1892 New Orleans General Strike

White and black dockworkers rest on cotton bales. The general strike was success

An extract from Life in the Teamsters: The Civil Rights Movement documenting an early example of class solidarity in the segregationist southern USA.

In the half century after the Civil War, the port of New Orleans was
the place where white and black workers toiled in the closest proximity.
It was on these docks that teamsters—before and after there was a
Teamsters Union—faced their first test of their commitment to the
principles of racial justice and equal economic opportunity. From 1892
to the early 1920s, the Teamsters and other workers on the New
Orleans riverfront passed that test.

The fight was a difficult one that defied Southern convention. The
white South overwhelmingly opposed the abolition of slavery and spent
the decades after the Civil War trying to re-create a work force that resembled
the slave/master relationship as closely as possible. These efforts
included denial of civil rights and civil liberties, terrorist campaigns by
white supremacist organizations, fiercely enforced segregation and convict
leasing all strongly opposed by the Teamsters Union. As the years
wore on, state legislatures enacted increasingly strict laws denying black
workers the economic freedom to work at their chosen occupation. Laws
primarily in the South denied black workers access to apprenticeship programs,
and tried to restrict the type of work they could do. Schools were
segregated and then funding was reduced for black-only schools.
Sheriffs enforced these and other “race laws” vigorously. In fact, sheriffs
and judges profited from these laws as they leased convicts to corporations
and plantation owners and pocketed the proceeds. Many sheriffs
and judges, or their families, leased the convicts themselves and that
meant that the number of arrests increased significantly at harvest time.
Since arrest meant automatic conviction and fine, new convicts easily
remedied any labor shortage.

The white community also enforced the laws and social mores when
regular authority appeared inadequate. In 1892, more than 250 blacks
were lynched.1 Despite the increasingly hostile racial environment, it
was in 1892 that black and white workers stood together on the docks
of New Orleans and in the general strike that supported those workers.

The Triple Alliance

During the summer of 1892, black and white workers organized many
new AFL local unions. The local labor federation, the Workingmen’s
Amalgamated Council, included 49 AFL local unions. The Council met
in integrated sessions. Among the new unions were the Round Freight
Teamsters and Loaders Union, the Scalesmen’s Union and the
Warehousemen and Packers’ Protective Union, all of whom worked on
the docks that did not handle cotton. While each union included black
workers, the overwhelming majority of black workers were teamsters.
The three unions created the Triple Alliance to negotiate a contract with
the Board of Trade—the employers’ organization.

The Triple Alliance demanded a preferential union shop, a 10-hour
day and overtime pay. The key demand was the preferential union shop
that required employers to hire union members and allowed nonunion
workers to be hired only if the union could not supply a sufficient number
of workers. The Board of Trade flatly rejected the union demands
and on October 24, 1892, members of the Triple Alliance went on strike.
The president of the Workingmen’s Amalgamated Council
announced the same day that if a settlement were not reached quickly
the unions of the Council would strike. The Board of Trade responded
to this pledge of solidarity between the races by saying that an agreement
was possible with white-dominated Packers and Scalesmen.

However, an agreement with the Teamsters was impossible because the
Board refused to “enter into any agreement with niggers.”2 The Board of
Trade also claimed that the Triple Alliance threatened to put employers
and control of the docks under “a Big Black Negro.”

The Triple Alliance rejected the racist appeal of the Board of Trade
and confirmed their solidarity. The Alliance withstood media appeals to
racial rather than class solidarity. The New Orleans Times-Democrat
accused white unionists of being “under the dominance of
Senegambian (African influence) or being “willing tools to carry out
Senegambian schemes.” The same paper, in the midst of calm and the
lack of racial conflict during the strike, claimed that “brutal” black strikers—“
a mob”—were parading about New Orleans “beating up all who
attempted to interfere with them.”3

Not only did the Triple Alliance reject these racist appeals, the
Workingmen’s Amalgamated Council did as well. At union meeting
after union meeting, the rank and file demanded a general strike in support
of the Triple Alliance. The threat of a general strike convinced the
Board of Trade to negotiate. The bargaining collapsed almost immediately
as the Board refused to discuss the preferential union shop. In
response, the workers and unions of New Orleans went on a general
strike on November 8, 1892.

Racial Tension Builds

The newspapers responded to the workers’ promise to “tie the town up”
with more racist threats. Claiming that the strike would allow blacks to
take over the city, the papers claimed that the purity of white Southern
womanhood had been threatened, as “there were instances where ladies
and school children had been insulted by blacks.” Workers continued to
reject the appeals to maintain white supremacy. One union official
wrote to AFL president Samuel Gompers that the workers had “cemented
the Bonds of Brotherhood and Fraternal ties that will stand before
the world as an everlasting monument of strength and that [the AFL]
stands pre-eminently at the head of the human Race.”4

While the press and its employer allies failed to crack the workers’ solidarity,
they were successful in encouraging Governor Murphy Foster to call
out 5,000 state militia troops. To the governor’s embarrassment, the strike had been and continued to be so orderly that he was forced to withdraw the troops from the city. The force remained outside the city as a reminder to the workers of the willingness of the state to use force to settle the strike.
The failure of the racist appeals and the removal of the troops forced
the Board of Trade back to the bargaining table.

The threat of the state militia also forced the Workingmen’s Amalgamated Council to call off the
general strike. Despite the employers’ promise to never “enter any agreement
with niggers,” the two sides sat down to negotiate. One side, the
employers, was all white, and the other side, the unions, was integrated.
After brief negotiations, the Triple Alliance and the Board of Trade
reached an agreement. The union won a wage increase, overtime pay,
and a ten-hour day. The Board of Trade refused to concede a preferential
union shop. The failure to win union recognition turned out to be
a critical defeat. For the moment, however, solidarity between white and
black workers had won a significant victory. In a period marked by
increasing racism, use of white supremacy in the South and horrible
racial violence, workers had rejected those influences. In addition, the
Triple Alliance won a rare victory in 1892 as steelworkers in Homestead,
Pennsylvania, miners in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and switchmen in
Buffalo, New York, all suffered defeat.

Racial unity on the New Orleans docks collapsed in the economic
depression that began in 1893. Race riots broke out in 1894 and 1895 as
white workers tried to oust black workers from all waterfront work.
Employers used the heightened racial tension to pit black and white
workers against each other in a bidding war that began to drive wages
down on the New Orleans docks. After a series of attacks by white union
members against black workers, some who were union and some who
were not, Governor Foster called out the state militia ending the riots.
Shortly after the troops had withdrawn, white unionists admitted defeat
and returned to work at less than union scale. Racial unity had suffered a
serious defeat as whites and blacks worked on the docks but only in segregated
work groups in segregated unions.

Separate But Equal

In 1896, a year after the waterfront race riots, the United States Supreme
Court ruled that segregation and the fiercest racial discrimination was
constitutional. In Plessy v. Ferguson, the court ruled that “separate but
equal” accommodations were legal.5 Officially, the Supreme Court ruled
that the fate of Southern blacks was now in the hands of white supremacists
and the federal government would not intervene. Two years later, the
Court put the nail in the coffin of justice under the law when it ruled that
Mississippi’s denial of the right of black men to vote was constitutional.
With the consent of the Supreme Court, state governments and private
citizens across the South rapidly accelerated the denial of rights.
Thousands of black men and women, often convicted of being unable
to prove that they were employed, ended up being bought and sentenced
to work for a private employer until the employer regarded the
debt repaid. In Alabama, state law prohibited a black worker from leaving
his job without the permission of his employer. Laws across the
South barred black workers from apprenticeship programs, prohibited
agricultural workers from leaving the industry and made unemployment
(vagrancy was the charge) illegal. The guilty party would be fined.
If unable to pay the fine, a farmer or corporate employment agent
would pay the fine and the workers would then be under contract in the
convict-leasing program. Finally, by 1901, blacks in the South were
stripped of the right to vote leaving them utterly unable to protest the
growing return of near slave-like conditions.6

The 1890s began decades of rapid decline in the economic, political, and
social status of Southern blacks. In 1890, there had been more black teamsters
than white teamsters in the South. According to William Harris, by “1900,
there are 6,044 fewer” black teamsters than white. “In 1900,” Harris continues,
“83.6 percent of all blacks were employed as agricultural laborers, farmers,
planters, overseers, unspecified laborers, servants and waiters, and launderers
and laundresses. … And by the end of the decade, white workers were
trying to remove blacks from even those few positions they had attained.”7
In New Orleans, the lack of opportunity for black workers to work in
skilled jobs was reflected in the rejuvenated labor movement. The
American Federation of Labor and its affiliates had committed themselves
to organizing by craft. This strategy succeeded dramatically
between 1897 and 1904 as national AFL membership increased by 1.5
million members. New Orleans craft unions were part of this resurgent
labor movement and by 1899 had sufficient local membership to ask the
AFL to charter its new Central Trades and Labor Council. In a reflection
of the times, the new Council admitted white-only AFL affiliates.

Promoting Solidarity

Rather than accept this affront to solidarity, black workers in New
Orleans, led by the black longshoremen and black teamsters on the docks,
continued to organize. By 1902, there were an estimated 4,000 black
unionists in New Orleans and by 1904 the United Mine Workers Journal
reported more than 11,000 members in nineteen black unions. These
11,000 union members were affiliated with a black-only Central Labor
Union that had been formed in 1899 shortly after the all-white Central
Labor and Trades Council was formed. Over the objections of white
unionists, the AFL chartered the Central Labor Union in June 1901.

The strength of the black unions, especially on the waterfront, forced biracial
cooperation. Shortly after the Central Labor Union began functioning
as a chartered AFL local labor federation, black and white waterfront
unions established the Dock and Cotton Council. The black teamsters and
loaders and the black coal wheelers joined the segregated unions of cotton
screwsman, (workers who crammed bales of cotton into the holds of
ships), yardmen and longshoremen. It was a rare organization in the era of
radical segregation. Black and white delegates met together, black and white
officers co-chaired meetings and negotiated with employers. Because each
could do the work of the other, the black and white unions negotiated and
enforced work-sharing agreements. This remarkable solidarity was limited
outside of work. Life in New Orleans was highly segregated.

The Teamsters opted for an inclusive union while the AFL reluctantly
chose to accept Southern segregation by accepting black workers in segregated
locals and chartering segregated local labor councils. In fact, many
AFL affiliates chose to embrace segregation. The Machinists’ Union explicitly
excluded black workers. Locals of other unions refused to accept black
members of their craft. When the AFL proposed to hire a black organizer
in St. Louis, the city’s Trades and Labor Council refused to endorse the
appointment and the AFL withdrew.8 As late as 1930, at least twenty-two
AFL unions explicitly excluded black members.

__________________________________________________________

Endnotes
1. Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans
from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Doubleday, 2008), p. 106.
2. Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States: From the Founding of
the A. F. of L. to the Emergence of American Imperialism, (New York: International
Publishers, 1955, 1980), p. 200.
3. Ibid. p. 201.
4. Ibid. p. 202.
5. Homer Plessy had been jailed for sitting in the “White” car of the East Louisiana Railroad.
He argued that Louisiana’s Separate car Act denied his right under the Fourteenth
Amendment to the United States’ Constitution. The Amendment guaranteed all citizens
equal protection under the law. The Supreme Court disagreed and issued its “separate but
equal decision” that said segregation was legal as long as the accommodations were equal.
6. Blackmon, pp. 120–22.
7. William Harris, The Harder We Run: Black Workers Since the Civil War (New York: Oxford
University Press), p. 39.
8. Philip Taft, The A. F. of L. in the Time of Gompers (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957),
pp. 312–13.

Posted By

Reddebrek
Feb 17 2019 13:28

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  • The Triple Alliance rejected the racist appeal of the Board of Trade and confirmed their solidarity. The Alliance withstood media appeals to racial rather than class solidarity.

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