Normally, we do a post on labor unions for labor day, but it seemed appropriate to bring up the subject for Black History Month, too. African Americans in Birmingham-area mines and industrial plants were often important leaders in efforts to unionize in the 1930s and 1940s. Others were workers brave enough to accept the invitation when it was offered to them, helping contribute to important changes in labor practices in America — for blacks as well as whites.
The Working Lives Oral History Project features many interviews with their recollections about the period, some of which are summarized below.
Frank Sykes, a worker at ACIPCO (American Cast Iron Pipe Company), talks about attempts to unionize the plant, including holding a “wildcat” strike:
See, you really can’t have a strike. We just stopped the shop. It took the Army, Navy, and Marines and everybody else, the Air Force and everybody to get us back in that plant. They had representatives out there and meetings. “Now, y’all please get back to work. We’ve got to have this stuff.” Said, “Now, things are going to get better for you, hear.” Well, it’s the government talking, you go ahead on back and take a chance on it. But they get things rolling good, you never do hear no more about it, then you’ve got to walk out again.
Clearly for Sykes, having a labor union would’ve made the situation better.
Jesse Grace was an ore miner at Muscoda from the time he was 15 to the time the mine closed in 1954. Until he worked in the mine, he had never heard of the union but was warned by his employers to not have anything to do with “folks come from up North or somewhere or another, wanting to get y’all in a union.” Unionizing began in 1933:
Some had worked in Kentucky and some had worked, you know, in different places up there, in the coal mines. They knew what it was all about. Well, see, we didn’t know nothing about it … But after they told us about it, you know, then we all joined in together and formed a union, ’cause we wanted better working conditions…
Grace goes on to say that unionizing was often a violent enterprise, like a war: Well, see, I’d say that the union and the company, you know, it was just like Vietnam.
In the 1930s, William E. Mitch moved to Alabama from Indiana, where his father was an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Mitch’s father was shocked to find that Alabama had no unions.
Mitch recalls various challenges in trying to establish labor unions in the South, including the inaccessibility of rural employees, threats of reprisal from employers and being required to hold meetings in secret. He added that local governments were also often anti-union because they were afraid that unions would run industry off.
Race, however, was less of a factor than many might suppose: …the coal miners are unique. The race was not a big item. They worked side by side… Including in the union, in companies like U.S. Steel (then Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company [TCI]) which employed both races. Unions were also important in primarily black companies like Woodward Iron Company and Alabama Byproducts Corporation. Mitch says, I don’t believe without the cooperation of the blacks, organization on a broad basis would ever have been possible.
Morris Benson, an employee at TCI’s Ensley plant, helped organize fellow steelworkers in 1936 after learning about the union from an organizer:
When he got to explaining it to me, I figured if everybody joined, they couldn’t fire all of us. … I tried to get everybody to join. In fact, everybody in that department joined, and you can’t fire a whole lot of men when they take care of big machines.
Firing people for joining the United Steelworkers (USW) didn’t stop it: Every time they would fire a man, it make the fire burn more and more. Luckily, Benson reports that there wasn’t much violence at his plant.
After the coming of organizer John L. Lewis, Benson says that things improved for miners and, by extension, for all unionized workers in the area. Segregation laws proved a bit challenging — there were separate toilets and drinking fountains — but the workers themselves at least decided to stop sitting on separate sides of the room.
Robert Washington talks about forming a local of the Brick and Clay Workers (BCW) union, although it disbanded so they could join the USW in 1942. He describes an incident with a group of white inspectors who didn’t want to join the USW, who instead formed a new BCW local. This caused problems:
We tried to get them to let their contract expire at the same time ours expired, so we could, if they would strike, then we would both be together. … They didn’t, they couldn’t come to an agreement on the– their contract. So they struck. We stayed out two weeks with them, and finally they, we, couldn’t get food stamps. We couldn’t get any relief from our union, because we had broken our contract by not coming to work.
According to Washington, the USW workers then had to go back to work, and about that time, the Ku Klux Klan came in to picket with the BCW, and things went from bad to worse.
Constance Price talks about her father, Walter W. Jones, who helped organize the UMWA in Birmingham, having moved there at the behest of John L. Lewis. She recalls that her father’s life was often in jeopardy because of his work organizing the union, but she says the whites usually looked after him, helped keep him safe. However, Price says she was always aware that her father was in danger:
Because he tried to hide it from my mother, my mother was one who, she was a small woman. And, she used to sit up and cry and all, and finally she’d tell us, say, “Your daddy hasn’t come home yet.” … We didn’t have sense enough to know the real, I guess seriousness of it, be we knew it was something bad because mama was crying.
W. J. Ridgeway worked in the first mine in the state to have a union, in the 1920s. It was run by a man from Pennsylvania: He was no southerner; he thought that things down here was about like they was in Pennsylvania. After the operator signed a contract with the union, assuming he had to, the mine went out of business: …after they got the union broke there, well, it wasn’t just broke, he had to shut down. ‘Cause he couldn’t operate, he wasn’t getting the money to operate the mine.
But while it lasted, the union at that mine was unusual for the time, with blacks and whites meeting together: Now, they didn’t meet that way nowheres else that I know of, in the state. … we all, white and all, met together in the same union hall.
Ridgeway recalls how the state militia tried to break the union by bringing in farmers and other men to work, telling them they could make a lot of money. They were guarded and separated from the unionized workers at first, but sometimes the unionized workers would find a way to win them over anyway.
Curtis Maggard recalls the organization of the Steelworkers’ Union in Birmingham at the TCI plant in Ensley. He recalls being laid off for up to a week sometimes because he was trying to get people to join the union. He says people were scared to join for that very reason, so the union took two years to get off the ground. He recalls that blacks and whites were both in the union. The union was good for blacks especially:
It opened the door for me. I would not have had the privilege had it not been for the union getting jobs I would not have gotten. ‘Cause in the union, you go step by step, and the next job come to the oldest man that is entitled to it. … When I quit I had the highest paying job that they had.
Click on the links above to listen to any of these interviews in full, and to read along in the transcripts. Or check out the whole collection of audio + transcripts, with extensive summaries for each of the 72 interviews, through this link.