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 for 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 1930’s through the 1950’s. 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 1960’s.
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 workweek, a 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 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 Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters 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