Beyond the Rhetoric: A History of Union Racism

Harry Alford

By Harry C. Alford

NNPA Columnist


It was the early 1970s and my mentor, the late Arthur Fletcher, received the “green light” from Secretary of Labor George Schultz and President Richard Nixon to integrate the construction workforce on federally regulated projects.  Construction unions were livid about this.  AFL-CIO president George Meany demanded the firing of Schultz and the immediate shutdown of this program.  President Nixon ignored him and Art kicked off the program in Philadelphia – The Philadelphia Plan.  The second city was Chicago.

The Chicago Plan was very confrontational.  Construction unions tried to invade the Palmer House Hotel where Art was having his meetings with local labor leaders.  Death threats were real so Nixon called Mayor Richard Daley and warned him that if Art is harmed in any way, the 101st Airborne will be marching down Michigan Ave.  Art left Chicago alive but the mob put out a contract on his life.  For the next two years, he had Secret Service guards.  The Chicago union halls had to sign a consent decree to integrate their ranks.

The following is what happened after the event, according to Justia US Law, a legal analysis website.  “The backdrop to this case of individual racial discrimination is the historic resistance within the building trades in the Chicago area to accepting racial and ethnic minorities into their ranks.  The plaintiff, Frank Daniels, is black.  He was able to get his start as a pipefitter and welder on account of the Chicago Plan, a government-sponsored directive designed to increase minority representation in the construction industry. Daniels left the building trade fourteen years later when he was expelled from his trade union, Pipefitters’ Association Local Union Number 597.  His abrupt departure was also predicated on race, but this time the union used his race against him rather than in his favor.

After he was expelled from Local 597, Daniels filed suit against the union.  He charged the union with race discrimination and retaliation causing him to be denied job referrals and to be expelled from Local 597.  Daniels alleged multiple legal theories and claimed relief under Section 1981 of the 1866 Civil Rights Act, Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  His 1981 and 301 claims were tried before a jury, which returned a general verdict in Daniels’ favor and awarded him compensatory damages of $181,063.50 and punitive damages of $150,000.00.  The district court held a bench trial on plaintiff’s Title VII claim and entered judgment in favor of Daniels.  Plaintiff then petitioned for attorneys’ fees and the district court awarded fees of $265,777.00 and costs in the amount of $6,312.10.  For the following reasons, we affirm.

A recitation of the racist slurs directed at the black members of Local 597 provides an introduction to the work environment that plaintiff protested against.  When the federal government initiated the Chicago Plan and directed the union to accept additional blacks, the union’s head complained that “big brother government came in and told us that we had to accept blacks and the rest of the minorities.”  When a black pipefitter decided to run for a union position, the same union head complained that “this has been a white man’s union.”  Use of racial epithets by union officials pervaded the hiring hall.  White members were told that they would not get jobs while they were “with those black people and with those niggers.”  Another official told a white member that “You’re just too friendly with the wrong kind of people.  You’re always with those niggers, porch monkeys.”  Blacks were referred to as “baboons,” “porch monkeys,” “spear-chuckers,” “ghetto —holes,” “nigger,” “super nigger,” “melanzanni” (Italian for eggplant), and “tutsune” (Italian for nigger).”

You can get the whole report about this case at:  http://ow.ly/rVLiZ.  For more on  Arthur Fletcher: http://www.youtube.com/nationalbcc

The union learned a hard lesson, or did they?  A few years later another discrimination lawsuit was filed against local 597.  Yes, they were found guilty again.  They just won’t change their racist ways.  Believe it or not another (the third) discrimination lawsuit against the pipefitters union will be filed in the Chicago courts within days.  So now, we come from the early 1970s to the current 2013 and the racist unions are still racist.  They need to change or cease their existence.

What the great Art Fletcher did was revolutionary and a “tonic” for an ailing nation.  Let’s continue the fight until freedom is won. Frank Daniels deserves the Art Fletcher Lifetime Achievement Award for his courage and determination to live as a free American.

Construction trades still discriminate against Blacks and this is what sickens me when President Obama demands union only projects (Project Labor Agreements) along with many other ignorant or sell out Black politicians, officials and traditional civil rights organizations.  Is the union money (sponsorships, donations, etc.) that good?  Let’s stay in court until it finally changes.


Harry C. Alford is the co-founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce ®.  Website: www.nationalbcc.org.  Email: halford@nationalbcc.org.


Freddie Allen is the National News Editor for the NNPA News Wire and BlackPressUSA.com. 200-plus Black newspapers. 20 million readers. You should follow Freddie on Twitter and Instagram @freddieallenjr.

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