Courtesy of International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers
Courtesy of International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers

On a relatively comfortable 84-degree day in Harlem 97 years ago, a group of hard-working Pullman porters gathered to discuss changing working conditions, including receiving fair pay and claiming their dignity.

Organized by A. Philip Randolph and Milton Webster, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) began on Aug. 25, 1925.

The historic launch of the union also began an approximate 12-year journey that culminated with this African-American group of workers forcing negotiations that ultimately led to a more suitable working environment, including wages that allowed them to properly care for their families.

“Their eventual triumph marked the first time in American history that a Black union forced a powerful corporation to the negotiating table,” Lucy Kinsella, who has produced documentaries for A&E and the History Channel, told WTTW in Chicago.

“It was a significant step forward for Black equality,” Kinsella noted.

Black railroad workers “were denied access to the union and strikes, so to combat their mistreatment, the porters banded together to create the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters – the first all-Black labor union in the U.S.,” Civil Rights Attorney Ben Crump wrote on Twitter. 

With Harlem already Ground Zero for the struggle for civil and economic equality, the Brotherhood held firm to its values. 

It enhanced their position by educating themselves on organization and negotiating skills.

“They discovered that even in a time of great prejudice in America, Blacks could effect change if they stood together and persevered,” Kinsella wrote in “Pullman Porters: From Servitude to Civil Rights.”

Kinsella noted the connection of Randolph and others to the Civil Rights Movement, adding they’d later apply the same techniques during that struggle.

But decades before the movement for social justice and equality, and during the middle of Jim Crow, the Brotherhood displayed its collective will and strength.

On Aug. 25, 1937, 12 years after the forming of the union, the porters signed a contract with the Pullman Company that raised pay, approved compensation for overtime work and provided a uniform allowance for 10 years.

Two years earlier, the National Mediation Board had certified the union which helped it gain recognition and victory.

“Working-class Negroes won a decisive victory [earlier] when the National Mediation Board certified the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters as the duly authorized representative of the porters and maids employed by the Pullman Company,” Edward Berman wrote for The Nation in 1935. 

“This certification and the election which preceded it were the climax in a courageous struggle for labor organization and collective bargaining which has been carried on for more than a decade against great odds,” Berman said. 

Berman summarized the plight of the porters before unionization.

“It is one of the ironies of the status of the Negro in American life, however, that the Pullman porter is one of the worst-exploited workers in the country,” he wrote. 

“A survey covering the year from March 1934 to February 1935 shows that the annual income of all porters covered by the sample investigation was $880. Porters on regular assignment received in that year $1,056, while those on extra service received $624.”

Further, since extra porters had to remain on call, they weren’t able to supplement their income by other means.

The average wage received by all porters directly from the company was $879; the sum of $237 was received in tips. But $236 was spent for occupational expenses, Berman continued.

“The weekly income of all porters covered in the survey was only $16.92, that of porters on regular assignment $20.30 and that of extra porters only $12,” Berman said. 

He noted that porters did not receive large tips and used gratuities to offset occupational expenses that the company didn’t provide.

“But this is not the whole story. Hours of service are barbarously long. The porters are paid on a mileage basis, the basic wage being earned when they have traveled 11,000 miles per month,” he said. 

“But they work before and after the trains get into motion and for this ‘preparatory’ and ‘terminal’ time, as it is called, they get no pay.”

According to historians, the influence and legacy of the Brotherhood continue.

“The Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters’ influence in the labor movement included a role in assisting the Great Migration by dispersing information about job opportunities and greater equality for Black people in the North,” Brittany Hutchinson wrote in a blog for the Chicago History Museum.

“As the passenger car industry declined after World War II, A. Philip Randolph and the BSCP became early influential figures in the Civil Rights Movement, as the fight for labor rights is inextricably linked to civil rights,” Hutchinson concluded.

Stacy M. Brown is a senior writer for The Washington Informer and the senior national correspondent for the Black Press of America. Stacy has more than 25 years of journalism experience and has authored...

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