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The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) was a labor union in the United Statesmarker organized by the predominantly African-American Pullmans Porters. Organized in 1925, it struggled for twelve years before winning its first collective bargaining agreement with the Pullman Company.

It was, in 1935, the first labor organization led by African-Americans to receive a charter in the American Federation of Labor (AFL). It merged in 1978 with the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks (BRAC), now known as the Transportation Communications International Union.

The leaders of the BSCP—including A. Philip Randolph, its first president, and C. L. Dellums, its vice president, became leaders in the civil rights movement and continued to play a significant role in it after it focused on the eradication of segregation in the South. BSCP members such as E. D. Nixon were among the leadership of local civil rights movements by virtue of their organizing experience, constant movement between communities and freedom from economic dependence on local authorities.

The Pullman Company

The campaign to found the union was an extraordinarily long one, that put it at odds with not only the company but also many members of the black community. The Pullman Company was not only one of the largest employers of blacks in the 1920s and 1930s but also had created an image for itself of enlightened benevolence by its financial support for black churches, newspapers and other organizations. Many porters were, moreover, well-paid enough to enjoy the material advantages of a middle-class lifestyle and prominence within their own communities.

Working for the Pullman Company was, however, less glamorous in practice than it appeared from the outside. Porters were dependent on tips for much of their income; that, in turn, made them dependent on the whims of white passengers, who often referred to all porters as "George", the first name of George Pullman, the founder of the company. Porters spent roughly ten percent of their time in unpaid "preparatory" and "terminal" set-up and clean-up duties, had to pay for their food, lodging, and uniforms, which might consume half of their wages, and were charged whenever their passengers stole a towel or a water pitcher. Porters could ride at half fare on their days off — but not on Pullman coaches. They also could not be promoted to conductor, a job reserved for whites, even though they frequently performed many of the conductors' duties.

The Company also squelched any efforts they had made to organize a union during the first decades of the twentieth century by either isolating or firing any union leaders. Like many other large, ostensibly paternalistic companies of the time, the Company employed a large number of employee spies who kept the company informed of employees' activities; in extreme cases, Company agents assaulted union organizers.

When 500 porters met in Harlem on August 25, 1925, they decided to make another effort to organize. During this meeting, they not only launched their campaign in secret, but also chose Randolph, an outsider beyond the reach of the Company, to lead it. The union chose a dramatic motto that summed up porters' resentment over their working conditions and their sense of their place in history: "Fight or Be Slaves".

Organizing the union

At that time the African-American community was, to put it mildly, estranged from organized labor. While the AFL nominally did not exclude black workers, many of its affiliates did. Many black workers saw their employers, whether it was Henry Ford in Detroitmarker or Swift Packingmarker in Chicagomarker, as more sympathetic to them than either their white co-workers or the labor movement. In addition, the economic separation forced by Jim Crow and the doctrine of advancement through self-reliance preached by Booker T. Washington led many black leaders to look with distrust on joining with whites on issues of common concern — and often denied that blacks and whites had any common interests at all.

That was beginning to change, however, in the 1920s, as some elements within the AFL began to lower these barriers, while groups as diverse as the Urban League, the Socialist Party of America and Communist Party began to focus on the rights of black workers. Randolph himself was a prominent member of the Socialist Party.

The Company's response was to denounce, with support from the ministers and African-American newspapers whom it had cultivated, the new union as an outside entity motivated by foreign ideologies, while sponsoring its own company union, variously known as the Employee Representation Plan or the Pullman Porters and Maids Protective Association, to represent its loyal employees. Local authorities, such as Boss Crump in Memphis, Tennesseemarker in some cases helped the Company by interfering with or banning BSCP meetings.

For the first several years of its existence, the union continued fighting the Company, its allies in the black community, the white power structure, and rival unions within the AFL that were hostile to its members' job claims. The BSCP also tried to involve the federal government in its fight with the Pullman Company: on September 7, 1927 the Brotherhood filed a case with the Interstate Commerce Commission, requesting an investigation of Pullman rates, porters' wages, tipping practices, and other matters related to wages and working conditions; the ICC ruled that it did not have jurisdiction.

While it had organized roughly half of the porters within the Company, the union was seemingly no closer to obtaining recognition than it had been in 1925. By 1928 BSCP leaders decided that the only way to force the issue was to strike the Company. The leadership was, however, divided on what a strike could accomplish: some rank-and-file leaders wanted to use the strike as a show of strength and an organizing tool, while Randolph was more cautious, hoping to use the threat of a strike as the lever to get the federal National Mediation Board established pursuant to the Railway Labor Act to bring the Pullman Company to the table while mobilizing support from supporters outside the industry. When the NMB refused to act, Randolph called off the strike just hours before it was scheduled to begin.

That provoked an internal crisis, deepened by the Great Depression, which made any steady job immensely attractive and led to a sharp drop in BSCP membership. The union might have disappeared altogether if Randolph and his principal rival within the organization, Milton P. Webster of its Chicago branch, had not composed their differences to work together and, in time, become close friends. The union held on through the worst days of the early 1930s until 1934, when the Roosevelt administration amended the RLA, then passed the Wagner-Connery Act, which outlawed company unions and covered porters under the Act, the following year.

The BSCP immediately demanded that the NMB certify it as the representative of these porters. The BSCP defeated the company union in the election held by the NMB and on June 1, 1935 was certified. Two years later the union signed its first collective bargaining agreement with the Pullman Company.

Civil rights leadership

The BSCP won a charter from the AFL in 1935, the same year it was certified by the NMB. In the years before then, when the AFL refused to recognize the organization itself, Randolph accepted "federal local" status for a number of locals of the BSCP — an unsatisfactory compromise that assumed that these locals had no union of their own, and allowed them to affiliate directly with the AFL on that basis. That half-measure, however, allowed Randolph into AFL conventions and other meetings, where he advocated organization of black workers on an equal footing with whites. Randolph kept the BSCP in the AFL, where most of the railroad brotherhoods remained, after John L. Lewis led the split that resulted in the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Randolph expanded his agenda once he became the leader of the foremost black labor organization in the U.S. Randolph was chosen as the leader of the National Negro Congress, an umbrella organization founded in 1937 that united many of the major black civil rights organizations of the day. Randolph later resigned from the NNC in a dispute over policy with communist activists within it. The NNC went into eclipse, while Randolph's stature continued to grow.

In 1941 he used the threat of a march on Washington and support from the NAACP, Fiorello La Guardia and Eleanor Roosevelt to force the administration to ban discrimination by defense contractors and establish the Fair Employment Practices Committee to enforce that order. Milton Webster, the BSCP's First Vice-President, worked to make the FEPC an effective tool in combatting employment discrimination. Randolph achieved his other demand — the end of racial segregation within the military — seven years later, when President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 banning it.

BSCP members played a significant role in the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1940s and 1950s. E. D. Nixon, a BSCP member and the most militant spokesperson for the rights of African-Americans in Montgomery, Alabamamarker for most of the 1940s and 1950s, exemplified the leadership that the union provided. Nixon could take advantage of his experience organizing under difficult circumstances and his immunity to economic reprisals from local businesses and authorities. BSCP members also helped spread information and create networks between the different communities their work took them to, bringing the newspapers and political ideas they picked up in the North back to their hometowns.

Randolph helped negotiate the return of the CIO to the AFL in 1955. Randolph by that time had achieved elder statesman status within the civil rights movement, even as changes in the railroad industry were gradually displacing many of the union's members.

Randolph and one of his chief lieutenants, Bayard Rustin — who, ironically, had bitterly criticized Randolph for calling off the 1941 March on Washington — were the moving force behind the 1963 March on Washington. As Randolph said from the podium at that march:

Let the nation know the meaning of our numbers. We are not a pressure group. We are not an organization. We are not a mob. We are the advance guard of a massive moral revolution that is not confined to the Negro, nor is it confined to civil rights, for our white allies know that they are not free while we are not.


Merger with BRAC

Passenger rail travel dropped sharply after its peak in the 1940s, when the BSCP had 15,000 members, to the 1960s, when only 3000 porters had regular runs. C.L. Dellums replaced Randolph as President of the BSCP in 1968. The BSCP merged with BRAC a decade later.

A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum

The A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum was established in Chicagomarker in 1995 to celebrate both the life of A. Philip Randolph and the role of African-Americans in the U.S. labor movement.The museum can be found at 10406 S. Maryland Ave. Chicago, IL 60628.

Notable Pullman Porters



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