"Negro laborers to the crossroads” : organized labor and the traditions of black unionism in Houston, Texas, 1935 - 1964
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On July 2, 1964, the members of the all-black Independent Metal Workers Local 2 at the Hughes Tool Company in Houston, Texas struck a major blow for the rights of black workers by securing an order from the National Labor Relations Board prohibiting their employer and all-white IMW Local 1 from practicing racial discrimination in union membership policies and in company contracts. The NLRB decision set a national precedent in favor of racial equality in industrial employment. It was the culmination of three decades of effort by black oil and steel workers in and around Houston to use the institutions of organized labor – unions, federal labor agencies, and labor law – to secure substantive economic gains and equality of opportunity, rights, and treatment at work. The long fight against employment discrimination in Houston met opposition both from employers and from white workers reluctant to surrender their positions of marginal privilege. It also split the city’s black community on the labor question. Groups of black workers, civil rights activists, lawyers, and community leaders battled over fundamental issues of strategy and over the proper relationship between black workers and the labor movement, their white counterparts, and employers. There were two broad factions: one committed to a social democratic vision of working class advance through the biracial unions of the CIO, the other mistrustful of white workers and labor leaders, favorably disposed towards employers, and dedicated to promoting black self-determination and autonomy through “independent” labor organizations. Drawing upon the records of unions, the NAACP, and the federal labor bureaucracy, as well as Houston’s black newspapers, this dissertation pays particular attention to the many mid-level organizers and activists involved in union campaigns in the 1930s and 1940s and charts the turn towards the courts and the NLRB in the 1950s and 1960s as black workers disappointed with the labor movement fought to secure their rights. In doing so, it aims both to explore the relationship between black workers and organized labor and to assess the strengths and shortcomings of biracial movements, democratic institutions, and the law as means for promoting equality.