Biracial unions on Galveston's waterfront, 1865-1925

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Farrington, Clifford

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In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a tradition of biracial unionism sprang up among waterfront workers in Gulf Coast including Galveston. According to historian Eric Arnesen’s study of New Orleans, the racial practices of these southern longshoremen were distinct from those of other trade unionists and “violated some of the central tenets of the age of segregation.” Biracial unionism was an imperfect but significant strategy that broke racial barriers and revealed much about how both black and white workers balanced their class and racial identities. However, neither class nor race are, by themselves, sufficient categories for analysis. Rather, it is through understanding the connections between economic and racial issues that we can reach a fuller knowledge of why any particular component of these identities operated at any one time. Thus we must study the intersection of class and race a period of time, and across a range of social, political and economic developments. While economic self interest was always at the forefront of white workers’ motivation, a range of factors shaped the particular course followed in each port. The character of employment relations, the power of employers, the prior history of racial division or segmentation of labor, the strength of black unions themselves, and the culture of longshoremen both black and white all played a part. No one has covered the early history of Galveston’s waterfront from the broad perspective given by Arnesen yet some of Texas’ earliest and strongest labor organizations began on Galveston’s waterfront. These organizations provide a study in how a particular laboring community dealt with the transition from benevolent societies to job-conscious unions; the role of the broader labor movement such as the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor and International Longshoremen’s Association; new technology and the struggle for workers control; and the open shop movement. This history provides a study of black and white worker’s consciousness and how the conflicts between race and class were worked out in practice, adding to our knowledge of race and the labor movement, the course of biracial unionism in the South, and Texas labor history.