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 Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (9627 hits)

Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

Background and Summary

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was a labor union organized by the predominantly Black employees of Pullman train-car porters. Organized in 1925, it struggled for 12 years before winning its first collective bargaining agreement with the Pullman Company.

In 1935, it became the first labor organization led by Blacks to receive a charter in the American Federation of Labor. In 1978, it merged with the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks, which is now known as the Transportation Communications International Union.

The leaders of the BSCP included A. Philip Randolph, who served as its first president, and C. L. Dellums, the uncle of U.S. Representative Ron Dellums who served as its vice president. These men became leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, and they continued to play a significant role in it after it focused on the eradication of segregation in the South. BSCP members, such as E. D. Nixon, were among the leadership of local Civil Rights Movement events by virtue of their organizing experience, constant travel between communities and freedom from monetary dependence on local authorities.

A Long Day’s Work

The campaign to found the union was an extraordinarily long one, which put it at odds with not only the Pullman Company, but many members of the Black community. The Pullman Company was one of the largest employers of Blacks in the 1920s and 1930s, and it created an image for itself of “enlightened benevolence” through its financial support for Black churches, newspapers and other organizations. Many car porters were paid well enough to enjoy the material advantages of a middle class lifestyle and prominence within their own communities.

Working for the Pullman Company was, however, less glamorous in practice than it appeared from the outside. Porters were dependent on tips for much of their income, making them dependent on the whims of White passengers, who uniformly referred to all porters as "George", the first name of George Pullman, the founder of the company. Porters spent roughly ten percent of their time in unpaid "preparatory" and "terminal" set-up and clean-up duties, had to pay for their own food, lodging and uniforms, which would consume half of their wages, and they were charged if ever passengers stole items from the train car. Porters could ride at half fare on their days off, but not on Pullman coaches. Additionally, they couldn’t be promoted to conductor, since it was a job reserved for Whites, even though Black porters frequently performed many of the conductors' duties.

The Company squelched any efforts to organize a union during the first decades of the 20th century by isolating or firing any union leaders. Like many other large, ostensibly paternalistic companies of the time, the Pullman Company employed a large number of spies who kept the company informed of employees' activities, and in extreme cases, Company agents assaulted union organizers.

When 500 porters, who met in Harlem on August 25, 1925, decided to make another effort to organize a union, they not only launched their campaign in secrecy, but chose A. Philip Randolph, an outsider beyond the reach of the Company, to lead it. The union chose a motto that summed up porters' resentment over their working conditions and their lesser place in society that was: "Fight or Be Slaves."

Fighting the Company Rules

At that time the Black community was estranged from organized labor. While the American Federation of Labor did not exclude Black workers nominally, many of its affiliates did. Many Black workers saw their employers, whether it was Henry Ford in Detroit or Swift Packing in Chicago, as more sympathetic to them than either their White co-workers or the labor movement itself. In addition, the economic separation forced by Jim Crow and the doctrine of advancement through self-reliance preached by Booker T. Washington led many Black leaders to look with distrust on joining with Whites on issues of common concern — and often denied that Blacks and Whites had any common interests at all.

In the 1920s, as some changes within the AFL began to lower these barriers, all the while, groups ranging from the Urban League to the Socialist Party of America and the Communist Party actually began to focus on the rights of Black workers, despite what the AFL was doing. Randolph was a prominent member of the Socialist Party.

The Pullman Company's response to the BSCP was to denounce, with support from the ministers and Black newspapers that it had cultivated relationships with, the new union as an outside entity that was motivated by foreign ideologies. In turn, the Company sponsored its own union, variously known as the Employee Representation Plan or the Pullman Porters and Maids Protective Association, to represent its loyal employees. Local authorities helped the Company by interfering with or banning BSCP meetings.

The union continued to fight the Company, its allies in the Black community, and rival unions within the AFL that were hostile to its members' job claims for the first several years of its existence. The BSCP also tried to involve the federal government in its fight with the Pullman Company. On September 7, 1927, the Brotherhood filed a case with the Interstate Commerce Commission, requesting an investigation of Pullman rates, porters' wages, tipping practices and other matters related to wages and working conditions. The ICC ruled that it did not have jurisdiction to investigate such things.

Proving Porters Matter

While it had organized roughly half of the porters within the Company, the union was seemingly no closer to obtaining recognition than it had been in 1925. By 1928, BSCP leaders decided that the only way to force the issue was to strike the Company. However, the leadership was divided on what a strike would accomplish. Some rank-and-file leaders wanted to use the strike as a demonstration of strength and an organizing tool, while Randolph was more cautious, hoping to use the threat of a strike as the lever to establish the federal National Mediation Board pursuant to the Railway Labor Act in order to bring the Pullman Company to the table while mobilizing support from outside the industry. When the NMB refused to act, Randolph called off the strike just hours before it was scheduled to begin.

Canceling the strike provoked an internal crisis and that, along with the Great Depression, made having any steady job attractive and, thus, led to a sharp drop in BSCP membership. The union might have disappeared altogether if Randolph and his principal rival within the organization, Milton P. Webster of the Chicago branch, had not ignored their differences in order to work together and, in time, become close friends. The union held on until 1934, when the Roosevelt administration amended the RLA, then passed the Wagner-Connery Act the following year, which outlawed company unions and covered porters under the act.

The BSCP immediately demanded that the NMB certify it as the representative of these porters. The BSCP defeated the Company’s union in the election held by the NMB and on June 1, 1935 became certified. Two years later the union signed its first collective bargaining agreement with the Pullman Company.

The BSCP won a charter from the AFL in 1935, the same year it was certified by the NMB. In the years prior to certification, when the AFL refused to recognize the organization itself, Randolph accepted "federal local" status for a number of locals of the BSCP, an unsatisfactory compromise that allowed them to affiliate directly with the AFL under the assumption that these locals had no union of their own. That measure, however, allowed Randolph into AFL conventions and meetings, where he advocated organization of Black workers on an equal footing with Whites. Randolph kept the BSCP in the AFL, where most of the railroad brotherhoods remained, after John L. Lewis led the split that resulted in the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Gaining Momentum

Randolph expanded his agenda once he became the leader of the foremost Black labor organization in the U.S. He was chosen as the leader of the National Negro Congress, an umbrella organization founded in 1937 that united many of the major Black civil rights organizations of the day. Randolph later resigned from the NNC in a dispute over policy from some communist activists within it. The NNC eclipsed BSCP as Randolph's stature continued to grow.

In 1941, Randolph used the threat of a march on Washington D.C., and support from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Fiorello LaGuardia and Eleanor Roosevelt to force the administration to ban discrimination by defense contractors and establish the Fair Employment Practices Committee to enforce that order. Milton Webster, the BSCP's first vice president, worked to make the FEPC an effective tool in combating employment discrimination. Randolph achieved his other objective, ending of racial segregation within the military, seven years later when President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order banning it.

BSCP members played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1940s and 1950s. E. D. Nixon, a BSCP member and one of the more militant spokes-people for the rights of Blacks in Montgomery, Ala., exemplified the leadership that the union provided. Nixon utilized his experience organizing under difficult circumstances and his immunity to economic reprisals from local businesses and authorities. BSCP members were also able to spread information and create networks among the different communities where their work took them, bringing the newspapers and political ideas they picked up in the North back to their hometowns.

Randolph helped negotiate the return of the CIO to the AFL in 1955. By that time, Randolph had achieved elder statesman status within the Civil Rights Movement, even as changes in the railroad industry were gradually displacing many of the union's members. Randolph and one of his chief lieutenants, Bayard Rustin, were the moving force behind the 1963 March on Washington. As Randolph said from the podium at that march: “Let the nation know the meaning of our numbers. We are not a pressure group. We are not an organization. We are not a mob. We are the advance guard of a massive moral revolution that is not confined to the Negro, nor is it confined to civil rights, for our white allies know that they are not free while we are not.”

Travel by train dropped sharply after its peak in the 1940s, a time when the BSCP had 15,000 members. By the 1960s, only 3000 porters had regular runs. Dellums replaced Randolph as president of the BSCP in 1968 and the union merged with BRAC a decade later. The A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum was established in Chicago, in 1995, to celebrate both the life of Randolph and the role of Blacks in the U.S. labor movement.


Sources:; and;; Bates, Beth Tompkins, Pullman Porters And The Rise Of Protest Politics In Black America, 1925-1945; Chateauvert, Melinda, Marching Together: Women of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Tye, Larry, Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class; style="mso-ascii-theme-font: minor-latin; mso-hansi-theme-font: minor-latin; mso-ascii-font-family: Calibri; mso-hansi-font-family: Calibri">

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