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1892 - White workers in New Orleans opposed segregation — out of pure self-interest

Inthe mid-19th century, many white workers in southern cities like New Orleans were poor European immigrants. They had little in common with rural plantation owners, and in fact they openly despised the southern slave-owning class. These immigrant workers opposed slavery for economic reasons: the existence of free labor in their midst drove their own wages down and kept them in poverty. In order for their own quality of life to improve, slavery had to be abolished. Plantation owners, who fought tooth and nail against abolition, were therefore considered enemies.

Despite being anti-slavery, these white immigrant workers didn’t necessarily want black people to be treated as their economic equals. In fact, you were pretty much guaranteed to hear both anti-slavery and anti-black sentiments from them in the years leading up to the Civil War. In 1850, one newspaper summed up the racial position of Irish and German immigrants in New Orleans, where some free black people were already participating in the labor force: “The great mass of foreigners who come to our shores are labourers, and consequently come in competition with slave labour. It is in their interest to abolish slavery … [but] they entertain an utter abhorrence to being put on a level with blacks whether in the field or in the workshop.”

When the Civil War ended slavery, the world rapidly transformed. White immigrant laborers were joined by an influx of black ex-slaves on the docks and in the factories of New Orleans, and the two populations were suddenly competing with each other for paid work. It was what the white workers theoretically had wanted. But the new multiracial reality was still jarring, and the first reaction from many white workers was overt racism — including, in some cases, advocating the removal of all people of African descent from the United States.

This racial prejudice was beneficial for employers. The era of slavery may have ended, but southern capitalism was still alive and well, and there’s nothing employers fear more than a united workforce that can halt production entirely and hold bosses hostage to their demands. Employers found the social division among their workforce extremely useful and began to stoke racial animosity on purpose, pitting white workers and black workers against each other in labor disputes. For decades, it often went like this: White unions refused to allow black members. Black workers formed their own unions. A workplace conflict would flare up, and employers would say to whoever was complaining that they would simply work with another union representing another racial group. The division among workers gave the boss the advantage every time, which kept everybody’s pay low and everybody’s working conditions dangerous and miserable.

Black workers in the South suffered the most from poor pay and poor working conditions, since they were often shunted into the least desirable positions. But working-class whites were also kept down by the arrangement. The problem was, they didn’t seem to understand it at first, or their racism blinded them to that reality. For instance, a group of black waterfront workers formed a union in New Orleans in 1872 and requested to integrate with, or at least stand in solidarity with, white longshoremen. “We were scoffed at,” recalledone black worker, “and rebuked by white men who work along shore, telling us constantly that the negroes broke the wages down, and it caused all to suffer.”

But New Orleans was always an unusual city, a place where racial tensions run high and where lines of racial stratification are often blurry and indeterminate. In the 1880s, one newspaper predicted that New Orleans would be the first city in the South where “the antagonisms of race” would be “fully solved, and pass away.” That may have been too optimistic, but it was true that in New Orleans white dockworkers were slowly starting to understand that the absence of racial solidarity was dampening everybody’s prospects for collective bargaining. With every successive defeat by employers, talk of the necessity of cross-racial coalitions began to grow louder — if not for moral reasons, then for strategic ones. The unions in New Orleans started to integrate into what were called “biracial unions” — they were still segregated, but at least everyone was represented by the same entity.

The theory that workers wouldn’t lose to bosses quite so often and so badly if they stood shoulder-to-shoulder, black and white, was finally tested in 1892. Three biracial unions — the Teamsters, the Scalesmen, and the Packers — came together to form a coalition called the Triple Alliance. All three unions had black and white members, but the Scalesmen and the Packers were mostly white, while the Teamsters were mostly black. The Triple Alliance issued demands for all its workers that included a ten-hour workday and overtime pay.

The New Orleans Board of Trade immediately tried its favorite trick: dividing the workers along racial lines. It offered to sit down and negotiate with the majority-white Scalesmen and Packers but would not include the majority-black Teamsters in the negotiations. This kind of thing had worked in the past, but the Triple Alliance was different. The group had been founded on the premise that racial solidarity was the key to victory. They refused to sit down with the Board of Trade and instead called a strike.

The strike was massive, and it wasn’t restricted to the members of the Triple Alliance. Sympathy strikes were more common then, and workers would often walk off the job to show their solidarity with workers in other trades. That’s what happened in New Orleans in 1892: black and white workers throughout the city joined the fray, refusing to work until the Board of Trade sat down with the entire Triple Alliance. Streetcars stopped moving. The docks were quiet. Grocery store shelves emptied as food delivery ceased. Electrical workers stayed home, and for three nights the city was pitch black.

As historian Roger Shugg later wrote, the New Orleans general strike was “the first strike in American history to represent both skilled and unskilled labor, black and white, and to paralyze the life of a great city.” In the postbellum South, this stunning example of black and white workers refusing to be divided became the playbook for racial solidarity in the workplace.

With New Orleans in complete disarray, the Board of Trade had no choice but to sit down with all the representatives of the Triple Alliance, black and white alike. In the end, the Triple Alliance won a ten-hour workday for its members — who had previously been working up to 16 hours a day — and overtime pay.

The following year, an economic downturn created chaos in the city’s labor market, which employers exploited to roll back some of the Triple Alliance’s gains. But New Orleans had learned valuable lessons about the weakness of a segregated workforce and the strength of a united one. In order to ward off racial discrimination and build trust between racial groups, New Orleans unions began demanding that all work crews be “half-and-half,” meaning racially integrated. In 1907, there was again a massive strike in the city, and again black and white workers — who by now had worked alongside each other, day in and day out, for more than a decade — refused authorities’ attempts at polarization. They won that time, too.

Labor historian Sharon Smith notes that the ruling class was hardly oblivious to the problem that racial solidarity created for them. Smith argues that the southern ruling class enforced Jim Crow segregation in part as a response to this integrationist impulse among southern black and white workers. They made it illegal, Smith notes, “for blacks and whites to share any public space together. They made it illegal for blacks and whites to marry. By the 1930s in Alabama, it was against the law to agitate for any kind of equal rights. That was a weapon that the U.S. corporate class developed in response to things like the New Orleans strike in 1892.” It appears that workers learned a big lesson about racial solidarity from the New Orleans general strike, but their bosses learned a few lessons, too.


#Activism #18501899 #WhiteSupremacy

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