Labor Rights is Civil Right

History_Randolph_on_Struggle_for_Racial_Equality_Speech_SF_still_624x352I celebrate Labor Day by honoring Civil Rights Veteran A. Philip Randolph.

He was convinced that unions would be the best way for African Americans to improve their standard of life. He believed Civil Rights should included Labor Rights for African Americans.

According to, Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925. Serving as its president, he sought to gain the union’s official inclusion in the American Federation of Labor, the affiliates of which, at that time, frequently barred African Americans from membership. The BSCP met with resistance primarily from the Pullman Company, which was the largest employer of blacks at that time. But Randolph battled on, and in 1937, won membership in the AFL, making the BSCP the first African-American union in the United States. Randolph withdrew the union from the AFL the following year, however, in protest of ongoing discrimination within the organization, and then turned his attention toward the federal government.


A large group of Pullman Porters. (A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum Founding Collection)         A large group of Pullman Porters

Mass Protest Federal Policies: During the 1940s, Randolph twice used mass protest as a means of influencing the policies of the federal government. Following the United States’ entrance into World War II, he planned a march on Washington to protest discrimination in the war industry workforce. Randolph called off the march after President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order that banned racial discrimination at government defense factories and established the first Fair Employment Practices Committee.

After World War II, Randolph again took on the federal government by organizing the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation. That group’s actions eventually led President Harry S. Truman to issue a 1948 executive order banning racial segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Broader Civil Rights Work: In 1955, Randolph became a vice president of the newly merged entity AFL-CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations). He would continue to protest the systemic racial prejudice he found in the organization and thus formed the Negro American Labor Council in 1959, much to the consternation of union leader George Meany. Around this time Randolph also began to devote his energies to broader civil rights work. In 1957, he organized a prayer pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. to draw attention to the delay of school desegregation being implemented in the South. He also organized the Youth Marches for Integrated Schools at the end of the decade.

In 1963, Randolph was a principal organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which he would speak to an integrated crowd of nearly 250,000 supporters. His wife Lucille having died not long before the march, he nonetheless shared the podium that day with Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Randolph and King were among the handful of civil rights leaders to meet with President John F. Kennedy after the march. With Kennedy discussing the potential Congressional push needed to strengthen the civil rights bill, Randolph told him, “It’s going to be a crusade then. And I think that nobody can lead this crusade but you, Mr. President.”

The following year, for these and other civil rights efforts, Randolph was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Soon after, he founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute, an organization aimed at studying the causes of poverty and co-founded by Randolph’s mentee Bayard Rustin. In 1965, at a White House conference, he proposed a poverty-elimination program called the “Freedom Budget for All Americans.”

Labor unions have not communicated clearly, at times, why unions are important to everyone. And a strong union membership drives a strong economy. I agree with Richard D. Kahlenberg and Moshe Z. Marvit, which start in their book, unions should be a civil right.

In the book, Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right, Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice, it states, the economic gains of American workers after World War II have slowly been eroded—in part because organized labor has gone from encompassing one-third of the private sector workers to less than one-tenth. One reason for the labor movement’s collapse is the existence of weak labor laws that, for example, impose only minimal penalties on employers who illegally fire workers for trying to organize a union. Attempts to reform labor law have fallen short because labor is caught in a political box: To achieve reform, labor needs the political power that comes from expanding union membership; to grow, however, unions need labor law reform.”

Randolph’s assessment was right then and it is now.


By Tara J., the advocate with the hip hop twist