Union Organizing

Racism often characterized and determined the success or failure of union organizing and strikes.  The Knights of Labor, formed in the 1880s, included black and white skilled and unskilled workers while the trades oriented AFL refused to admit black or unskilled workers.  The IWW, the Wobblies, led by leftists, organized multiracial struggles in the mines and other industries.  In the 1930s as the Depression deepened, the communist led CIO recruited black and white skilled and unskilled workers.  However, its inclusionary practices didn’t often extend to fighting the extra exploitation black workers faced in more dangerous and lesser paid jobs.  The labor movement reveals how workers overcame or capitulated to the racism the capitalists nurtured to maintain their own wealth and power.

Here are some select examples. More to come.


The Sharecroppers Strike of 1939sharecropper-strike


In the 1930s, cotton prices plummeted so the government paid the landowners to stop planting.  This money was to be shared with the sharecroppers.  Instead, over 900,000 lost their cropping jobs.


Faced with starvation, the croppers organized and went on strike in 1939 setting up camps along the highway in the southeastern Bootheel area of Missouri.  Over 250 families joined the strike led by black workers, supported by the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, religious leaders and Lincoln University students.


sharecropper-strike-childrenWhite sharecroppers joined as well.  Many were members of the Klan but rejected the false promises of superiority in exchange for an opportunity to win real change.  They stuck together through the brutal winter until they were able to secure land.  After many government reprisals against them, the government moved many to housing but segregated it.  Conditions did not change.  Planters used the croppers as day laborers, which maintained poverty and instability.


The strike leaders built an integrated cooperative called Cropperville.  Everyone contributed what they could; they farmed and worked collectively, putting their products from food to clothing in a warehouse where people could take what they needed.


This little known struggle demonstrates the power of multiracial solidarity, grassroots black leadership, militancy, and a collective outlook.  See the excellent DVD, O Freedom After While, by California Newsreel for the story and images of black and white families camping together.


  1. The Southern Tenant Farmers Union- STFU


The STFU organized black and white farmers in the deep South during the 1930s, playing a leading role in sharecropper strikes, such as the 1939 strike described above.  Black and white Communist Party and Socialist Party members helped organize and lead it.  Its integrated membership and militancy drove the Southern planters, politicians, and the feds crazy.  They used the Klan to attack Union meetings, beating up and killing its members.  Many Klan members did join the STFU as they lost their jobs and income.


Evictions and unemployment shaped the lives of black and white sharecroppers in the 1930s.  New Deal programs excluded and shortchanged most African Americans.  In 1934, croppers in Tyronza, Arkansas established the Union as an integrated organization, declaring that blacks and whites had the same problem and same enemy: “let’s starve together” was their slogan during the 1935 strike.  The planters used anti-communism to try to break the union, but many members followed their leadership.


The Union’s multiracial solidarity, the involvement of women, and partnerships with local churches served as a model for later anti-racist and women’s movements.

Sailors, Slaves, Pirates Revolts in the 16th-17th Centuries

by The Editors

From: The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker.  Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.

Today, massive unemployment and wars force millions of people to flee their homes.  In the US cities, developers are building luxury residences, pushing people out of their neighborhoods and homes.  In New Orleans, Louisiana State University leveled miles of newly-renovated houses to build its new medical center.

During the 16th to 17th centuries, the European colonists uprooted tens of thousands of people to conquer and settle its stolen territories in the Americas and Caribbean.  US history books recount the flight of English people to the “new world” to escape religious persecution, ignoring the root causes of these movements and the rebellions organized by those displaced.  In The Many-Headed Hydra, Linebaugh and Rediker tell the hidden stories through the eyes of the working class, free and enslaved, European and African, sailors and laborers, men and women, and pirates.

These rebellions originated in the 16th Century in England when its economy shifted from feudalism to early capitalism.  These early capitalists developed manufacturing enterprises in the cities that required a large labor force.  They also sailed to other countries to seize their resources and people, and to develop new markets.

To move rural residents to the cities, the early capitalists passed and enforced the enclosure law that privatized the land.  Most people lived in the countryside and grew their own crops on land called the “commons.”  Like today’s eminent domain practices, the landowners “enclosed” these common lands, kicking people off the land, expropriating the sources of people’s survival.  The peasant families starved, often turned to crime, and fled to the newly formed cities to work as wage slaves.  Their homes were hovels, and the work day never ended.

Not all left the land passively though.  They organized rebellions against the enclosure law like some people today fight privatization of public lands and goods, such as schools.  Tenants in the countryside and workers in the city rose up against the enclosure law, diminished resources, and living conditions.  The owners and monarchy sent troublemakers to the “new world” to work the plantations and mines.

In Ireland, English rulers took over the lands and enforced enclosure laws, killing thousands and shipping many to the Caribbean, US colonies, and European countries as slaves.

These violent removals and exploitation in the early colonies created the conditions of rebellion.  Even more importantly, they generated unity among the Europeans, black and white indentured servants, enslaved people, and Native Americans who shared and recognized their common oppressors.  They took over ships, burned down forts and towns, and created new collectively run settlements in the West Indies and US colonies.

These are some of the notable rebellions and alliances:

  • Masaniello revolt in Naples (Hydra)The Masaniello Revolt in Naples in 1647 included workers, sailors, and poor people fighting against the Spanish rulers who increased taxes on food. The rebels went beyond opposing the tax.  They united working class men and women who seized power for 10 days.  They lowered prices of food, burned tax records, provided books to students, opened prisons, and turned rank and file sailors into captains.

Black and white Neopolitans joined forces, and women led major battles.  Plays written about the rebellion emphasized this solidarity.  Sailors debarking in Naples spread the news to other lands.  Spain took back power but modified its taxation practices.

  • Bussa’s-Revolution in BarbadosThe Barbados rebellions in 1649 united Irish and African slaves against barbaric conditions on the sugar plantations of Barbados and nearby islands colonized by the English plantation owners. The English enslaved Native Americans, deported convicts and prostitutes, and workers from other European countries.Workers revolted with arson, escapes, refusal to work, and murder. They joined forces together regardless of their nationality or skin color.  The landowners couldn’t tolerate this unity.  They starved the African slaves forcing them to steal from poor whites which generated fear and hostility.  The elites then distinguished between servants (white) and slaves (Africans) with different legal standings and benefits.  They hired whites to patrol the slaves and allowed them to work in other trades.  This model spread to other plantations and tripled sugar production.

Over the next 2 centuries, African slaves organized 3 rebellions, eventually forcing the British rulers to abolish slavery although racist laws persisted.

Burning of Jamestown Bacon's Rebellion    Bacon’s Rebellion, Virginia, 1676

White and black indentured servants and slaves, including women, joined forces to protest the colonists’ lack of protection from Native Americans attacks on people living on the Virginia frontier, to demand land, and oppose slavery.  Bacon was a colonist who used the rebels to threaten the rule of the current governor.  The rebels burned down Jamestown and rallied 1000 people to demand changes.  It was the first major rebellion against the colonial rulers.

The multi-racial unity alarmed the rulers.  They used this rebellion as an excuse to divide black and white workers.  They passed laws making it a crime for them to marry or socialize.  They killed and attacked white workers who refused.  It also led to the enslavement of African workers who were easier to control and obtain than white servants.

The ruling class also established the “white superiority” ideology and benefits.  Whites received higher wages as a bribe.  The government bestowed a higher status on them, telling them that whites were “better” than blacks.  Many white servants resisted and continued to fight, but over time, white workers bought into these lies and accepted their better economic and political status relieved that they were not enslaved.  The government of Virginia passed laws to entrench the slavery of Africans, giving white servants policing roles on the plantations.

This ideology and divisiveness persists today.

Co-operative Settlements.

Native Americans, escaped slaves (maroons), and white indentured servants established many co-operative settlements sharing labor, food, and governance.  A group established a settlement in Roanoke in 1640s under the protection of the Tuscarora Indians.  They lived together and intermarried.

blackbeard-500x333Revolts of Sailors and Pirates, early 18th Century 

As the European rulers developed their navies to conquer other lands and people, they employed and exploited sailors from many countries, creating opportunities for cross-national solidarity.  Sailors endured violent working conditions, impressment (seizure), lousy food, and severe injuries.  They developed different forms of rebellion, including piracy and mutinies.  Pirates welcomed rebellious sailors, free and enslaved Africans, and women.  They disrupted the imperialists’ slave and other trade.  Pirates ran their ships more humanely.  They provided good food, collective decision making, and decent conditions.

In the early 18th Century, sailors conducted many mutinies.  Many turned their ships into pirate ships, including ships carrying enslaved Africans.  The slave traders could not tolerate this disruption and violently repressed piracy in the 1720s.  However, the development of large navies for slavery created many experiences for workers of different countries and racial categories to live and fight together.

  • NYC rebellion 1712New York City Urban Rebellion, 1741: The New York Conspiracy 

Workers in New York City organized a revolt against bad economic conditions, food scarcity, and slavery.  Africans, indentured servants, sailors, Irish immigrants joined forces to plan an insurrection to burn Ft. George and other buildings. Each group brought organizing experiences and joined forces in the planning of the rebellion, meeting in taverns throughout the city. On St. Patrick’s Day, 1741, Ft. George burned down with the fire spreading to other buildings.  Thirteen additional fires burned property over the next several weeks.  The government responded with brutality, killing and deporting many, especially Africans whom they blamed for the rebellion.  While the uprising didn’t succeed in fulfilling its demands, it is a landmark of multi-racial and ethnic solidarity and leadership.

  • Haiti slave rebellionCaribbean Revolts

Rebellions by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and continental US increased during the mid-18th Century.  Over 80 revolts occurred during 1730s and 1740s.  Native populations, Irish indentured workers, and sailors participated in organizing mutinies, torching buildings, threatening plantations, and establishing maroon (runaway) communities.

Jamaican slaves led many uprisings, including the 10 year long Maroon War.  Escaped slaves fled to the interior areas of Jamaica and established communist like societies along with Native people.  They threatened the plantation system leading many small owners to leave their land and sell their slave workers.  The rebels threatened to turn Jamaica over to the Spanish, the main competitors to England.  The English rulers actually agreed to give land and power to the maroons to stop them from supporting Spain.

Other uprisings spread through the West Indies in Dutch and English colonies.  Many Caribbean plantation owners sold their slaves to New York slave owners during this time.  They selectively exported the most rebellious workers, seeding the New York uprisings in 1741 with experienced anti-colonial fighters.

The Haitian Slave Rebellion began in the late 18th Century abolishing colonial control in 1804.

Breaking the rebellions:

The colonists suppressed the rebellions using brutal violence and divisive ideology.  They killed black, Native, and Irish workers and mutinous sailors.  They hung rebellious women as witches.  Workers in England and Ireland protesting against impoverishment were forced into the Navy and maritime industry, imprisoned, hung, and deported to the colonies

While these attacks suppressed many rebellions by eliminating leaders, they did not stop the movement.  Instead, the rulers along with the era’s scientists created a new ideology of racism, designating black people as sub-human and white people as superior.  Financial benefits in the form of higher wages and employment greased the acceptance of this philosophy among the majority of white workers.  The leaders of society assured white workers that they held a higher social status than black workers.  Scientists created the concept of race to explain that racial differences were innate and biological.  These theories continue to operate today.

Lessons for us today:

  • Multi-racial solidarity existed among black, white, and Native workers who share common enemies and goals
  • Communal communities formed among workers of all backgrounds who shared production and consumption of goods
  • Violence forced slaveowners and colonists to abolish slavery


“Labor: Free and Slave

Labor, Free and Slave by Bernard Mandel explores the effects of slavery on white workers. It describes how white workers (“free labor”) responded to slavery and the abolition movement. It holds many lessons we can apply to today’s movements against police brutality and xenophobia.

by Karyn Pomerantz

The Unity of “Free” and Enslaved Workers during the Civil War Period

(From Labor, free and slave by Bernard Mandel, 2nd ed, Chicago: U of Illinois Press, 2007

Labor, Free and Slave by Bernard Mandel explores the effects of slavery on white workers.  It describes how white workers (“free labor”) responded to slavery and the abolition movement.  It holds many lessons we can apply to today’s movements against police brutality and xenophobia.

Slavery destroyed the freedom and lives of black workers, and enriched the pockets of Southern landowners and Northern industrialists in the textile and shipbuilding businesses.

It also had debilitating effects on white workers in the North and South.  It depressed their wages and standard of living as employers kept wages down for white “free” workers by threatening to replace them with enslaved people.  As long as there was such a large pool of unpaid workers, businessmen did not have to increase wages, shorten working hours, and eliminate child labor that unions demanded.

White workers in the South organized labor struggles to improve working conditions and pay.  A major campaign focused on a 10 hour work day.  When white bricklayers organized in Louisville, their bosses just replaced them with black enslaved workers who were skilled bricklayers.  When there were no trained black workers, the bosses were more likely to grant some concessions.  The stonecutters won the shorter work day since there were no black workers who filled these positions.

Wages were also tied to the cost of using enslaved people, similar to the situation when bosses employ cheap laborers in the prisons or overseas factories today.  If the slave owners could use unpaid workers, then they didn’t need to pay whites more.  Many industries trained enslaved men to work in the trades, like construction, so they didn’t have to pay others for the work.            The state of Louisiana saved $80,000 using slave labor to build levees, canals, and roads. A cotton mill administrator calculated that slave labor was 30 percent cheaper than “free” labor.

In 1847, the iron industry paid white workers $300 a year but southern bosses could use enslaved labor at $120 per year.  Thousands of factory and mill workers in 1858 lost jobs while enslaved labor in Tennessee produced goods to sell in northern markets.

Slave labor also had other benefits.  While white workers could organize unions and strikes, slavery outlawed and punished any labor organizing or resistance from black workers.  The bosses had much more control and stability over their labor force as well as a consistent supply of workers who didn’t require as much money to employ.

The bosses also scammed many white workers with notions of superiority.  Yet they treated them as disposable labor by breaking their strikes, maintaining low wages, and keeping them unemployed.

White workers could blame slavery and the capitalists for their unemployment and poverty.  Or they could turn their rage and frustrations against enslaved people, just as many workers in the US blame immigrants for “stealing” their jobs.

How did unions and white workers respond?  Did they recognize a common enemy and act in their own self-interests against slavery or did they turn against black workers?  How did the abolition movement treat the working class in the North?  Mandel’s Labor, Free and Slave describes these conflicts and opportunities for unity.

White workers before the Civil War responded in various ways.  Many recognized how slavery robbed them of their economic security.  As the US expanded into the Western territories, the conflicts over slavery intensified.  Would Texas, Kansas, Missouri and other areas allow slave labor?  White workers rallied against slavery, knowing it would replace their opportunities for work.  Even without slavery in some of these states, black and white “free” workers competed for jobs.  Immigration rates increased during this time as well with Irish and German workers filling northern cities, creating more competition for jobs.

Violence against black workers intensified as white mobs destroyed black homes and killed residents.  Business backed vigilante squads also attacked abolitionists and white labor leaders who called for emancipation.  Progressive labor leaders called on workers to support freedom and economic security for all workers, black and white.

The “factory girls” of New England mobilized for abolition.  Whittier’s poem, “The Yankee Girl,” expresses their solidarity when the slave owner demanded their acceptance of slavery:

…  Full low at thy bidding the Negroes may kneel,

With the iron of bondage on spirit and heel,

Yet know that the Yankee girl sooner would be,

In fetters with them than in freedom with thee.”

As policies like the Dred Scott Decision and the Fugitive Slave Act ensured the continuation of slavery outside of the southern states, more white workers in the north organized against slavery and expressed solidarity with black labor as a way to secure justice for all workers.  German immigrants, often socialists, helped lead this movement.  Progressive labor publishers wrote pamphlets for workers calling for multi-racial unity:

“Let us free their slaves… Nothing short of this can make this Nation a Union.  Let this be done and the downtrodden white people of the south will soon feel deliverance and shout for joy.  The welfare of the nation demands the abolition of the slaveholding power … unite.

After the Civil War, the struggle for unity continued.  Black workers created the Negro Labor Union that led struggles for jobs, wages, working conditions.  They organized a series of strikes of longshoremen in the South.  In 1869, they formed the National Colored Labor Union that demanded economic improvements, equal legal treatment, education, and homesteads.

The National Labor Union, established in 1866, invited black unionists to join and send representatives to its convention.  Its leadership affirmed the equality of all workers but decades of prejudice and competition between white and black labor still necessitated separate black labor organizations to fight against the super exploitation of black workers.

This effort continues today.