Porters Led The Way
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
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
The contract was signed precisely 12 years after union founder and president A. Philip Randolph had called the union's first organizing meeting in
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
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.
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, www.dickmeister.com