By A. Philip Randolph
Vol. 1, No. 9, 1979, pp. 4, 23
Editor’s Note: Southern Changes dedicates this issue to A. Philip Randolph who died May 16, 1979, at the age of 90 after 70 years in the trade union movement. For many years he was head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and later president of the Negro American Labor Council. He was also the first Black vice-president of the AFL-CIO. The message carried here was delivered April 15 on the occasion of his 90th birthday and conveys his convictions and feelings concerning the trade union movement.
I am happy to have this opportunity to address my brothers and sisters as I celebrate another birthday, this one being my 90th.
For most people, birthdays offer an opportunity for careful personal reflection. They are a time for taking stock, a time for evaluating the course of events. Now, as I mark the beginning of my 91st year, I wish to make a few brief comments about the difficult challenges confronting Black people and all American workers.
In many important respects, today’s challenges bear a striking similarity to the problems we have grappled with for decades. Essentially, they are problems of economics and problems of politics. And, most important, they are problems which cannot be solved in isolation from the overall society.
Consider for a moment the plight of our Black youngsters. Throughout the nation, thousands upon thousands of Black teenagers and young adults have no opportunity of obtaining decent employment. They are forced to waste their talents, to waste their youthful enthusiasm, indeed, to waste their lives. To make matters worse, some political leaders dismiss this scandal as a necessity, a permanent feature of our economic system.
Consider also the condition of low-wage workers throughout the so-called Sunbelt, and throughout America’s great urban centers. Amid affluence and newfound wealth, thousands of workers Black as well as White – receive subsistence wages. And because so few have the protections of a union contract, they have no job security, no fringe benefits, and no rights in the workplace.
And consider the new political atmosphere in America, an atmosphere best characterized by crude conservatism and social defeatism. From every corner of the land, we hear demands for cuts in school budgets, social security payments, health care, and jobs for the unemployed. And we hear inflation blamed on the moderate wages of workers and the dismally low wages of those people forced to accept the minimum wage. Workers and poor people, the true victims of inflation, are everywhere scolded for their so-called excesses.
In my view, we have one reliable and steadfast ally – the trade union movement. And I make this statement based on 70 years of experience in the civil rights and labor movements.
Why the trade unions? The answer, I believe, is quite simple: The vast majority of Black people are workers, and the trade union movement, even with all its imperfections and failings, is the most effective, and most powerful defender of the interests of all American workers, Black as well as white.
At this very moment, for example, organized labor is spearheading the attack against the Administration’s so-called austerity budget. It is the trade union movement that has fought to preserve the minimum wage, and to keep the CETA jobs program intact. And it is the trade union movement that has mounted a major effort to organize low-paid and exploited workers throughout the South.
In the area of organizing, I hasten to call your attention to three crucially important campaigns, campaigns which hold special significance for Black workers. First, there is the ongoing strike by thousands of workers at the Newport News shipyard in Virginia. These workers, members of the Steelworkers, were forced to strike by a company which refuses to recognize their right to join a union and negotiate for better wages and working conditions. As the company cleverly evades the real issues by filing appeal after appeal with the courts, the workers at Newport News continue to suffer.
Similarly, J.P. Stevens & Co. and the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain continue to block their employees from freely organizing
into unions. The injustices at these two companies are well known. Thus, I urge you to support the boycott of all J.P. Stevens products.
In addition to taking an active interest in the struggles of Black workers, we must also intensify our activity in the political arena. Last November, for instance, Black people in Missouri and Philadelphia dramatically demonstrated the power of the united Black vote. In Missouri, Black voters overwhelmingly opposed an anti-labor question on the ballot; and in Philadelphia, Blacks united together in opposing a proposed change in the city charter. Yet despite these two impressive examples, Black voters throughout the country seem to be withdrawing from politics.
We and our children, we and our grandchildren, cannot afford to abandon the fight. We must continue, indeed we must strengthen our political position by registering and voting in even greater numbers than ever before. Our participation in the upcoming political battles will, to a very large extent, determine the outcome of our long years of dedication and sacrifice. You, brothers and sisters, will make the difference between ultimate victory or bitter defeat. Please, join the good fight.