Black workers and the Midwest union movement are inextricably intertwined.
Today, the Midwest is among the regions with the highest African American union membership in America. By contrast, in the early 1900s, corporations brought many African American workers to the Midwest for the opposite reason — as “strikebreakers” to replace mostly immigrant workers during labor disputes.
The 1919 Steel Strike in Gary, Indiana marked a crucial turning point. Racial dynamics in Gary were driven by job competition between African Americans and immigrants from Mexico and Europe more than race hatred between the groups. Labor organizer Louis Caldwell, an African American lawyer, successfully urged black workers to avoid racial divisions and join striking immigrant workers to improve wages:
“I defy any man or body or corporation that will use my people for a cause to create a race riot, by pitting one race against another . . . I want to say right now that the colored people will not and dare not be made goats of this strike . . . One race oppressed blocks the growth and advance of another.”
The workers’ solidarity succeeded until U.S. Army troops intervened at the behest of U.S. Steel’s executives.
In the 1920s and 30s, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the union of passenger train attendants, became the most powerful majority African American union in history. The Brotherhood integrated America’s labor movement when it became the first majority-black member of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), America’s largest national union organization.
The Brotherhood also played a hugely important role in the growth of the black middle class, black power, and civil rights. It was a crucial social network linking African American communities across the country. Members would distribute black newspapers including The Chicago Defender to southern states, and spread news about life outside the Jim Crow South. Its members, having seen the lifestyles of the wealthiest Americans up close, also developed a unique working-class consciousness.
The Brotherhood’s expertise in union organizing was used crucial to coordinating the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, with Brotherhood leader E.D. Nixon organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Brotherhood President A. Phillip Randolph, one of the most important Civil Rights leaders, organizing the 1963 March on Washington.
The United Auto Workers (UAW) likewise has been an important organization not just for representing assembly workers, but also for developing black leadership. One example: Coleman Young, was a UAW union organizer before entering politics and becoming the first African American mayor of Detroit.