Racial Discrimination in America’s Construction Trade Unions

Written by Elizabeth Owens

As part of the University of Manchester’s History and American Studies degree, second year students are trained to make use of the rich archival collections held around the city relating to the history of the United States. Students work with collections held at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre, John Rylands Research Institute and Library, the Working Class Movement Library and the People’s History Museum, and are shown how to request, use, and interpret such sources in the context of the programme’s revamped module, AMER2002: US History Long Essay.

This blog post provides an overview of Elizabeth’s research.

In the mid-1960s American labour organizations were among the most prominent supporters of US civil rights groups and legislation. Even Martin Luther King, Jr said in 1967 that labour and civil rights were two of the most ‘dynamic and cohesive liberal forces in the country.’ Yet, despite the advancement of civil rights during this period, including passage of the major Civil Rights Act (1964) that banned discrimination in public facilities and employment, inequality in America’s construction industries persisted.

The US’s largest labour organisation, the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations), had been a steady ally of the civil rights movement. Yet, as many came to recognize, there were several examples of the AFL-CIO’s failure to correct its affiliates’ entrenched discriminatory practises. Union membership was particularly crucial for construction workers because unlike some other industries contractors relied upon them to supply workers and carry out many duties such as “training, hiring and firing” due to the nature of the work. If black trade workers were excluded from construction unions, it was very difficult for them to find work within those industries.

Typed press release from the AFL-CIO. The page is typed and features the AFL-CIO header and logo at the top.
Newsletter, ‘News from the AFL-CIO’, 13 Feb 1967, US Civil Rights Archive, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre, GB3228.48/01/01

A collection of 12 AFL-CIO monthly newsletters held at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre, helps to shine light on these tensions. The newsletters, which run from 1967 until 1969, detail the aims of this major union in assisting civil rights groups, and in tackling discrimination within affiliated unions. They show the depth of commitment AFL-CIO’S president, George Meany, publicly made to bringing about equal employment and working conditions for all. 

Image of the first page of a typed letter produced by the AFL-CIO
Circular letter by Don Slaiman (head of AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department) regarding ‘Apprenticeship Outreach Programs’ report, 16 Oct 1967. US Civil Rights Archive, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre, GB3228.48/01/05

America’s craft trade unions often blamed the lack of high school education among African Americans as the reason many were rejected. Yet even those African Americans who had obtained a high school diploma and possessed the necessary skills for the trade, were often rejected due to widespread prejudices. A significant step towards addressing this was the introduction of an apprenticeship programme in 1967, which intended to increase the number of minorities in skilled trades. Over a period of two years, the program led to an increase in New York City of 250 apprentices working as ‘electricians, iron workers, plumbers, bricklayers etc’, and double that figure in Washington DC.

Image of the first page of a typed report.
Report ‘AFL-CIO Apprenticeship Outreach Programs’ produced by AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department, Oct 1967. US Civil Rights Archive, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre, GB3228.48/01/03

While its clear from the archival reports that the AFL-CIO was in support of civil rights, these sources also hint at a shift in the organization’s outlook following on from the rise of Black Power. After the urban rebellions of 1965-67, for example, the AFL-CIO condemned the actions of several Black Power groups. However, one could conclude that such forms of protest would not have been required if national organisations, such as the AFL-CIO, had undertaken more sustained action earlier to improve access to well-paying employment. By 1967, many Black Power activists believed that becoming self-reliant and introducing Black controlled unions was the only way to ensure that minority construction workers gained employment. The AFL-CIO reports imply that while the organization was vocal against discrimination, their actions did not always go far enough and were limited in transforming America’s workplaces at this key moment.  


Images courtesy of The University of Manchester.

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