November 2013

The Spirit of '63

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. We remember the March as an enduring triumph of the civil rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered that day on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Two hundred thousand black and white marchers defied expectations and gathered in segregated Washington, D.C. without sparking any acts of violence. The March symbolizes the turning point in the civil rights movement, when American’s tolerance for legal segregation began to end. Major civil rights legislation passed within years of the March, and things like “coloreds only” water fountains became dark relics of the past.

Less remembered is the March’s significance to organized labor. This was a march for jobs, after all, and not just freedom. Marchers demanded an end to unemployment along with segregation. Black and white labor leaders such as A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers helped organize and spoke at the March. Bayard Rustin, the March’s main organizer, worked for the AFL-CIO and considered the marchers’ economic demands to be central to their message. Understanding the March’s importance to the labor movement requires an understanding of the importance of labor in the civil rights movement.

Labor has been tied to civil rights from the moment that the first slave set foot on American soil. Plantation owners in the American colonies established the slave system to secure a cheap and disenfranchised source of labor. Think of a slave’s bill of sale as the world’s worst contract: no wages, no benefits, no grievances, no rights—and no expiration date. This system hurt slaves most of all, of course, but also harmed free tradesmen. How could a free blacksmith in Virginia compete with slave labor? Slavery turned the South into an economic backwater while the North industrialized at breakneck speed. Anti-slavery activists rallied around a call for “free land and free labor” when they organized the Republican Party. The abolition of slavery was the largest single advance in labor rights in our nation’s history.

Our problems were not over, however. Freed men may not have been slaves any more, but they certainly did not have equal rights. Add the South’s postwar economic depression to the mix, and you had a recipe for exploitation. Robber barons in the North quickly found that they could replace striking workers with cheap black replacements. The black workers were usually not aware that they had been hired as strikebreakers until they encountered the picket line. Enraged white strikers took their anger out on black workers while the bosses sat back and counted their profits. The situation only got worse as more black workers migrated north to escape Jim Crow. Labor could advance only so far while unscrupulous bosses were fanning the flames of racial hatred.

A. Philip Randolph was the first person to try to solve this problem directly. Randolph was a black working class political agitator and self-taught union organizer. He realized that the only way black workers could achieve real equality with whites was through organization. He embarked on a twelve year crusade in the 1920s to organize the all-black porters of the Pullman railroad company. He and the porters had to fight racism within the company and the established labor movement. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters’ eventual victory over the company and admission as the first black-led union in the American Federation of Labor catapulted Randolph into nationwide celebrity. The labor leader became the foremost voice for civil rights in America in the 1930s.

Randolph used his national profile to fight workplace inequality nationwide. He threatened to march 100,000 activists on Washington twice during the 1930s and 40s, forcing Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman to desegregate the war industry and the armed forces. Randolph also agitated for equality within the labor movement. Under his urging and with the agreement of powerful labor leaders like Reuther, the United Mine Workers President John Lewis, and AFL-CIO President George Meany, organized labor became increasingly involved in the fight for civil rights. National and local unions set an example by reversing discriminatory practices in organizing and apprenticeship. Labor leaders spoke up about the evils of segregation. By the 1950s, labor began to flex its political muscle to get equal rights legislation passed. The AFL-CIO was a key backer of the landmark civil rights acts of 1957 and 1964.

Ending segregation did not end the problem of income inequality. The 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom was born out of a demand for legislation to provide employment for all working Americans, black and white. March organizer Bayard Rustin wrote that the March would be remembered more for its demand for economic empowerment than its demand for civil rights. For a while it seemed like this might come true. Martin Luther King organized the Poor People’s Campaign to agitate for an end to unemployment. President Johnson launched the Great Society programs to eliminate poverty in America. Unfortunately, the demand for full employment went unanswered. Corporate-backed politicians exploited the racial tension created by the Great Society welfare programs to divide the working class and weaken the labor movement.

Now, unemployment is even higher than it was in 1963. The voter protections passed in the 1960s are under attack all over the country, threatening to roll back the clock on progress. Radicals in the federal and state governments are working tirelessly to scrap programs meant to help the poor and working class for the benefit of their corporate cronies. As ironworkers, we need to remember the historic links between civil rights and labor and band together to fight this trend.

We have the tools to do this. The Iron Workers have banded together with labor and community partners to fight voter discrimination in several states. We can go further by pushing for early voting laws that will make it easier for working class citizens of every color to make it to the polls. We are fighting for the adoption of a “Workers Bill of Rights” that would accomplish the goal of the 1963 March by guaranteeing decent employment to all Americans. Progress won’t be easy—it never was. But we have history on our side, and by sticking together we can finish the task that was laid out fifty years ago.