Monday, February 11, 2008

To CEI Year One Students; Please review the article below as we celebrate Black History Month.
In addition, I will be posting questions on this blog for each of you to respond to.
Hope all is well.

Thank you.

~ JM

> Porters Led The Way > > By Dick Meister > > Dick Meister's ZSpace Page > February 01, 2008 > > > Few of the groups that we should honor during Black > History Month are more deserving than the Brotherhood > of Sleeping Car Porters, a pioneering union that played > a key role in the winning of equal rights by African > Americans. > > The union, the first to be founded by African > Americans, was involved as much in political as in > economic activity, joining with the NAACP to serve as > the major political vehicle of African Americans from > the late 1930s through the 1950s. It led the drives in > those years against racial discrimination in > employment, housing, education and other areas that > laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement of > the 1960s. > > The need for a porters' union was distressingly > obvious. Porters commonly worked 12 or more hours a > day, six or even seven days a week, on the Pullman > Company's luxurious sleeping car coaches for a mere > $72.50 a month. And out of that, they had to pay for > their meals, uniforms, even the polish they used to > shine passengers' shoes. > > They got no fringe benefits, although they could ride > the trains for half-fare on their days off - providing > they were among the very few with the time and money to > do so. And providing they didn't ride a Pullman coach. > > Pay was so low porters often had to draw on the equally > meager earnings of their wives, almost invariably > employed as domestics, to pay the rent at month's end. > > It was a marginal and humiliating experience. Porters > were rightly proud of their work, a pride that showed > in their smiling, dignified bearing. But they knew that > no matter how well they performed, they would never be > promoted. They could never be conductors. Those jobs > were reserved for white men. > > Porters knew most of all that their white passengers > and white employers controlled everything. It was they > alone who decided what the porters must do and what > they'd get for doing it. > > No point in arguing. No point in even correcting the > many passengers who called all porters "George" -- as > in George Pullman, their boss -- whatever their actual > names, just as slaves had been called by their masters' > given names. > > When a passenger pulled the bell cord, porters were to > answer swiftly and cheerfully. Just do what the > passengers asked - or demanded. Shine their shoes, > fetch them drinks, make their beds, empty their > cuspidors. No questions, no complaints, no protests. No > rights. Nothing better epitomized the huge distance > between black and white in American society. > > Hundreds of porters who challenged the status quo by > daring to engage in union activity or other concerted > action were fired. But finally, the administration of > President Franklin D. Roosevelt granted workers, black > and white, the legal right to unionize, and finally, in > 1937, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters won a > union contract from Pullman. > > The contract was signed precisely 12 years after union > founder and president A. Philip Randolph had called the > union's first organizing meeting in New York City. But > the long struggle was well worth it. The contract > pulled the porters out of poverty. It brought them pay > at least equal to that of unionized workers in many > other fields, a standard work week, full range of > fringe benefits and, most important, the right to > continue to bargain collectively with Pullman on those > and other vital matters. > > Union President Randolph and Vice President C.L. > Dellums, who succeeded him in 1968, led the drive that > pressured President Roosevelt into creating a Fair > Employment Practices Commission aimed at combating > discrimination in housing as well as employment. FDR > agreed to set up the commission -- a model for several > state commissions - only after Randolph and Dellums > threatened to lead a march on Washington by more than > 100,000 black workers and others who were demanding > federal action against discrimination. > > Dellums and Randolph, who was elected as the AFL-CIO's > first black vice president in 1957, struggled as hard > against discrimination inside the labor movement, > particularly against the practice of unions setting up > segregated locals, one for white members, one for black > members. > > Randolph, elected in 1957 as the AFL-CIO's first black > vice president, long was known as the civil rights > conscience of the labor movement, often prodding > federation President George Meany and other > conservative AFL-CIO leaders to take stands against > racial discrimination. > > The sleeping car coaches that once were the height of > travel luxury have long since disappeared, and there > are very few sleeping car porters in this era of less- > than-luxurious train travel. > > The porters' union is gone, too. But before the union > disappeared, it had reached goals as important as any > ever sought by an American union - or any other > organization. > _____ > > Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based writer who has > covered labor issues for a half-century. Contact him > through his website,