up card tables, stocking coolers with ice, serving food and drinks in the dining car, and selling cigarettes, candy, and playing cards. When necessary he also took on the chores of the conductor, though he was never paid a conductor’s wages. For many years porters were on call twenty-four hours. As envisioned by founder George Pullman, the porter’s role was to supply the average traveler with the luxury of a servant for the duration of the trip. Pullman specifically modeled the Pullman porter after the plantation house servant, and he intended the jobs to be filled by the recently freed slaves.

In a degrading act of racism, whites routinely called all porters “George” after George Pullman, following an older racist custom of naming slaves after their masters.

The main issues for the unionof The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters where gaining enough membership so it could have the authority to conduct business on behalf of the porters. The second and most difficult to overcome was the ability to be recognized as a legitimate union. For the first several years of its existence, the union continued fighting the Pullman Company, its allies in the black community, the white power structure, and rival unions within the AFL that were hostile to its members’ job claims. “They also successfully fought efforts by communist to infiltrate the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters also tried to involve the federal government in its fight with the Pullman Company: on September 7, 1927 the brotherhood filed a case with the Interstate Commerce Commission, requesting an investigation of Pullman rates, porters’ wages, tipping practices, and other matters related to wages and working conditions; the ICC ruled that it did not have jurisdiction.” (Harris, 1982) While it had organized roughly half of the porters within the company, the union was seemingly no closer to obtaining recognition than it had been in 1925. By 1928 Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters leaders decided that the only way to force the issue was to strike the company. The leadership was, however, divided on what a strike could accomplish: some rank-and-file leaders wanted to use the strike as a show of strength and an organizing tool, while Randolph was more cautious, hoping to use the threat of a strike as the lever to get the federal National Mediation Board(NMB) established pursuant to the Railway Labor Act to bring the Pullman Company to the table while mobilizing support from supporters outside the industry. After secretly meeting with the Pullman Company, the National Mediation Board refused to follow precedent it had set in the case of a group of white railroad workers, and refused to act in behalf of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The National Mediation Board argued that the brotherhood was incapable of disrupting the Pullman sleeping car service. Although the union had voted for a strike, the Pullman Company convinced the National Mediation Board that the union did not have the strength in numbers
or resources to pull it off. In July 1928, the National Mediation Board formally retired the case and Randolph called off the strike just hours before it was scheduled to begin. “Randolph, Webster, and the leadership of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters recognized, in the end, that a strike at that time would have seriously crippled the brotherhood, agreeing that the union was still not strong enough to carry off a strike against the powerful corporate giant like Pullman.”(Pfeffer, 2000)

The struggle lingered for almost ten full years. The union held on through the worst days of the early 1930s until 1934. Fortunes of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters changed with the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. When the President Roosevelt’s administration amended the Railway Labor Act, then passed the Wagner-Connery Act, which outlawed company unions and covered porters, the following year. With amendments to the Railway Labor Act in 1934, porters were granted rights under federal law. Membership in the Brotherhood jumped to more than seven thousand. “The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters defeated the company union in the election held by the National Mediation Board and on June 1, 1935 The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters immediately demanded that the National Mediation Board certify it as the representative of these porters and it was certified.”(Pfeffer, 2000) After years of bitter struggle, the Pullman Company finally began to negotiate with the Brotherhood in 1935, two years later the union signed its first collective bargaining agreement with the Pullman Company and agreed to a contract with them in 1937. Employees gained two million dollars in pay increases, a shorter workweek, and overtime pay.

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union caused a change in the practices of the American Federation of Labor and had a positive effect on the labor movement. After years of rejection and exclusion from the American Federation of Labor, The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters won a charter from the American Federation of Labor in 1935, the same year it was certified by the National Mediation Board. In the years before then, when the American Federation of Labor refused to recognize the organization itself, Randolph accepted “federal local” status for a number of locals of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, an unsatisfactory compromise that
assumed that these locals had no union of their own, and allowed them to affiliate directly with the American Federation of Labor on that basis. That half-measure, however, allowed Randolph into American Federation of Labor conventions and other meetings, where he advocated organization of black workers on an equal footing with whites. In 1941 A. Phillip Randolph and other Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters organizers called for African Americans to march on Washington, D.C., to protest racial discrimination in the defense industries. A. Phillip Randolph decided that the march had to be an African Americans-only protest, not to distance African Americans from supportive whites but to establish African American control over their own destinies. Once it became obvious to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Randolph had succeeded in effectively organizing a massive protest, he signed Executive Order 8802, the Fair Employment Act (1941), which prohibited defense and other government-related industries from discriminating against African Americans. Although this order carried no punitive measures for those who did not comply, it officially acknowledged the need for the government to address racial issues. Randolph called off the march on Washington, but the group continued to work on civil rights issues.

The Passenger rail travel dropped sharply after its peak in the 1940s, when the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters had 15,000 members, to the 1960s, when only 3000 porters had regular runs. “After four decades of service as the first vice president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Milton Webster was designated to be A. Phillip Randolph’s successor as president when Randolph retired. That transition never occurred. In February 1965, Milton Webster suffered a fatal heart attack in the lobby of the Americana Hotel in Bal Harbour, Florida while he and A. Phillip Randolph were attending an AFL-CIO Convention. (Taylor, 2005) C. L. Dellums replaced A. Phillip Randolph as president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1968.

“The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters merged with the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks (BRAC) a decade later. Dellums’ successor and last president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters as an independent
organization, Leroy J. Shackelford, became president of Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks’s Sleeping Car Porters Division.” (Wish, 2009) In 1984, the Sleeping Car Porters Division was combined, along with Amtrak clerical employees, into a new Amtrak Division of the union having approximately five thousand members, three thousand five hundred clerical and one thousand five hundred in on-board services, comprising the largest single unit of organized labor on the Amtrak system.

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union played a more significant role in the civil rights movement than it has been giving credit for. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union was one of the earliest nationwide organizations that championed for equal rights for African American citizens. In 1941 A. Phillip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters used the threat of a march on Washington and support from the NAACP, Fiorello La Guardia and Eleanor Roosevelt to force the administration to ban discrimination by defense contractors and establish the Fair Employment Practices Committee to enforce that order. Milton Webster, the The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters’s First Vice-President, worked to make the FEPC an effective tool in combating employment discrimination

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters members played a significant role in the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1940s and 1950s. E. D. Nixon, a Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters member and the most militant spokesperson for the rights of African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama for most of the 1940s and 1950s, exemplified the leadership that the union provided. Nixon could take advantage of his experience organizing under difficult circumstances and his immunity to economic reprisals from local businesses and authorities. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters members also helped spread information and create networks between the different communities their work took them to, bringing the newspapers and political ideas they picked up in the North back to their hometowns. A. Phillip Randolph helped negotiate the return of the CIO to the AFL in 1955. A. Phillip Randolph by that time had achieved elder statesman status within the civil rights movement, even as changes in the railroad industry were gradually displacing many of the union’s members. “A. Phillip Randolph and
one of his chief lieutenants, Bayard Rustin who, ironically, had bitterly criticized Randolph for calling off the 1941 March on Washington were the moving force behind the 1963 March on Washington. A. Phillip Randolph finally realized his vision for a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, which attracted between two hundred thousand and three hundred thousand to the nation’s capital.” (Taylor, 2005) The rally is often remembered as the high-point of the civil rights movement, and it did help keep the issue in the public consciousness. However, when President Kennedy was assassinated three months later, Civil Rights legislation was stalled in the Senate. It was not until the following year, under President Lyndon B. Johnson, that the Civil Rights Act was finally passed. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed. Although King rightly deserves great credit for these legislative victories, it is hard to overestimate the importance of A. Phillip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union’s contributions to the civil rights movement.

Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia: 280. 2010. Retrieved 28 Sep 2013. Gale, Thomson.(2007). Notable Black American Men, Book II., Farmington Hills, Michigan
Gale Group

Harris, William H. (1982). The Harder We Run: Black Workers since the Civil War. New York.

Pfeffer, Paula F. (2000). Randolph; Asa Philip. American National Biography Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 3 Oct 2013. Salvatore, Nick. Schneirov, Richard. Stromquist, Shelton. (1999). The Pullman Strike and Crisis of 1890s: Essays on Labor and Politics. U. of Illinois Press. Taylor, Cynthia (2005). A. Phillip Randolph: The Religious Journey of an African American Laboe Leader. NYU Press. Wish, Harvey. (2009) The Pullman Strike: A Study in Industrial Warfare, Journal of the

Illinois State Historical Society, pp. 288-312

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