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Labor Movement Was Critical Ally To Civil Rights Movement


As we've heard, labor unions played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement. After all, it was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, though the former is often overshadowed by the latter. The two groups shared the struggles of better pay and equal rights. Here's a bit more of Walter Reuther, president of the UAW, speaking to the crowd of marchers.


WALTER REUTHER: I am here today with you because, with you, I share the view that the struggle for civil rights and the struggle for equal opportunity is not the struggle of Negro Americans, but the struggle for every American to join in.


SIEGEL: For more on the relationship between organized labor and the Civil Rights Movement, we're joined now by Thomas Sugrue. He's a professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: And how significant were labor unions in the Civil Rights Movement?

SUGRUE: Labor unions were critical allies of the African-American freedom struggle, especially the large industrial unions coming from big cities in the North that had large African-American populations and growing black workforces. They believed that black workers and their fate was intertwined with that of white workers; that questions of economic security and anti-discrimination were joined at the hip. And so they believed that their fate depended on opening up opportunities for African-Americans in the labor market.

SIEGEL: We just heard Walter Reuther, who was president of the United Auto Workers. And, of course, A. Philip Randolph led an AFL-CIO member union. How important was the AFL-CIO generally in the movement?

SUGRUE: The AFL-CIO was a congeries of many different unions, some of which were very open and supportive of the Civil Rights Movement, others which were indifferent, some of which were hostile. The steelworkers, the autoworkers, the packing house workers - all of which represented interracial workforces - joined and supported the Civil Rights Movement early.

And Martin Luther King, Jr., in particular, reached out to his allies in those unions for financial support and to bring people to the lines when protests and demonstrations were occurring.

SIEGEL: How would you describe the - generally the significance and the size of organized labor, of unions, in America 50 years ago and in America today?

SUGRUE: Well, organized labor was in many respects at its peak of influence at the time of the March in Washington. Unions represented about a third of American workers, so they have a lot of membership; they had a lot of feet on the ground. And they had a really significant political clout with both parties, but especially with the Democratic Party, which the union movement had allied with during the New Deal and World War II.

SIEGEL: How would you describe the relationship today between African-American causes and the causes of organized labor, such as it is?

SUGRUE: Well, in the '60s, the relationship at its best was very tight and very close and it remains that way today. But the Civil Rights Movement is much less organized and more fragmented today than it was in 1963. And the labor union movement is a lot smaller and not nearly as politically powerful as it was 50 years ago. So, the two still collaborate, although there are, in many parts of the country, still hostilities that run deep between civil rights activists and unions.

SIEGEL: Yes, in the decades that followed the civil rights march, very often construction trade unions, unions where there was a long history of father-to-son union cards, conflicts arose about trying to desegregate workplaces where those unions were representing the workforce.

SUGRUE: Those struggles began the same year as the March on Washington, in 1963. In Philadelphia and other big cities in the North, African-American civil rights activists protested construction sites demanding that they be included in the relatively well-paying, skilled jobs that were providing opportunities for a lot of whites but hardly any blacks.

SIEGEL: I suppose the leading American labor figure today is certainly Rich Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO. But is there anyone who looms quite so large as Walter Reuther did 50 years ago?

SUGRUE: I don't think so. I mean, Reuther was pretty much a household name at the peak of the automobile workers. He's someone who had the ear of the White House. He could get called back by President Kennedy or President Johnson at a moments notice.

And that represented, I think, in part, the enormous membership and the enormous economic clout that auto workers had in what was arguably the nation's most important industry at that period.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Sugrue, thank you very much for talking with us today and thanks for the history lesson.

SUGRUE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Professor Thomas Sugrue. He's professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.