The Power of the Black Working Class

Joe William Trotter, Jr

Over the last four hundred years, black workers have played a vital role in shaping the US’s political economy. In order to understand America, we have to understand the struggles of the black working class.

An African-American war worker in a munitions factory, circa 1940. Hulton Archive / Getty

Interview by
Keisha N. Blain

In an important new book entitled Workers on Arrival, historian Joe William Trotter Jr charts the dynamic history of black workers in the United States, revealing how the labor of African Americans helped build the nation — and the world. His research highlights the unique challenges black workers have faced in the United States as well as their remarkable historical contributions.

Historian Keisha Blain recently spoke with Trotter about the “golden age” of the black artisan, the Great Migration’s role in reshaping the black working class, the various ways that black workers helped construct American cities, the forms of discrimination African-American laborers faced at the hands of racist employers (and at times racist unions), the composition of the contemporary black working class, and much more. Their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Keisha N. Blain

The timing of your book’s release is especially significant as we reflect on the four-hundredth anniversary of the arrival of an estimated twenty Africans in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. And this is where your narrative begins — what you describe as the “preindustrial beginnings” of the black working class. Tell us more about how black workers helped to “construct the colonial city.”

Joe William Trotter, Jr

From the arrival of Europeans in North America, black workers, enslaved and free, helped build and maintain American cities as well as plantations and farms. They worked primarily as general laborers, household, and domestic servants. They not only helped clear land for both northern and southern cities, but also took a hand in the building and construction of early American cities themselves, including New York, Charleston, and New Orleans.

Enslaved preindustrial black workers and gradually increasing numbers of free people of color not only worked as general laborers, household, and domestic servants, but also as skilled craftsmen and women: carpenters, brick masons, blacksmiths, tailors, and seamstresses, to name a few.

In New Orleans and elsewhere, they built housing frames, plastered walls, and shingled roofs. They also forged the tools that made the barrels that stored sugar, tobacco, and other staple crops. The products were also frequently carried to market in wagons and carts fashioned by the hands of enslave people. Enslaved blacks from Barbados not only helped to build Charleston through their labor and craftsmanship, but also influenced the wrought iron works and aesthetics of the city’s architecture.

Some scholars suggest that late colonial, revolutionary, and early America represented a kind of “golden age” of the black artisan. Slaveholders encouraged enslaved Africans to learn trades. The nation’s leading newspapers regularly advertised for the purchase of enslaved craftsmen and skilled “needle women.” Preindustrial black artisans took pride in their specialized knowledge, expertise, and tools. Before the advent of woodworking machinery of various types, especially planing machines, African-American carpenters performed this work by hand much like their West African kinsmen.

Keisha N. Blain

As you point out in the book, the end of the Civil War radically transformed the experiences of the black working class, moving African Americans “from a predominantly enslaved agricultural proletariat into a rural, sharecropping, and wage-earning working class.” Tell us more about this process of proletarianization.

Joe William Trotter, Jr

The war resulted in the emancipation of some four million enslaved men, women, and children. This set in motion the rise of a free black agricultural working class.

Some historians call this early process a “rehearsal for reconstruction” and emancipation. But it was also a rehearsal for another era of proletarianization involving the widespread and forcible incorporation of previously enslaved agricultural workers into the free capitalist wage labor system. And while northern whites aimed to impose free market capitalist labor relations on the South, former slaveowners fought to imbue labor contracts with as many of the coercive features of enslavement as northerners would tolerate and African Americans would bear. Thus, the state facilitated the transformation of enslaved people into workers and slaveowners into employers on highly unequal terms, subverting the liberating and democratic potential of this new working class.

During and following the Civil War, free blacks aspired to landownership over wage labor as the surest route to full freedom, citizenship rights, and empowerment. They believed that the capitalist, market-driven wage labor system deprived them of access to land and blocked their path to full emancipation. But the spread of unequal labor agreements, state-sanctioned violence, lynch law, and mob rule undercut their quest for landownership and set in motion a search for wage-earning jobs in the expanding rural industrial sector (coal mining, railroad building, and lumber works) as well as the industrial cities of the South, Northeast, and Midwest.

Keisha N. Blain

Tell us more about the impact of the Great Migration on the rise of the urban industrial black working class in the United States.

Joe William Trotter, Jr

The Great Migration was deeply anchored in the volition, decision-making, and social struggles of Southern black workers. The numbers themselves are astounding. An estimated eight million African Americans moved from the rural and urban South to the North, West, and South from World War I through the mid-1970s.

The industrial sector offered a significant incentive to blacks in southern agriculture. African Americans who moved directly from a southern farm labor job to the urban North may have increased their earnings by as much as 300 percent in some cases. Even after adjustments for the higher cost of living in their new homes, a recent econometric study suggests that increases in migrant earnings ranged from a low of about 56 percent to a possible high of 130 percent.

The Great Migration not only helped fuel the transition of black men and increasing numbers of black women from general labor, household, and domestic service work into the higher paying manufacturing sector. The wages of massive numbers of black workers also enabled the rise of broader and more expansive African-American urban communities, described by some contemporary observers as the Black Metropolis, replete with an expanding range of institutions, including churches, fraternal orders, social clubs, and entrepreneurial pursuits.

The development of a black institutional infrastructure also underlay the rise of new forms of national and transnational social, political, civil, and human rights struggles that cut across class, ethnic, and racial lines. New social movements not only included organizations like the National Urban League and the NAACP but also the Garvey movement, the Communist Party, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids. These dynamic political developments culminated in aggressive demands for full citizenship rights during the March on Washington movement during World War II and the rise of the modern black freedom struggle during the postwar years.

Keisha N. Blain

One of the central themes of your book is the role black workers played in helping build American cities. What do you see as the most significant contributions of black workers in some of the nation’s largest cities, including Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Chicago?

Joe William Trotter, Jr

Their impact was widespread. African Americans had their most profound impact on the development of the manufacturing, transportation, general labor, and household sectors of the urban industrial economy.

Industrialists trained their labor recruitment efforts on blacks in the Deep South states of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. The Pennsylvania Railroad, the New York Central, the Illinois Central, and other railroad companies recruited black labor for a wide range of manufacturing companies as well as their own extensive rail operations. As a result, African Americans gained increasing access to jobs in the nation’s railroad, shipbuilding, meatpacking, steel, rubber, and automobile manufacturing firms. By the end of World War II, although blacks continued to work disproportionately in household and general labor jobs compared to their white counterparts, nearly 75 percent of all African Americans, predominantly men, worked in nonfarm jobs defined as “unskilled” or “skilled” segments of the black working class.

The African-American impact on the city-building and work process varied somewhat from city to city. African-American labor fueled the development of the coal, iron, and steel industries of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Birmingham.

The impact of black workers was less pronounced on West Coast cities. Large numbers of Latino, Asian American, and Anglo workers vied for employment and upward mobility in western cities and created a more complicated urban working class. The West Coast’s booming petroleum and movie industries excluded African Americans, while northern firms like Ford and Firestone opened West Coast branch plants in or near towns like West Gate in Los Angeles that openly excluded black residents. Still, during World War II, San Francisco Bay Area shipyards recruited increasing numbers of southern black men.

Black workers had their most profound impact on the shipyards in the city of Richmond, California. Within less than three years, partly through the massive migration of black workers to the Bay Area, Richmond mushroomed from a small quiet town of fewer than twenty-five thousand to a major industrial metropolis of one hundred thousand residents.

Keisha N. Blain

Although your book highlights how black workers found spaces in which to create opportunities and thrive economically, it also addresses the many challenges they encountered. What do you see as the key historical roadblocks, on the local, national, and even international levels, that constrained black workers’ lives and opportunities in the aftermath of slavery?

Joe William Trotter, Jr

African Americans encountered several overlapping obstacles in their journey toward the urban industrial working class. These included the discriminatory hiring and promotion policies of large corporations like US Steel and the Ford Motor Company, the expansion of a racially exclusionary mainstream labor movement, and the crafting of a new white supremacist social order.

Mill foremen hired their own men, arranged levels of pay, and exercised control over firing. Black workers labored almost exclusively in the cellar of steel, meatpacking, automobile, and other manufacturing plants. Employers across industries would often remark, as one automaker put it, to paraphrase, “we hired you for the hot and dirty work and want you to stay there.” Some companies refused to hire blacks at all.

Through the interwar years, leading Philadelphia firms like the Budd Company, Bendix, Cramps Shipyard, and Baldwin Locomotive excluded African Americans from all categories of work, from the bottom to the top of its workforce. Blacks faced even greater inequality in Birmingham, Durham, Memphis, and other cities of the industrial South. In Memphis and Houston, when employers classified African Americans performing identical work as whites as “helpers,” they paid them uniformly lower wages than their white fellow workers. While some black men gained appointments as sub-foremen over all-black work crews, they were almost never given supervisory positions over white workers or even mixed gangs of black and white employees.

In general, the urban West and southwest presented a more complicated racial and ethnic environment than the urban North and South. In West Coast cities, African Americans worked with rising numbers of Asian, Latino/Latina Americans and immigrants, and competition for available work was sometimes quite fierce. But the racial rather than ethnic stratification of work presented the greatest obstacles to the city’s black workers. These intertwined developments were reinforced by mob violence, the police power of the state, and by popular pseudo-scientific notions about the genetic inferiority of people of African descent.

Keisha N. Blain

What unique challenges did black women workers encounter during the twentieth century? What kinds of strategies did these women employ to resist racial and gender oppression? To what extent were these efforts successful?

Joe William Trotter, Jr

Most African-American women continued to work, largely in household service occupations. Their employment supplemented the seasonal and often inadequate earnings of black male industrial workers. At the same time, rather than withdrawing from the workforce, black women themselves gradually moved into manufacturing jobs across urban industrial America, including iron, steel, meatpacking, and automobile factories, and auto parts plants and machine shops. Detroit’s A. Krolik Garment Company not only hired its first black women, but soon developed an all-black female workforce. In Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania domestic and personal service workers dropped only slightly, but a few black women nonetheless became power-machine operators at the National Shirt Factory and took other jobs at the Lockhart Iron and Steel Company.

African-American women used industrial work not only as an alternative to domestic service work, but also as a mechanism for bidding up the price of their labor in household employment. Some of these women adopted the motto, “W. W. T. K. (White Women to the Kitchen)” and urged their sisters to leave domestic service employment for new manufacturing jobs.

Women occupied an even broader range of manufacturing jobs in the South than in the urban industrial North and West. In Durham, North Carolina and Memphis, Tennessee, nearly 50 percent of black women workers took jobs in the manufacturing sector of the economy, particularly tobacco, clothing, and food production. Many of these women were hired in accord with racial stereotypes that they were physically as strong as men and could endure more heat than their white female counterparts.

In Houston, African-American women examined bales of cotton in the city’s cotton compresses and warehouses. Although they were industrial workers, they were called “cotton pickers” because they removed dirty or bad cotton from the good cotton and helped prepare it for market. But they also earned the lowest pay of all compress employees.

The precarious place of black women in the urban industrial economy also reinforced their ties to the informal urban economy, including the sex trade. Most of these women pursued their trade inside “houses of prostitution,” run by other women rather than on the streets. But the growing policing, arrest, and harassment of black women in the sex trade added another highly gendered component to the coercive dimensions of the proletarianization process. Thus, similar to African-American men, black women occupied the cellar of the industrial workforce.

Keisha N. Blain

One of the important themes you address in Workers on Arrival is the varied roles of labor unions in shaping the experiences of black workers in the United States during the twentieth century. Can you tell us more about the ways labor unions were helpful, and sometimes harmful, to the organizing efforts of black workers?

Joe William Trotter, Jr

Labor union discrimination against black workers emanated most pointedly from the skilled craft unions of the American Federation of Labor and the Railway Brotherhoods. Even when unions included nondiscrimination clauses in their constitutions, they often formed racially segregated locals and retained the color line in union practices.

In 1917, when meatpacking workers formed the Chicago Stockyards Labor Council, the union enacted a nondiscrimination membership policy, but quickly established two racially segregated locals on the city’s South Side — one for black men and the other for black women. More damaging, however, the SLC admitted constituent locals that restricted membership to white men and sometimes to white men and women. These included the machinists, the Railway Carmen’s union, and the electrical workers, blacksmiths, and other craft unions.

The Great Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal labor legislation helped to change the racial landscape of the American labor movement. An influential cluster of black organizers emerged among all the major Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) unions, including the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee, the United Automobile Workers, and the new Steel Workers Organizing Committee. African-American organizers helped bring black workers from the periphery into the center of the industrial labor movement. Covering black and white workers alike, the new contracts established formal grievance procedures to govern a broad range of day-to-day workplace issues. The agreements also brought black workers into the seniority system, which would help alter the entrenched system of arbitrary color-based hiring and firing decisions.

By the end of World War II, African Americans had become part of a large multiracial US labor movement nationwide. However, even as they deepened ties with the interracial CIO unions, they also organized their own independent Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids. Under the leadership of civil rights and labor activist A. Philip Randolph, the union waged and won a concerted fight to gain admission to the racially exclusionary American Federation of Labor.

But it was a bittersweet victory. Despite heavy reliance on the women’s auxiliary to achieve both union recognition and a contract with the Pullman Company, the Brotherhood dropped maids from its name and excluded women from the provisions of its contract with Pullman. Black women would face an uphill climb in both interracial and independent labor organizations.

Keisha N. Blain

How has globalization and deindustrialization altered the experiences of black workers in the United States?

Joe William Trotter, Jr

The precipitous loss of urban manufacturing jobs deprived black workers of their most dynamic base of economic opportunity and upward mobility during the industrial era. The disappearance of mass-production manufacturing jobs accelerated disproportionately high African-American unemployment rates and the spread of poverty. The collapse of the industrial economy intensified suffering across nearly every category of African-American life — jobs, health care, housing, education, access to police protection, and equal justice before the law, to name a few.

Black workers found new jobs opening up in distant almost exclusively white suburban and rural communities far from the inner city, where poor and working-class blacks were hampered by a lack of adequate private automobile and public transportation to new job sites. Poverty rates not only escalated behind rising unemployment statistics, but became more spatially concentrated in urban public housing projects than before.

Keisha N. Blain

How would you summarize the state of the black working class today? What do you see as the greatest challenges facing black workers in the twenty-first century? What, if anything, is improving?

Joe William Trotter, Jr

As in the past, people of African descent continue to contribute to the development of American society through their labor. Whereas the bulk of industrial-era blacks contributed to the growth and expansion of the United States as the world’s leading manufacturer of durable goods, the black working class today is finding its footing in the lower rungs of the food, health care, household service, transportation, and other human service industries of the digital age.

Black working people are by no means occupying the bottom rungs of today’s evolving transnational economy quietly. Labor organizing remains one strategy for improving working conditions. As manufacturing and other jobs dissipated, the balance of power within the labor movement shifted from the old blue-collar industrial, construction, and transport unions to new service and public sector unions, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). In 2007, thirteen local domestic workers’ organizations formed the National Domestic Workers Alliance and launched a spirited campaign to establish national and “global standards for household labor.”

Several developments distinguish the current moment in black labor history from the industrial era. During the era of the Great Migration blacks moved almost uniformly from South to the urban North and West. Beginning during the 1970s, the great northward migration of black workers came to an end as growing numbers of black people moved back to the South and Southwest. While significant numbers of Caribbean and to some extent continental African people moved to the United States during the Great Migration, recent immigrants of color make up a growing proportion of the African-American population, with significant implications for reshaping the cultural and political contours of the new digital-age black working class. Immigrants or children of immigrants make up one-tenth of all African Americans, but in New York City they make up nearly 50 percent of the African-American population.

Finally, the mass incarceration of young black men and women represents the most important challenge facing the black working class moving forward. As legal scholar Michelle Alexander made clear nearly a decade ago, the label “felon” stands as a nearly impenetrable wall separating large numbers of poor and working-class blacks and other people of color from the perquisites of US citizenship in the postindustrial age.

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Joe William Trotter, Jr is a professor of history and social justice and the director and founder of the Center for African-American Urban Studies and the Economy (CAUSE) at Carnegie Mellon University. His most recent book is Workers on Arrival: Black Labor in the Making of America.

Keisha N. Blain is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and president of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). She is the author of the award-winning book Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom.

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