Black Power at the point of production, 1968–73


The countless African Americans who participated in civil rights protests and street rebellions in the 1960s didn’t leave their politics at the door when they entered the workplace. Alongside the movement for civil rights in the South came a series of protests in the North over the de facto color bar in several industries, most importantly, construction. A series of major civil rights lawsuits in that era, along with federal and state legislation, became the basis for far-reaching anti­discrimination measures and affirmative action programs that have been under attack from the right ever since.1

Yet what is too often neglected in both African American studies and US labor studies is an account of the extensive African American activism in the industrial unions—the formation of radical Black caucuses to organize and agitate directly at the point of production. A closer look at this history is needed—not only to fully tell the story of African American struggles of that period, but because, as Martha Biondi puts it, “Black radicalism deserves to be inserted into the narrative of the Black liberation movement and assessed on its own terms.”2

The Black worker formations of the late 1960s and early 1970s were, at one level, inheritors of a leftist Black labor tradition pioneered by African American labor organizations from the American Negro Labor Congress in the 1920s to the Congress of Industrial Organization’s left-led unions in the 1930s and 1940s, and to the National Negro Labor Congress in the 1950s. But these caucuses also represented something qualitatively new: a radical and often explicitly revolutionary current that, by building power at the point of production, was indispensable to wider working-class militancy of that period. And to the extent that organized African American workers could make material gains through those struggles, the broader mass of Black working people benefited as well.

The story of the most important Black caucus, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and its associated League of Revolutionary Black Workers, has been told at length in James A. Geschwender’sClass, Race, and Worker Insurgencyand in Marvin Surkin and Dan Georgakas’sDetroit, I Do Mind Dying.3But radical Black worker caucuses went far beyond DRUM and the League. They are an important, yet often overlooked, development in the 1968 era.4

This is not to suggest that most or even many white workers who joined Black workers on the picket line were sympathetic or even neutral toward the mass urban rebellions and Black nationalist politics of the day. The popularity in the North of the segregationist George Wallace presidential campaign of 1968 reflected a considerable white backlash, as did the presidential election victory of Republican Richard Nixon on a law-and-order platform. But in workplaces where they were a large minority or a majority of the workforce, as in the Detroit auto factories, militant Black caucuses were able to provide a successful example of militant struggle that engendered self-confidence among all workers in their confrontations with employers and union leaders.

Given the concentration of African American labor in the heart of American industry, any expression of militancy at the workplace was bound to have an effect on white workers who faced the same objective conditions. In the late 1960s this produced a certain unity in struggle among Black and white workers that, while uneven, sporadic, and short-lived, was critical to the overall success of workers in exacting concessions from their employers.

Black Power in the unions

The battles over segregated unionism in the building trades were among the most important reasons for rising racial tensions that culminated in the Black urban rebellions, which began in Harlem a year after a big picket at Harlem Hospital over discriminatory hiring practices, and ended with a national explosion of rage at the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Confronted by National Guard troops in Newark and Detroit and frustrated by the limitations of liberalism, large numbers of African Americans turned to an explicitly nationalist set of ideas and activities, popularly grouped under the heading “Black Power” and organized through such groups as the Black Panther Party. Many African American radicals advocated a political break from Northern white liberals in favor of Black self-reliance, if not separatism.5

These political trends gained influence amid the wave of the Black street rebellions of the late 1960s. As the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence demonstrated, most participants in riots were not an unemployed “underclass” but in fact were workers. Although the participants came from a complete cross section of the younger population in the cities, they were not, by and large, “marginal”—the term used to describe those who had dropped permanently out of the job market to become involved in hustling and petty crime. In the case of Watts, “the great majority” of rioters were “currently employed” despite the fact that 25 percent of high school graduates in Watts were unemployed. In Detroit, “the typical rioter was a teenager or young adult, somewhat better educated than his non-rioting Negro neighbor and usually underemployed or employed in a menial job.”6

Against this background of growing Black militancy generally and clashes with employers and the trade-union officialdom in particular, Black caucuses in the unions emerged. Moreover, the new Black militancy provided students, feminists, LGBT activists, and the left with a model for social and political change. Mass student strikes, the clash between police and protestors at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the Stonewall Rebellion in New York City that launched the gay liberation movement, and mass protests against the Vietnam War are just a few examples of the growth of radicalism in this period.

The wave of protest and social-movement activism found expression in workplace militancy as well. Between 1956 and 1965, there were never more than 4,000 strikes in a single year in the US. Then, from 1967 to 1974, there was an average of 5,239 strikes per year. From 1956 to 1965, an annual average of 1.53 million workers were involved in strikes. But from 1967 to 1971, an average of 49.5 million strike days were lost annually. The strike wave peaked in 1970, with 66.4 million strike days lost.7

Rank-and-file initiative was central to this strike activity. In 1967, 14 percent of all union contracts were rejected by the membership at least once, a trend called “alarming” by the American Management Association and derided as “labor anarchy” by theWall Street Journal.A Uniroyal executive advised local management to help union leaders “sell” settlements to the rank and file, although he admitted that this must be done “subtly.” Besides the postal workers’ strike, the most successful wildcat was the three-month walkout by Teamster truckers, which included a $1.85 increase over 39 months, an average wage increase of 13 percent per year. This constituted “the highest nationwide increase for a leading union in the country’s history.”8

Rising with the number of strikes were pay increases established in labor contracts. From 1960 to 1965, the average first-year pay raise in major union contracts was just 3.15 percent. But in the period 1967–1971, the average wage raise more than doubled to 8.6 percent. Inflation accounted for some of this increase, but the gains did exceed increases in the cost of living.9 The inflation-adjusted wage levels of 1973 remain the historical high, underscoring the gains won by the strikes and the scale of the losses that accompanied the dramatic decline of the unions since then.10

The upturn in strikes coincided with an influx of Black labor into the highly unionized basic industries. Between 1960 and 1968, the proportion of “nonwhites”—in that period, primarily African Americans—working in the auto industry rose from 9 percent to 14.8 percent. In electrical-equipment manufacturing, the proportion rose from 3.7 percent to 8.9 percent, and in metal fabricating the number of nonwhites increased from 5.1 percent to 8.4 percent. These industry-wide figures do not reflect the concentration of Black workers in certain urban union locals. For example, officials of the United Auto Workers (UAW) estimated in 1968 that nearly half the auto-plant workers in the Detroit metropolitan area were Black—an increase of 30 percent from 1963.11

At the same time that tens of thousands of Blacks were effectively excluded from the main craft and building-trades unions, major industrial unions and the new public employees’ unions saw a sharp increase in Black membership. Writing in the social democratic journalDissent,Thomas R. Brooks estimated that the largest industrial unions in the AFL-CIO had Black membership rates of 20 percent or more, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the Meatcutters-Packinghouse Workers, the Letter Carriers, Postal Clerks, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the Steelworkers, and the American Federation of Teachers. With their numbers augmented and a Black consciousness movement in ascendance, a significant minority of these workers began to organize Black caucuses. Brooks distinguished between “traditional left-wing” union caucuses with a large percentage of Black members, such as the group which attempted to bring a decertification vote against Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union in New York City, and the “new Black groups” such as the Ad Hoc Committee in the United Steelworkers and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in the UAW. In either case, these Black caucuses were positioned to both fight union discrimination from within the ranks and play an important role in the increased strike activity.12

In 1968—the year of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the last great Black urban rebellions of the era, the general strike in France, and the Tet offensive against US troops in Vietnam—Black caucuses emerged on a national scale. In Memphis, the bloody and tenacious strike by African American sanitation workers—prominently supported by King—had already provided an example of how labor struggles could power the struggle for Black equality beyond the formal achievement of civil rights.13Now that struggle would come to the North.

In Chicago, the Concerned Transit Workers (CTW) attempted to unseat the leadership of the city bus drivers’ local. Local 241 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) relied on the retirees to out-vote Black bus drivers. In response, the Concerned Transit Workers launched a series of wildcat strikes in the summer of 1968—the second of which lasted through the tumultuous Democratic National Convention of that year—directed not at the Chicago Transit Authority, but at the ATU. The CTW tried to organize a breakaway union among the 6,200 Chicago bus drivers, 72 percent of whom were Black, but lost support after Local 241 leaders appointed eight African Americans to union office.14

Despite this apparent failure, the Black labor militancy born in the Chicago bus barns would soon have an impact on one of the most important strikes of the period. In the fall of 1968, the CTW formed the Black Labor Federation, which found supporters at several area plants, including General Electric’s key Hotpoint plant. There, a Black Labor Federation affiliate, the Afro-American Employees Committee, launched a sit-down strike in October 1968. This time, the Black workers were not only battling discrimination in the union but precipitating what would become one of the major labor-management showdowns of the day. In October of the following year, General Electric’s thirteen unions launched a national four-month strike over wages, benefits, and working conditions.

According to Sheet Metal Workers Union Hotpoint local president Delane Mitchell, elected to office shortly before the walkout, a major strike demand at Hotpoint was for a stronger anti-discrimination clause in the local contract. Mitchell’s—and the union local’s—support for Black demands suggests that his campaign for union office depended in part on the support of the Afro-American Employees Committee. These demands—and Black workers’ demonstrated willingness to strike to win them—probably contributed to the militancy of the strike, which saw regular, militant mass pickets at the Hotpoint plant.15

Black militancy in the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) also presaged a rash of wildcat strikes and initiated a series of local rebellions against the top union leadership in which thousands of white workers participated. Opposition to USWA president I. W. Abel began at the union’s national convention in Chicago in 1968, when the National Ad Hoc Committee, a Black steelworkers caucus, demanded Black representation on the union’s thirty-three-member executive board on the grounds that at least 20 to 25 percent of the union membership was Black. USWA vice-president Joseph P. Molony explained the executive’s refusal to meet the demand: “We are opposed to any procedure that would establish an office in our union based on race, national origin, religion, or color. This would be a form of Jim Crowism in reverse and contrary to our rigidly enforced policy of [non]discrimination.” This apparently was the reasoning behind the union’s decision to fight at least five anti-discrimination lawsuits in the mid-1960s rather than implement affirmative action.16

The Ad Hoc Committee’s opposition to the USWA top leadership was soon matched in other sections of the union. After averting a widely expected national steel strike by agreeing to experimental incentive-pay schemes, Abel “faced a host of tough internal problems,” not the least of which were a series of wildcat strikes and one local’s petition to the National Labor Relations Board regarding “unfair labor practices” on the part of union officials.17

Certainly, a correlation between Black caucuses and strike activity does not necessarily prove that one caused the other. Analyzing this relationship is made all the more difficult by the contradiction between the subjective ideas of the workers involved—racist attitudes by many whites, a separatist stance by many Blacks—and the objective fact of at least some unity in struggle against their employers. For example, DRUM organizer Mike Hamlin believed that most of his white coworkers identified with management rather than Black workers:

Well, you see, Black and white workers work side by side on the line. And it’s clear to Black workers, you know, that the enemy is the boss; is management in the plant. But it’s not always clear to the white worker that his enemy is management. He might perceive Blacks on the line as a threat to him. And that is generally what happens. They know that they have a degree of privilege as a result of our being there and our being in a subjugated position. So his interest really is not destroying the system; in fighting management, or the boss. His interest is in maintaining that situation that provides him with the privileges that he has because of his white skin. He has to be willing to give all of that up and fight management.18

Despite Hamlin’s perception, statistics show that at Chrysler, birthplace of DRUM and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, white workers did fight alongside Blacks. From 1960 to 1966 there was an average of 20.4 strikes per year. The average more than tripled to 63.3 strikes per year from 1967 to 1973, followed by a decrease to 53 strikes from 1974 to 1978, before plummeting to 13 strikes per year from 1979 to 1985. These figures, which include wildcat strikes, indicate a qualitatively higher level of struggle in the 1967 to 1973 period in which the League was active. This activity could not have been sustained if the militancy of the Black workers had not been matched by at least a minority of white workers.19

Even where the level of struggle was much lower, the presence of Black radical caucuses could stimulate some white workers to participate in job actions and oppose the official union leadership. In early 1969 the Black Panther Party leadership—during a period of reorganization and political shifts of the party—seriously considered a working-class orientation that would have involved forging alliances with white union activists. TheBlack Panther newspaper featured a series of articles on organized labor that raised the possibility of Black and white working-class unity and even Panther membership for whites. The impetus was the formation of the Black Panther Caucus (BPC) at the General Motors plant in Fremont, California, led by Kenny Horston:

We the Black Panther Caucuses of the Union Movement—the Vanguard of Labor—will expose the true nature of GM, Ford, Chrysler; we will pull the sheets from the second largest pig power structure in this or any other racist nation. . . .20

The article was far from a clear statement by a rank-and-file union group, still less a document on the prospects for interracial unity. The bulk of the content was a reprint, without commentary, of a statement by the Alliance for Labor Action, a UAW–Teamsters “alternative” to the AFL-CIO that soon collapsed. It also contained an anti-gay epithet. Nevertheless, the article marked the first timeThe Black Pantherhad addressed workplace issues beyond short strike reports.

The alliance between the Panthers and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was the subject of an April 19, 1969 conference in Oakland that aimed to be “the historic breakthrough we’ve been working toward: a Black community-worker alliance.”21 Leading Panthers spoke about the need to focus on the workplace. Party Minister of Education Fred “Masai” Hewitt said the Panthers would use “Marxist-Leninist principles” to “make the workers a class for itself, to make the workers a strong political organ for themselves.” He also departed from the party’s guerilla-oriented conception of revolution, stating, “Only the workers can free the workers.” Like the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, Hewitt argued that “the main problem in the United States is not the race contradictions but the class contradictions.”22

Party chief of staff David Hilliard sounded a similar theme:

So that is the one thing we have in common, be we European, or Afro-American is that we are the exploited class. That we’re workers and that the factory owners are the bourgeois class and that they enslave us night and day. Day in, day out, year in, year out. So that the whole concept about an independent Black workers union would not serve as the instrument to solve the problems of capitalism or to solve the problems of exploitation, to solve the problems of a 36- or a 48-hour work week.

Because of racism, Hilliard said, Black workers were effectively “already in a separate union” when it came to organizing on the job. “But we want to go beyond that, and we want to solve the problems of all the workers.”23

The Panther–League alliance was short-lived, as leading League militants criticized the Panthers’ continued focus on the lumpenproletariat as the agency of revolution.24 Even so, party activists at the GM Fremont plant continued to organize their caucus. Caucus chair Horsten explained that while the majority Black workforce in Chrysler’s Dodge Main plant gave DRUM the power to stop production, such action was beyond the capability of the Black minority at Fremont. Instead, the caucus concentrated on defending Black workers from racist harassment, running candidates for local union office, and studying revolutionary socialist politics. Recognizing the limited shop-floor potential of a Black-only organization, the BPC tried to develop relationships with white workers by encouraging them to form their own caucuses or even join the BPC itself:

We feel that there is a need for a white radical caucus in the plant because there are white workers, poor whites, who would starve without that job just like Black workers would. And if they didn’t work a lot of overtime, they wouldn’t be able to afford some of the things they afford . . . White radicals have to deal with that question of emphasizing to the white workers how they are being exploited just like the Chicano and the Blacks, and though it is very clear that whites do receive privileges, at the same time they are also being exploited.25

The question of how African American militant workers should relate to their white counterparts also faced members of the United Black Brothers caucus at the Ford Motor Company assembly plant in Mahwah, New Jersey. In the spring of 1969, Ford workers halted production several times over issues such as speedups and racial discrimination. According to theWall Street Journal,the responsibility for the work stoppage rested with “dissident Negro workers and members of Students for a Democratic Society.” This walkout came despite the fact that after similar actions in 1965 and 1966, Ford and the local UAW hierarchy cooperated to keep a lid on all dissidents, preventing the kind of open activity organized by DRUM or BPC. Still, at least some white workers shared the United Black Brothers’ militancy: many white workers united with Black workers in the narrowly defeated campaign for committeeman by a white socialist worker, and Mahwah saw relatively little of the white supremacist activity stirred up by Alabama Governor George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign. The caucus was still active at what it called the “Mahwah plantation” as late as 1973, when it organized a Black-Latin Workers Conference in Newark.26

The above is certainly not a comprehensive list of Black union caucuses in the late 1960s. But it is strong evidence that the African American militancy of the late 1960s not only found expression in union caucuses, but stimulated a significant minority of white workers into trade union activity—activity that often put them at odds with union officials as well as management.

The postal wildcat of 1970

These dynamics were central to the illegal postal strike of 1970—the biggest and boldest labor rebellion of that period. By the late 1960s, the United States Post Office had become the “nation’s largest employer of minority groups” in both absolute and relative terms. Between June 1965 and February 1968, 40,078 African Americans were hired by the Post Office—an increase of 43 percent—for a total of 132,353, or 18.9 percent of the total 700,000 jobs. The growth rate in Black employment at the Post Office was twice that of the civil service as a whole; for example, Black employment in the middle and top field-service grades rose 94.5 percent even though job growth in those classifications increased only 14.4 percent. In the same period, the number of “Spanish-surname Americans”—that is, Latinos—working for the Post Office increased by 185 percent to 14,875, or 3 percent of the total. Nevertheless, Black workers accounted for nearly half the workers at the lowest grade. In all, nonwhite workers accounted for 22 percent of all postal employees. The number of women workers also rose, from 11 percent in 1959 to 17.4 percent in 1968.27

One reason for the increase in Black employment in the Post Office is that white postal workers had quit for better-paying jobs. Some New York City letter carriers were forced onto welfare to supplement their incomes.28

Working conditions in the Post Office were those of an antiquated factory. According to a 1968 study commissioned by President Lyndon Johnson, work areas were dirty and noisy; locker and rest room facilities were cramped, heating and cooling devices practically nonexistent. Nevertheless, the Post Office was expected to handle 200 million pieces of mail a day, a 20 percent increase since 1960. “To a great extent, post office jobs are as exacting as they are tedious,” the study said.29

The commission’s report devoted much attention to the Post Office’s labor relations. Seven craft unions, two industrial unions, and three management associations—whose jurisdictions overlapped one or more of the others—were officially recognized. The craft unions (the term “craft” denotes a division of labor, since only a small majority of postal workers were skilled) received exclusive bargaining rights at the national, regional, and local levels because they represented the majority of workers in a given job category.30

Ironically, the two largest unions, the National Postal Union and the virtually all-Black National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees (NAPFE) had no national recognition since their cross-craft “industrial” approach did not give them a majority in any one craft. In any case, NAPFE had long focused on racial discrimination in hiring and the barriers that prevented Black workers from attaining better-paying jobs.31 But despite the lack of collective bargaining, postal workers had substantial protections against management disciplinary action. “Unlike management in private industry, the postal management has no effective means of immediate discipline except in emergencies,” a consultant observed.32

By the late 1960s, postal supervisors, their authority backed up only with weak disciplinary measures, found themselves responsible for more and more workers—an increasing percentage of whom were young and Black. As a consultant wrote:

Increasingly post offices are staffed by employees who are very different from the “old time,” pre–[Second World] War, postal employees from whom most of the supervisors are drawn. This, combined with insufficient continuity of relationships between the supervisors and the employee, has made communications more and more difficult. The result is that supervision tends to be strongly authoritarian, compelled to constantly drive the work force to cope with crises, and there are frequently bad relations between worker and boss.33

With the revival of Black nationalism in the United States, it is certain that many of the conflicts between the increasingly Black postal workers and “authoritarian” supervisors took on racial overtones. In such cases, Black workers had recourse to local Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) officers. More than just a model affirmative action program to be followed by private industry, the Post Office Department’s EEO project was part of an attempt by the Johnson administration to reduce the Black urban unemployment that contributed to the mass urban rebellions of the era.

Speaking at a 1968 Post Office Department conference on EEO, Richard J. Murphy, assistant postmaster general in the Bureau of Personnel, argued that the Post Office, “as the largest civilian department in the government, can get more into this anti-poverty battle, get more into the battle of providing meaningful, not temporary, but meaningful jobs at good rates of pay, for people in our larger cities who are without employment.”34 Postmaster General W. Marvin Watson, announcing the EEO program to the National Press Club on June 12, 1968—barely three months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.—declared that the Post Office would be “an instrument of social justice.”35

Thus in the rebellious summer of 1968, with George Wallace running an openly racist presidential campaign and conservative Republican Richard Nixon gaining in the polls, Black postal workers found their own employer to be acknowledging the legitimacy of civil rights in hiring policies. In New York, the EEO Advisory Committee initiated a “Job Mobile”—a mail truck staffed with bilingual recruiters that toured “underprivileged areas” to encourage Black and Latino youth to apply for postal employment. Radio and television stations as well as newspapers announced in advance where the Job Mobile would be. Meanwhile, at local post offices, postmasters circulated sample five-minute EEO briefings that supervisors were to deliver to workers. For example, the postmaster of Oklahoma City asked his supervisors, “Are certain groups—racial, religious, ethnic—the most frequently involved in violation of a particular regulation?”36

With Black urban neighborhoods in rebellion and the influence of liberal, pro-Democratic Party civil rights groups superseded by the Black Panther Party and scores of lesser-known radical Black nationalist organizations, the Johnson administration found its credibility among African Americans at an all-time low. Squeezed between Black militancy and a white backlash in the form of the Wallace and Nixon campaigns, the administration sought to influence Blacks by sending postal workers into the streets with the promise of jobs to the youth who were perceived as the source of the riots. Yet this not only pulled more militant African Americans into the Post Office, but also automatically legitimized any grievance over anything that could reasonably be called racial discrimination. Support from upper management in a confrontation with a line supervisor is a rare advantage for a union activist. Moreover, supervisors were responsible for an increasing number of workers, which contributed to the ability of rank-and-file postal workers to wrest concessions from local management through slowdowns and other job actions. By 1969, militant postal workers, Black as well as white, found themselves with unprecedented favorable opportunities to organize.

Tensions in the Post Office finally boiled over on March 18, 1970, when letter carriers in New York went on strike. Black workers, concentrated in strike centers such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, were pivotal to the illegal, weeklong walkout of 200,000 postal workers. Nearly 19 percent of the total 700,00 postal employees in 1968 were Black. In New York, there were 20,796 Black postal workers, most of whom were among the 50,044 who worked in Manhattan and Brooklyn. In Chicago, 17,688 out of 28,229 postal workers were Black; Washington, 10,170 out of 11,349; Los Angeles, 8,579 of 13,588; San Francisco, 6,821 of 10,228; Philadelphia, 6,267 of 12,014; and Detroit, 5,394 of 9,865. The strike quite likely involved the largest number of African Americans workers ever to take part in an organized labor dispute in the United States.37

The strike pivoted on the leadership of Black workers. In Chicago, the largely Black local of the Letter Carriers’ union voted to join the strike with the chant, “Post Power,” a clear reference to the Black Power slogan. There was not universal African American worker support for the strike, however. In much of the South, local NAPFE leaders backed their union’s national leadership in opposing the strike.38

NAPFE leaders’ conservatism during the pre-strike period opened the door for a more radical formation in the strike epicenter of New York—the Society of Afro-American Postal Employees (SAAPE), which functioned somewhat like DRUM and other Black militant union caucuses. According to Clarence Brown, then a mechanic at Morgan Station, the Society played an important role in strike activism in the city:

Almost every member of the Society was a member of one of the unions. You could be influenced by what was discussed at society meetings . . . But who is to say whether I am talking to you as a member of the society or as a member of a union? It is a very thin line . . .

The society was very much a militant, Black nationalist organization. I fought back when Black workers walked around in dashikis. At first there seemed to be no place to vent that militancy until the strike. Everyone saw that as a weapon.39

Although Society membership was confined mostly to Manhattan, the organization had considerable influence in most postal stations, Brown said.

NAPFE, although it had long fought against racial discrimination at the Post Office, was “a little afraid” of the Society, Brown said. “They tried to keep people from going there [to Society meetings].” The Society, a main component in the rank-and-file postal clerks’ strike movement, also pulled members of the established Black postal worker group, NAPFE, despite the union leaders’ hostility to the strike. Even the few New York NAPFE stewards and activists who did not support the strike got involved in order to maintain their credibility with coworkers, Brown said. “You have to remember that the Alliance is a national organization, and has to be concerned with a national position on the strike, not just the activity in New York. And the local officers can’t be as vocal,” he continued.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to exaggerate NAPFE’s conservatism compared to the Society, Brown said. For example, Brown was “sure most people in the Society sympathized with the Black Panthers. But then so did fifty percent of the Alliance.” And though many Black postal workers were motivated by their commitment to the broader political goals of Black liberation, this did not mean an inevitable conflict with white workers. “The relationship between Black and white workers had never been strained—at least not as long as I was in the Post Office,” Brown recalled.40

Noel Murrain, who later became president of Local 813 of NAPFE in Manhattan, recalled that Alliance stewards at the General Post Office in Manhattan and other locations played an active role in the strike against the wishes of the union leadership. In the period just before the strike, NAPFE members led dozens of anti-discrimination actions through grievance procedures based on affirmative action laws and regulations, he said. While Murrain acknowledged that some Black workers were active in the two other major clerks’ unions, he believes that NAPFE members were the most successful in defending Black workers interests. In the mid-1960s, NAPFE had organized against what it called “sweetheart deals” between the Post Office and the predominately white postal craft unions.41

On Friday, March 20, 1970, Secretary of Labor George P. Schultz called all seven postal union leaders to Washington. “There is only one thing worse than a wildcat strike,” he told them. “A wildcat strike that succeeds.”42 On Tuesday, March 23, President Richard Nixon went on television to announce the deployment of National Guard troops to ensure the delivery of mail, stating that “What is at issue is the survival of a government based upon law,” declaring a national emergency.43

As the strike swept the country, Black and white workers hit the picket lines together, finding support from new left organizations. AVillage Voicereporter interviewed the strikers at the General Post Office in Manhattan just after Nixon’s speech:

Everyone agreed that without the Blacks and the young whites there would have been no strike, not because of the politics of these elements but because of their fearlessness. “They just aren’t going to take the [expletive] we came to accept as normal,” an older worker explained. Militancy rather than radicalism was the keynote.44

A young Black postal worker said in response to Nixon’s speech: “Nixon’s for bringing the troops in here? Why didn’t he bring in the troops when those whites beat up on those Black school kids in Lamar, South Carolina?”45 The Guard’s efforts to distribute the mail fizzled. After nine days, the strike ended with success—the government agreeing to major improvements in compensation.46

Despite being members of weak union organizations, postal workers had defied the president, Congress, federal law, injunctions, and their own union officials to launch a nationwide wildcat strike—the first ever by federal employees. ANewsweekcolumnist saw cause for concern:

The mailmen . . . represent something close to a national minority. They are, by and large, good family men, steady wage earners. (If they) begin thumbing their nose at the government, then the comfortable American bourgeoisie has real reasons to worry, and worry hard.47

The postal workers’ militancy influenced other government workers, who pressured their union officials to strike in sympathy or over their own demands. Government workers’ confidence in their ability to fight seemed to rise after the strike won a wage increase, even with the overhanging threat of severe penalties. “It’s getting tougher and tougher to make any impression on our rank-and-file members by pointing out that strikes by federal employees are illegal and can result in fines, imprisonment, or dismissal,” one government union official said.48

Militant Black workers were a crucial link in this chain of events. That is not to suggest that Black caucuses in the unions—in the Post Office or anywhere else—led automatically to overall working-class militancy, or to white workers’ sympathy with Black demands. The point is that while many Black workers may have been excluded by racist membership clauses from some unions and effectively excluded from mainstream activity in others, millions of other Black workers were, by the late 1960s, concentrated in key sectors of industry and organized labor in the midst of the biggest upturn in strike activity in the previous two decades. By organizing against employers who typically put them into the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs, and by confronting union officials who did not consistently defend their interests, militant Black workers took up issues that also concerned white workers. In so doing they were able to establish the basic solidarity central to the heightened strike activity and rank-and-file initiative of that period.

This interracial unity was short-lived. The resurgence in racial violence since the late 1970s is only one harsh indicator of the hold of racism on white workers in the United States. Nevertheless, the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s challenges the myth of a completely passive postwar American working class paralyzed by racial divisions. If historians move the civil rights and Black Power movements into the mainstream of labor history, a substantially different picture will emerge.

That history also has relevance for prospects for the future. With social inequality at its greatest since the 1920s, the labor movement weak, and racial division acute, the emerging links between the organizations of low-wage workers and the activism against police killings of African Americans suggest that the class struggle remains intertwined with the fight for racial and economic justice. Despite the enormous changes in the political, social, and economic landscape since the 1970s, the history of the Black Power struggle at the workplace is relevant to a new generation.

  1. See Ronald H. Zeiger, For Jobs and Freedom: Race and Labor in America since 1865 (University Press of Kentucky, 2007) and Paul D. Moreno, Back Americans and Organized Labor: A New History (Louisiana State University Press, 2006).
  2. Martha Biondi, To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City (Harvard University Press, 2006), 273.
  3. For the background to the Detroit struggles, see John C. Leggett, Class, Race, and Labor: Working Class Consciousness in Detroit (Oxford University Press, 1968). The two most important books about Black labor radicalism in the 1960s are Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying (1975, republished by Haymarket Books, 2012) and James Geschwender, Class, Race, and Worker Insurgency: The League of Revolutionary Black Workers (Cambridge University Press, 1981). For further information on the Detroit activity and other Black caucuses, see Thomas R. Brooks’s two-part series in Dissent 17 and 18, “DRUMbeats in Detroit” and “Black Upsurge in the Unions,” March–April, 1970. For a Black Marxist autoworkers’ account of these developments, see Charles Denby, “Black Caucuses in the Union,” in New Politics 7 (Summer 1968). For an assessment of the impact of such organization on both Black and white workers’ conditions and wages, see William B. Gould, “Black Power in the Unions: The Impact on Collective Bargaining Relationships” in Yale Law Review 79, (November 1969). For the downfall of the Detroit caucuses, see Ernie Allen, “Dying from Inside: The Decline of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers” in Dick Cluster ed. They Should Have Served That Cup of Coffee: Seven Radicals Remember the Sixties (Boston, 1979). For a more detailed, contemporary interview with DRUM activists, see Jim Jacobs and David Wellman, “Our Thing is DRUM!” in Leviathan vol. 2, no. 2(June 1970), and Robert Dudick, Black Workers in Revolt [Guardian pamphlet] (New York, 1969). For a more recent summary of DRUM and the League based on interviews with participants, see Kieran Taylor, “American Petrograd: Detroit and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers,” in Aaron Brenner, Robert Brenner, and Cal Winslow eds. Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below During the Long 1970s (Verso, 2010), 311–333.
  4. The major surveys of Black postwar labor history offer limited accounts of Black worker radicalism in the unions. Philip Foner’s examination of the 1960s is primarily concerned with trade-union officialdom’s defense of craft unions’ racial barriers, devoting far less attention to Black nationalist politics and the urban rebellions that shaped Black workers’ lives in the 1960s. See Philip Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker (International Publishers, 1981), 397–424. William Harris, The Harder We Run: Black Workers Since the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1982) provides more background on the growth of the movement. Both Foner and Harris rely on secondary sources and relatively few contemporary accounts of the Black union caucuses. Philip F. Rubio’s sweeping history of African American postal workers emphasizes that the wider civil rights, Black Power, and the antiwar movements were precursors to the postal wildcat strike of 1970, but maintains that the long-established Black union and civic organization, the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees, not a new radical caucus, was the decisive factor in that struggle. See Rubio, There’s Always Work at the Post Office: African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice, and Equality (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 220–223. Peniel Joseph discusses working-class militancy as an important dimension of the African American radicalization of that period, but does not discuss the implications of militant Black workers’ activity in the heart of US industry. See Peniel E. Joseph, Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (Macmillan, 2007), 185–186. Similarly, Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin’s Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (University of California Press, 2013), 196, situates the party in a tradition of Black worker militancy but does not investigate the party’s attempts to relate to African American activism in the unions.
  5. For earlier discussions of the transition from civil rights to Black Power, see Manning Marable, Race, Reform and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America (3rd ed.) (University of Mississippi Press, 2007); Harvard Sitkoff, The Struggle for Black Equality 1954-1981 (Hill and Wang, 1981) and James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (University of Washington Press, 1997).
  6. National Advisory Committee on Civil Rights, also known as the Kerner Commission, (New York, 1967), 132–134.
  7. US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Handbook of Labor Statistics 1978 (Washington, 1979), 508–509, quoted in Glenn Perusek, The Economic Determinants of Trade Union Behavior (Unpublished PhD. thesis, University of Chicago, 1987).
  8. Wall Street Journal, Feb. 20, 1969; International Socialist, January 1969; Wall Street Journal, April 4, 1970; The Economist, July 11, 1970.
  9. US Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the U.S., 1984 (Washington, 1983).
  10. Drew DeSliver, “For most workers, real wages have barely budged for decades,” Pew Research Center, October 9, 2014,
  11. Wall Street Journal, Nov. 29, 1969.
  12. Brooks, “Black Upsurge in the Unions,” 123–125.
  13. Michael K. Honey, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (Norton, 2011), 494–497.
  14. Brooks, “Black Upsurge in the Unions,” 132–133.
  15. Business Week, Nov. 9, 1969.
  16. Brooks, “Black Upsurge in the Unions,” 27; Herbert Hill, “Black Dissent in Organized Labor,” in Seasons of Rebellion ed. Joseph Boskin and Robert A. Rosenstone, (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1972), 55–80.
  17. Wall Street Journal, May 1, 1969; June 17, 1969; Dec. 29, 1969.
  18. Jacobs and Wellman, 29.
  19. Chrysler Corp., Strikes and Manhours Lost, Hourly and Salaried Employees – US Locations (Detroit, 1986), quoted in Perusek.
  20. nbsp; “Black Panther Caucuses Expose . . . 1969,” The Black Panther, February 2, 1969.
  21. nbsp; “A Historic Revolutionary Labor Conference— Hear the Revolutionaries of Today,” The Black Panther, April 20, 1969.
  22. nbsp; ”Masai Speaks at the Revolutionary Labor Conference,” The Black Panther, May 4, 1969. Reprinted in P. Foner, 249–252.
  23. “Chief of Staff David Hilliard Speaks at Labor Conference,” The Black Panther, May 11, 1969.
  24. Geschwender, 141.
  25. Workers Power, May 1970.
  26. International Socialist, March 1970; The Black Voice (paper of the United Black Brothers), June and July 1973.
  27. Arthur D. Little Inc., “A Description of the Postal Service Today,” Part 5, in The< Report of the President’s Commission on Postal Organization (Annex) vol. 4, (Washington, 1968), 21.
  28. The Economist, March 28, 1970.
  29. Towards Postal Excellence, op cit., 16; Arthur D. Little Inc., “Report of the General Contractor” in Towards Postal Excellence vol. 1, 47.
  30. Towards Postal Excellence, 18–29.
  31. Rubio, 77–83.
  32. Robert R. Nathan Associates, Inc., “Personnel Administration and Labor Relations” in Towards Postal Excellence (Annex) vol. 1, 71–72; 78–82; 79.
  33. Robert R. Nathan Associates, Inc., “Personnel Administration,” 61.
  34. Post Office Department, Plan of Action: An Improved Design for Equal Opportunity in the Postal Service (Washington DC, 1968), 30.
  35. Post Office Department, “Plan of Action,” 43.
  36. Post Office Department, Equal Employment Opportunity Affirmative Action Program (Washington DC, 1968), 20–29.
  37. For Post Office employment statistics, see Towards Postal Excellence: The Report of the President’s Commission on Postal Reform, reprinted by the House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service, Committee Print No. 94-25 (Washington DC, Nov. 24, 1976. An appendix to this report included a survey of the racial composition of the postal workforce, reported in the Feb. 15, 1968 New York Post.
  38. Rubio, 246–253.
  39. Interview with Clarence Brown, April 5, 1987.
  40. Interview with Brown.
  41. Interview with Noel Murrain, April 27, 1987; Harris, 166.
  42. Newsweek, April 1, 1970.
  43. New York Times, March 24, 1970.
  44. David Guerin, Village Voice, March 26, 1970.
  45. The Militant, postal strike bulletin, n.d.
  46. Rubio, 246–253.
  47. Newsweek, April 6, 1970.
  48. Wall Street Journal, March 23, 1970.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story