|ONLINE VERSION||SEPTEMBER 1999|
|The Legacy of A. Philip Randolph|
|By Norman Hill
Nearly 75 years ago, A. Philip Randolph called the first meeting of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, an organization of the overwhelmingly black work force on the nation's Pullman cars. After 12 years of battle, the Pullman Company recognized the union as the workers' bargaining agent, making the Brotherhood the first black-led union to win recognition from a major corporation.
In 1937, the union's first contract cut the average porter's workweek from a back-breaking 400 hours a month down to 240 hours, and also brought a significant wage increase for the Brotherhood's members. But Randolph did not stop there. He used his position as president of the Brotherhood to fight for an end to racial bias in the labor movement. And he went even beyond that, recognizing that a labor organization could be more than a force in the workplace and in the trade union movement, that it could also be a force for economic and social justice in the nation as a whole.
In 1941, for example, Randolph threatened to bring tens of thousands of blacks to Washington unless President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an order banning employment discrimination by federal contractors. Because Randolph's leadership of the Brotherhood made the threat credible, Roosevelt gave in.
In 1947 Randolph co-founded the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training, and the following year said he would urge young blacks to refuse the draft if President Harry Truman did not end segregation in the armed forces. Truman complied, and Randolph scored another victory for equal rights. Fifteen years later Randolph conceived and initiated the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, which helped to galvanize the nation behind the civil rights struggle.
Each of Randolph's civil rights campaigns was based on his understanding: that unions are both economic and political institutions, and that when workers organize into unions, they can wield influence not only in the shop but in the halls of government. With today's black working families under attack on both the economic and political fronts, it is vital that they grasp Randolph's legacy and understand how important a strong trade union movement is to them.
The A. Philip Randolph Institute's local and state affiliates, which can be found in every section of the country, contribute to this effort. Every election year, they conduct voter participation drives in African-American communities to maximize the black turnout. The chapters also lobby on behalf of measures for the benefit of workers and minorities.
On many occasions, A. Philip Randolph stated that the union card and the ballot were the two essential tools of citizenship. This is especially true for African Americans, who have most to gain from union membership and from using their votes to fight against corporate-funded, right-wing politicians. The greater the number of blacks paying heed to Randolph's legacy of achievement and understanding, the sooner the nation will get back on the track of assuring equal rights and a decent living standard for all.
Norman Hill is President of the A. Philip Randolph Institute.