When Good Union Jobs Were White

By Carla Murphy Oct 20, 2014

In 1943 at the height of World War II, a West Coast union threatened to send 40,000 of its members on strike if the Kaiser shipyards in Portland didn’t "revoke the promotions ‘of eight New York Negroes’ classified as skilled workers."

Think about that for a minute, the scale of mobilization threated by white workers, during war, in order to stop eight skilled Negroes from earning the same or similar benefits for their families, as their white peers. Now that same union, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers is more than half people of color, according to the Contra Costa Times, and it’s beginning to acknowledge its past with an award this September for unrecognized "Home Front support" to 94-year-old Betty Reid Soskin who is African-American. The gesture surprised Soskin–and it’s perhaps one example of the honest tackling of racism within union ranks that national labor leader Richard Trumka called for after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But is an award enough? What does it mean for labor, for working class people, to not only acknowledge but to also reconcile past on-the-job racism?

I’m curious about those "eight New York Negroes," for example, and the costs borne by their families. Whatever happened to them? What was the monetary cost borne by the growing community of migrants, many fleeing the Jim Crow South and finding equal work for less pay, benefits and exclusion from collective bargaining?

Read more about Ms. Soskin at The Contra Costa Times and her awards ceremony, here.