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Labor Day

Enjoy your day off, Laborers. I am spending the day laboring. No holidays for freelancers who are trying to figure out how to make $500 fast, unfortunately.

I was going to post about the Jenna 6 today, but that’s still in the works. Tomorrow, certainly. In the meantime, I want to point you to an interesting conversation going on elsewhere. My friend and fellow writer Nick Mamatas came across this opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal:

This 125th Labor Day, Americans ought to consider one of organized labor’s lesser-known contributions to American politics: affirmative action.

For most of their first century, American unions promoted affirmative action for white workers: Trade unions were job monopolies and most often white job monopolies. California unions, for example, led the campaign against Chinese immigrant labor, and the “union label” campaign helped to enable consumers to boycott products made by Chinese workers. “The cigars contained herein are made by WHITE MEN,” the original union label read. As for East Coast immigrant labor, the celebrated socialist leader Eugene V. Debs once complained, “The Dago works for small pay and lives far more like a savage or wild beast, than the Chinese.”

Above all, unions made it difficult for blacks to earn a living. The first large union federation, the National Labor Union, set the pattern of exclusion and evasion. Although it was broadly known that national and local unions excluded blacks, either by their constitutions or informal custom, the federation claimed that, since its constitution made no reference to the race issue, it was unnecessary to deal with it.

As a result, blacks often helped to break strikes by racially exclusive unions (such as Debs’s American Railway Union during the 1894 Pullman strike). In response, unions became even more discriminatory and dismissed black complaints about union exclusion as demands for preferential treatment.


The 1935 Wagner Act gave unions the power to organize mass-production industries. It was hailed as a crowning achievement, but civil- rights organizations at the time opposed the act because it did not prohibit racial exclusion–“the worst piece of legislation ever passed by the Congress,” Urban League President Lester Granger called it. (Ironically, the term “affirmative action” made its statutory debut in the Wagner Act, giving to the National Labor Relations Board power to order employers guilty of unfair labor practices to take such “affirmative action” as reinstatement, back pay or promotion.)

By the end of World War II, the federal judiciary recognized the problem of the black worker under federal labor law, and imposed on unions a duty of “fair representation.” While not compelled to admit blacks as members, unions certified as exclusive bargaining agents could not use their monopoly power to disadvantage minority-group workers. Nevertheless, since the National Labor Relations Board consistently took the side of white unions, the onus of enforcing the fair representation doctrine fell on individual black workers.

By the 1960s, two decades of executive orders and state fair employment laws to cease discrimination had made little impact on unions. And when Congress finally outlawed employment discrimination in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it included an exemption for “bona fide seniority systems,” in order to protect benefits that white workers had won at the expense of blacks over the previous generation.

Nick’s response is equally enlightening:

The author, as authors do, gives half the story. Now, I think it is important to note that Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs was quite dismissive of immigrants, and racist besides. Historian Paul Moreno quotes him: “The Dago works for small pay and lives far more like a savage or wild beast, than the Chinese.” The quote doesn’t appear in Writings and Speeches (Hermitage) and it’s a mistake to exclude this stuff. Hagiography is less important than reality. Of course, demonizations are even less important still…

Race and class have always been tied together, and only fools and bosses try to separate them out. For a while, Debs was a fool. For a much longer period, the labor movement was Fool Central, and there is still plenty of foolishness to go around. When assisting in the ultimately failed attempt to organize some Manhattan bicycle messengers into the Teamsters in the 1990s, I saw that some the black and Latino messengers got “information packets”about the union from their employer, in which it explained that labor unions were much like the Ku Klux Klan and held down minorities and women. That’s a hard charge to beat, but is much harder when it’s true. Naturally, in our case it was false — though there were plenty of reactionary characters in the Teamsters, especially those who were collecting big checks to “organize”…nothing. They got theirs already, and this sort of race-bating, not effectively answered as a matter of principle, helped doom the organization drive. Racism and chauvinism split movements far more decisively than flag-waving and chest-thumping about class to the exclusion of race helps movements. That’s why the labor movement had to learn to shuck off the ideologies of racism and nativism — a lesson it keeps having to learn, actually.


Finally, Debs came around to the proper position for a socialist. Again, practicality was part of the issue. When working class activists embrace racism, they’re just asking for their strikes to be broken by those they won’t organize. Debs had a V-8 moment and slapped his forehead, saying “if Socialism, international, revolutionary Socialism, does not stand staunchly, unflinchingly and uncompromisingly for the working class and for the exploited and oppressed masses of all lands, then it stands for none and its claim is a false pretense and its profession a delusion and a snare.”

Of course, that’s only the first and most elementary of lessons a working class activist has to learn about race. Here’s another: working to eliminate racism within a movement isn’t a favor white activists do for everyone else, it’s just a chance occasionally granted for white activists to prove themselves as something other self-obsessed fools.

There’s more to read at both links, and I suggest you do so before wading into the conversation.

4 thoughts on “Labor Day”

  1. will shetterly says:

    Nick could’ve said a bit more about the IWW. Their policy: “The practice of some craft unions is to bar men because of nationality or race. Not so with the I. W. W. Our union is open to all workers. Differences of color and language are not obstacles to us. In our organization, the Caucasian, the Malay, the Mongolian and the Negro, are all on the same footing. All are workers and as such their interests are the same. An injury to them is an injury to us.”

    Also, what Nick doesn’t know about Steve Brust is greater than he suspects.

  2. Mandolin says:

    “Also, what Nick doesn’t know about Steve Brust is greater than he suspects.”

    So? Brust still said shit that can be analyzed for its stupidity. Do you really think you get picked on for being a white dude?

  3. Josh Jasper says:

    Moreno being an Olin scholar, somehow I don’t think his heart bleeds too much about racism unless it suits him to bash unions.

    The conservatives are on an anti-union blitz. I’d bet this is related to the Center For Union Facts campaign somehow.

  4. Farah says:

    All of which is why my personal hero is A. Philip Randolph.

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