Monday, February 8, 2010

Black Women and the Labor Movement Part 1

Black History Month Tribute: The Black Woman's Place in Labor History

Women in America (Oxford)Labor Picketers, c. 1979-1980. These black workers were striking the Memphis Furniture Company, which tried to break their union. The photograph—by Larry Coyne for Press-Scimitar—appears in Michael Keith Honey’s oral history Black Workers Remember, published in 2000.University of Memphis, Mississippi Valley
Since their first arrival aboard a Dutch ship at the shores of Jamestown in 1619, African American women have resisted exploitation even as they have struggled to control the terms and conditions of their labor. While indentured servants and slaves, black women engaged in work slowdowns to protest their treatment; once emancipated, freedwomen employed strikes and boycotts to assert their demands. Yet although already doubly exploited by gender and racial discrimination, African American women in the United States have also faced bias from an organized labor movement dominated by white men focused on organizing the industrial sector. Shut out of better-paying industrial jobs until the mid-twentieth century, most black women were forced to work as domestics and agricultural laborers. Thus, until recently, the history of black women and the labor movement has been a story of resistance that was organized and supported as often by short-lived black-led collective actions as it was by integrated national unions.
While the vast majority of antebellum African American women performed agricultural or domestic work, a pattern that would continue long after emancipation, a small number of slaves were rented out by their owners to southern industries. The treatment of slaves in industry, where they were frequently used as strike breakers, mirrored the brutality of plantation farming. Cotton and wool mills, food and tobacco processors, and even canal and railroad builders relied on female slaves who were often underfed, poorly clothed, and forced to work twelve- to sixteen-hour days, sometimes seven days a week.
Upon emancipation, expectations about the labor of freedwomen became a battleground between southern black families and both northern and southern white society. While the Victorian middle-class ideal placed white women in the private sphere of the home, freedwomen’s attempts to engage in full-time domesticity laboring for their own families were met with considerable hostility. Eager to reunite the nation and its markets, northern leaders saw in freed black women a cheap labor source whose work in southern fields supported northern manufacturers such as textile mills. Southern leaders also expected freedwomen to labor outside their homes to help to rebuild the southern agricultural economy. Just as important, many southerners looked to African American women’s labor to maintain a social barrier between black and white women. With freedmen earning far less than white laborers, often for the same work, African American women were forced into the wage labor market to support their families. Therefore, following emancipation black married women established a precedent of working outside their homes in larger percentages than their white working-class counterparts, a pattern that continued until the 1990s.
Choices for employment for African American women remained largely limited to physically demanding agricultural and domestic work. In both of these occupations, workers encountered difficult barriers to organizing. Black women performing domestic work in private homes as cooks, maids, child-nurses, and laundresses remained isolated from one another, making union organizing nearly impossible. Long hours, including twelve- to sixteen-hour days, and close supervision by their employers further discouraged unionizing efforts.
“Taking in” laundry allowed black women to work within the autonomy of their homes while building and maintaining community networks. It also allowed for association with other workers in the community, the first step in organizing collective actions. As Tera Hunter writes, between1866 and 1881 southern washerwomen organized mass labor protests in an attempt to set the terms of their labor. Workers in Jackson, Galveston, and Atlanta struck for the right to determine their wage rates. Parading through the cities, the striking women not only withheld their labor but also attempted to prevent nonstriking white laundresses from undermining their efforts by crossing picket lines. The most dramatic of these uprisings was the Atlanta strike, where on 19 July 1881, the city’s newly formed Washing Society demanded the right to set their prices at a uniform rate. Eventually number-ing several thousand striking women and supporters, the strike encouraged laundresses, cooks, maids, and nurses to join in what threatened to become a general strike. Newspaper coverage of the strike suggests African American workingwomen in the Reconstruction South recognized the importance of organizing, even if their actions were short-lived and local. Machine-run steam laun-dries eventually replaced southern washerwomen, forcing African American women into industrial settings. Yet, these strikes proved the first of many attempts by black workers to organize their ranks and improve their wages and working conditions.
By the late nineteenth century, black workers were still largely excluded from the labor movement in spite of notable attempts at both integrating white industrial unions and at forming their own unions. Organizations such as the Colored National Labor Union, founded in 1869 by workers not included in the all-white National Labor Union, proved no match for the forces arrayed against them. Although the small northern black population faced discrimination in the labor market, it could not compare with the violent southern hostility to the labor movement. Attempts by both northern and southern Blacks to integrate such organizations as the Knights of Labor also failed when, despite its rhetorical commitment to integration, the Knights continued to segregate many of its local chapters. The decline of the Knights in the late 1890s and the rise of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which had little interest in either black or female workers, presaged continued struggles for African American women laborers as they entered the twentieth century.
During the war black men and women found employment for the first time in industry in significant numbers, filling vacancies left by young men serving in the military. It was even more common, however, for black women to fill the jobs of white immigrant domestics moving into industrial jobs in northern cities. Still, one manufacturing industry that opened to black workers in both the North and South during the war was the textile industry. War-induced labor shortages not only forced southern mills to employ more African American women, but also forced northern mills to recruit them as well. Although black women already worked in the southern textile industry, they had most often been consigned to low-paid janitor-ial work; labor demands of the war allowed them access to more lucrative jobs running machines. In other industries, such as munitions, meatpacking, metalworking, and food processing, newfound access to skilled and semiskilled jobs did not change black women’s relegation to the most physically demanding and low paying jobs available. As in prewar days, even those performing the same work as white women took home significantly lower wages. Efforts to integrate unions during the war made little headway. Even the AFL-affiliatedWomen’s Trade Union League (WTUL) largely failed at their attempts to fill positions opened by the promotion of white women with black workers.

Demobilization at the end of World War I reversed many of the temporary gains made by both black and white women during the war. Returning servicemen reclaimed the industrial jobs held by both black and white women. In 1920, 80 percent of employed black women still worked as agricultural or domestic workers. Whites’ resistance to working beside blacks continued the prewar segregation of the work force. Following a now-familiar pattern, racism impeded attempts at building worker solidarity.
Nonetheless, the labor shortage produced by World War I also provided opportunities for black women outside of industry to organize themselves. Under the guidance of middle-class activists including Mary Church Terell, in 1917 the Women Wage-Earners’ Association headquartered in Washington, DC, led the domestics, waitresses, nurses, and tobacco stemmers of Norfolk, Virginia, in a strike for increased wages and improved working conditions. Like the washerwomen strike in Atlanta over thirty-five years earlier, working black women stood poised to disrupt white society by withholding their labor. White unions refused to support the strike, however, and many in the community attacked its timing as unpatriotic. Accusations of interference with the war effort led to the strike’s failure and ultimately to the demise of the Norfolk union. While black women had failed to win their immediate demands, they had proven their resolve to fight for economic justice.

Throughout the 1920s, black working women continued to organize. Though most domestics still worked not in hotels and restaurants but in private homes, domestic workers affiliated with the AFL’s Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union and established ten locals in the South. The International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union’s ill-fated attempt to organize blacks in the late 1920s alongside the discriminatory practices of most AFL unions, however, left African American women more comfortable with black-led organizations.
The founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) by A. Phillip Randolph in 1925proved a far more successful vehicle for organizing black women. Believing the backing of porters’ wives would influence the success of his organization, Randolph relied on women to help build the union into the most influential black labor organization of its time. In spite of the reality that most African American married women had to work to support their families, BSCP leaders held the middle-class view that women hired by the railroads were temporary workers, only employed until they married. Thus, the BSCP leadership looked to the wives of workers rather than women laborers to organize. Women’s auxiliaries were integral to the success of the union, as women lectured on the importance of union membership and collected union dues. They worked not only for economic equality but social and political equality as well, uniting the goals of the nascent civil rights and labor movements. In the process, they helped to establish a black middle class at a time when occupations considered middle-class gateways, such as clerical and sales jobs, as well as nursing, remained all but closed to black women. The economic crisis of the next decade, however, would limit the opportunities of black families struggling to work their way out of poverty.
women in the workplace - a history

After the Civil War, which saw the deaths of more than 600,000 men and the maiming of countless others, it became necessary for women to enter the work force in increasing numbers. Some journalists and labor leaders called for the creation of a Women's Bureau to oversee conditions of female labor.

But that agency, later formed as part of the federal Department of Labor, did not actually materialize until 1920. In the meantime, even
African-American women in the South had begun to unionize. Newly freed black women, working as laundresses in Jackson, Mississippi, formed a union and struck for higher wages as early as 1866. Married or single, these women participated in the paid labor force to a far greater extent than other American women, largely because racial discrimination limited economic opportunities for black men.
The Knights of Labor, established in 1869, was the first large-scale national labor federation in the United States. In 1881, its members voted to admit women. The organization grew significantly in the mid-1880s after a series of successful strikes. Stressing equal pay regardless of sex or color, the Knights relied heavily on the organizing efforts of women such as the beloved widow, Mary Harris Jones, better known as "Mother Jones."

By the 1890s, the Knights of Labor, weakened by lost strikes, poor investments, and battles with the newly formed American Federation of Labor (AFL), no longer carried much weight in the labor movement. Its early demise, however, could not detract from the unprecedented role played by the Knights of Labor in the promotion of women in the work force.

The most successful union at the turn of the twentieth century was the AFL. Unfortunately for women workers, Samuel Gompers, its first president, shared society's belief that a woman's place was in the home. It was the union's stand that "it is wrong to permit any of the female sex of our country to be forced to work, as we believe that men should be provided with a fair wage in order to keep his female relatives from going to work." If women engaged in paid work, it was felt, respect for them would diminish and they would "bring forth weak children who are not educated to become strong and good citizens."

One of the ways that working women sought to overcome male indifference or hostility was to join forces with upper-class women in the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL), an organization founded in the United States in 1903. Initially, the WTUL hoped to persuade male-dominated unions to take women workers more seriously. Female sewers in the shirtwaist factories, dismissed in 1909 for union activity, were joined on the picket line by their upper-class allies. When both groups were hauled before judges, public sympathy turned a localized strike into New York City's "Uprising of the 20,000."
Part 2: The Great Depression


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