A cruelly missed opportunity
Black and white workers after the Civil War
volume 38
issue 3
June 2017

What follows is an excerpt from the section called “The blacks and the labor movement” from the book 100 Years of Labor in the USA by Daniel Guérin, first published in Paris in 1976. The section is itself taken from a longer treatment of the subject in Guérin’s Negroes on the March. In Guérin’s words there is much to take to heart today.

100 Years of Labor will be one of the texts used in a series of labor history seminars starting in Seattle on June 5 (see branch calendar here). The series will be launched in other Freedom Socialist Party branch cities later in the year.

The time has come to analyze, in terms of the United States as a whole, the antagonism which has existed between white workers and black workers for as long as some men there have sold their labor power to others.

As early as the beginning of the 19th century, emancipated Blacks flocked into big cities like New York and Philadelphia, putting up with the lowest wages and competing with unskilled white workers for jobs. The result was race war. There was an increasing number of brawls. In Cincinnati, in 1829, a white mob injured and killed freedmen and runaway slaves. In Philadelphia there was a series of racial conflicts between 1828 and 1840. The one in 1834 assumed the proportions of a pitched battle and lasted three days. This was repeated in 1835, 1838 and 1842.

The white workers used every means to limit or prevent the employment of Blacks. At the same time they showed little inclination to support the abolition of slavery, for fear that such an event would substantially increase the number of black workers. The behavior of the abolitionists did nothing to help dispel this distrust. They had little sympathy for the workers and condemned the nascent class struggle between capital and labor. William Lloyd Garrison, speaking at a workers’ meeting in Boston at around the time the first issues of his newspaper, The Liberator, were being published in January 1831, denounced the labor movement as an organized conspiracy to “inflame the minds of our working classes against the more opulent.” According to him, the unions were “in the highest degree criminal.”

The workers were angry to see the abolitionists “ ‘stretch their ears to hear the sound of the lash on the back of the oppressed black,’ at the same time as they were deaf to the cries of the oppressed wage workers in the North.” [A quote from Black Reconstruction by W.E.B. Du Bois.] The defense of the wage earners seemed to them to be more important than the emancipation of the slaves and they feared that a campaign centered mainly around abolition would divert attention from their own condition. “The primary cause of slavery,” they affirmed, “lies in the very state of industry; it was a matter of changing that before anything else.”

Thus, from the beginning, the movement for racial emancipation and the movement for social emancipation took divergent paths. “The abolitionists,” wrote Du Bois, “did not perceive the new subordination to which the worker was subjected by organized capital, whilst the workers did not understand that the exclusion from the working-class program of four million workers was a fatal omission.” And yet, notes the author of Black Reconstruction, unity between the two movements would have made them “irresistible.” “They exhibited fundamental differences instead of becoming the single big party of free labor and free land.” These were irrevocable choices, which were to pit the black and white victims of exploitation against each other for generations.

… As the International Workingmen’s Association stressed, in an address bearing Karl Marx’s signature, the War of Secession had had “as its immediate result a deterioration in the condition of the American worker.” While Big Business had made fabulous profits from it, inflation had increased the workers’ suffering. However, the war had “offered a compensation in the emancipation of the slaves and the impulse thus given” to the workers’ class struggle. There was hardly any response from the labor movement to this appeal for proletarian internationalism. With a few rare exceptions, it failed to grasp the revolutionary content and significance of Reconstruction.

More labor stories in this issue:

Time for unity: Labor defense critical for immigrant workers

Labor Weather Report: A glance at how some workers and their unions are faring in the class struggle.

Pay equity: back-to-back wins for female athletes