You are here

Black History Month: Ernest Thompson, UE Pioneer in Fighting Racism

13 February, 2015

During his years as a local union officer and as a UE organizer, union members nicknamed Ernest Thompson “The Train” because of his ability “to deliver” in negotiations. In 1943 Thompson came out of his shop, American Radiator in New Jersey, to become the first African American organizer on the UE staff. In March of 1947 he took a leave from the national staff to become business agent for UE Local 427, and he was elected vice president and later executive secretary of the Hudson County CIO Industrial Union Council. In July 1950 Thompson returned to the UE staff after being named secretary of UE’s national Fair Practices Committee, an initiative to fight racial and sex discrimination in UE shops.

UE was founded in 1936 – many years before the birth of the modern civil rights movement, in a time when respect for the rights of African Americans was at a low ebb. But especially in the decade following World War II, UE took the lead in fighting workplace discrimination. What makes that even more impressive is that during those years, UE was also fighting for its own survival.

The decade following World War II was one of the most difficult in UE’s history. A high point for both UE and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), with which UE was affiliated, was the national strike wave in early 1946. Thousands of UE members struck GE and Westinghouse Electric, while autoworker shut down GM and steelworkers struck the basic steel industry. These strikes won major wage increases, but in the aftermath big business resolved never again to be caught on the losing side. GE President Charles Wilson spoke for the country’s industrialists when he declared in October 1946 that the problems of the United States were “Russia abroad, labor at home.” From that point on, the policies of the corporations and the government were increased militarization and confrontation with the Soviet Union and any government alleged to be a Soviet ally; and at home, a concerted effort to weaken and split the labor movement, especially the CIO industrial unions, by enacting anti-union legislation and stirring up hysteria about “domestic subversion,” which could then be directed against the most militant and progressive unions.

The labor unity of the 1946 strikes soon cracked under the stress of the Cold War. An essential element of the domestic Cold War was the joint effort by corporations, government, news media, both political parties, and shamefully, other unions, to destroy UE and a few other progressive unions. Between 1947 and 1949, there were 500 raids – attempts by other unions to replace UE in existing bargaining units. In 1949, when CIO leaders refused to enforce their own rule against CIO unions raiding each other, UE and FE (the Farm Equipment Workers) withdrew from the CIO. The following year the CIO expelled nine other progressive unions. The CIO set up a rival union, called the IUE, with the explicit goal of raiding UE out of existence.

In those years, discrimination against African Americans was still at its worst. The South was firmly in the grip of “Jim Crow” – the system of racial segregation, rampant discrimination, and political disenfranchisement of black citizens imposed since the 1890s. Jim Crow was enforced by an openly racist legal system, as well as the vigilante terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan and lynch mobs. But Jim Crow’s reach extended far north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Open hostility and blatant discrimination against African Americans were the norm rather than the exception across the country.

In the postwar era, the federal government showed little interest in enforcing the constitutional rights of African Americans, and retreated from its limited wartime commitments. In 1941, faced with the threat of a march on Washington organized by black labor leader A. Philip Randoph, President Franklin Roosevelt had signed an executive order prohibiting employment discrimination in defense industries on the basis of race, color, creed or national origin, and established the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to enforce these rules. But under President Harry Truman, FEPC was disbanded, and the federal government played no role in fighting job discrimination.

It’s also significant that at the end of the war, because of the discriminatory hiring practices of the electrical, radio and machine industries where UE had been organized, African Americans made up less than 10 percent of the membership – perhaps less than five percent. So a union in the electrical manufacturing industry attempting to confront racial discrimination in the postwar period needed an internal commitment to racial equality among a membership that was well over 90 percent white, and in the absence of a federal effort to stop job discrimination, needed to develop means to apply political pressure locally.

FIGHT FOR FAIR EMPLOYMENT LAW

A top political priority of UE during this period was to bring back the FEPC by getting Congress to pass a Fair Employment Practices Law, as well as federal laws to restore black voting rights in the South and to make lynching a federal crime. During the 1946 strike at GE and Westinghouse, UE Secretary-Treasurer Julius Emspak wrote to all senators, tying the companies’ rejection of a UE proposal for a non-discrimination contract clause with the need for a permanent FEPC. Emspak wrote, “UE-CIO workers on the picketline in 76 communities in 16 states throughout America support both the principles of a living wage and no discrimination against people by reason of their race, color or religion.”

In 1949 UE gave testimony before the Labor Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. The union presented to Congress the results of a UE survey of employment practices in GE, Westinghouse and Sylvania. Of 11 GE plants surveyed, employing 61,897 workers, only 2.5 percent, or 1,592 employees, were African American, and these were employed “almost invariably in the lowest labor grades as laborers, porters and matrons. Those on production work were usually on the least skilled jobs. Negroes are almost totally excluded from the skilled crafts, salaried groups, and sales and supervisory force.” At Westinghouse, where the company still rejected UE’s demand for a no-discrimination clause, UE examined 12 shops covering 46,250 workers, and found that black employment was only five percent, or 2,488 workers. At six Sylvania plants with 1,905 workers, only seven black workers could be found, all in the lowest labor grades. UE called Sylvania’s abysmal performance “shocking,” given that company president Don Mitchell had recently become chairman of the Greater New York Committee of the United Negro College Fund.

UE FAIR PRACTICES COMMITTEES

At the 1946 convention delegates adopted a resolution calling on each local and district to establish a its own Fair Practices Committee (FPC) “to make the fight against Jim Crow, anti-semitism, and other discriminatory practices which are the weapons of fascism, part of our Union’s day-to-day work.”

In the early postwar period 1946-49, UE’s anti-racism work took the form of UE NEWS articles exposing the evil of hate crimes and segregation, and others promoting interracial solidarity, a permanent federal FEPC, and the struggle for a no-discrimination clause in every contract. But the establishment of national, district and local FPCs enabled the union’s work against racism to go beyond merely educational and legislative efforts. Increasingly, UE locals were actively fighting against employers’ discrimination and for the hiring, training and upgrading of African Americans in UE shops.

The union’s national Fair Practices Committee, meeting in January 1948, called for all locals and districts to step up the fight against discrimination through petitions to Congress, while at the same time setting “their own specific goals on the winning of jobs and job promotions for Negro men and women in the shop and the halting of discrimination in hiring, firing and upgrading.”

Meeting in June of 1950, the UE General Executive Board voted to enlarge the UE’s national FPC to include at least one representative from each district, and to assign a full-time secretary to direct the implementation of UE’s Fair Practices program and develop greater black participation in the union, including more black workers in leadership positions. The following month, Ernest Thompson became the full-time secretary of the FPC. 

The UE NEWS reported Thompson frank assessment of the situation, as he presented it to the UE Convention in September 1950:

"After having visited most of the districts in our Union I find that there is discrimination in almost every shop under contract with our Union…There remains a large number of shops that have never hired Negro workers. In some of these shops our Locals have tried to change the picture but have not succeeded.  In a majority of them, however, no real campaign, if any, has been undertaken to change this picture. In most plants where there are Negro workers, they are excluded almost entirely from the machine tool, maintenance and other high skilled jobs.  In the big plants throughout our industry we find that it is almost unwritten law that no Negro workers be admitted to the apprenticeship training courses."

“THE TRAIN” DELIVERS

By December 1950, having Thompson in a full-time assignment of fighting discrimination was beginning to show tangible results. The UE NEWS chronicled the progress. At Euclid Electric in Cleveland, Local 707 won the hiring of 15 African Americans, nine of them women – a first in that plant’s history. At International Harvester the union succeeded in changing the method of upgrading, enabling black workers to successfully bid for jobs they were previously denied. A no-discrimination apprentice training agreement was signed at Ingersoll Steel in Chicago and the first black apprentice had begun training. Soon after, the local got the first African American promoted to a tool room job at Ingersoll. The UE NEWS noted that the local had to overcome the company’s stubborn insistence that the tool room work was “so extremely high-skilled an operation a worker would have to be a veritable superman to handle it – and since Negro workers have less opportunities to acquire such skill…well he just wasn’t the man for the job.”         

In January 1951, the UE NEWS reported that at Johnson Machine, Local 475 had won an upgrade for Kelly Wooley, a black worker, to lathe operator. White union members had taught him how to do the job during their lunch breaks. At Cromwell Silver, the union succeeded in getting Lenny Grant promoted to caster, making him the first African American caster in the hollowware industry.

In June 1951 the UE NEWS featured a full-page spread with photos on training set up by New York Locals 475, 430 and 1227 through Brooklyn Technical High School, for classes in such skills as blueprint reading, machine tool operations, testing and troubleshooting.  The training was set up specifically for “Negro workers, other minority groups and women who have been discriminated against in industry.” The UE NEWS noted that one such class included eight black workers who had never before been able to train for such jobs, and was so successful that an additional class was being organized.

UE made no-discrimination clauses a top bargaining priority, since getting such language into a contract enabled the local union to use the grievance procedure to stop abuses. In their report to the 1954 Convention, the UE officers wrote that 87 percent of UE contracts now contained such clauses – an achievement that placed UE far ahead of the rest of the labor movement.

FIGHTING SEXISM AND RACISM

Starting in 1952, UE districts held conferences on the problems of working women, and in May 1953 UE held the first national conference of this kind, organized by the UE FPC. UE was ahead of its time – and many years ahead of other unions – in fighting for equal pay and equal job opportunities for women workers. But UE also linked its work for women’s rights to the fight against racism, and the women’s conferences paid special attention to the conditions of black women workers, who often suffered more severe discrimination than either white women or black men. Florence Romig, a GE worker from Local 707 in Cleveland, told the 1953 national women’s conference:

"In our shop we fought and won the first Negro woman to be hired by the company. Of course she was put into the cafeteria. Industries like to put Negro people in the lowest graded jobs or the most menial jobs. We indicated that [the hiring] was a good move, but we wanted Negro women on production jobs. Today we have many Negro women in production jobs active in the Local and pitching in to help fight discrimination against all women."

RAIDS, RED-BAITING, RACE-BAITING

Starting in 1946 and continuing into the 1960s, UE was under constant attack from employers, the government, and other unions. UE locals were repeatedly raided by other unions trying to steal our membership. Rival unions appealed for the votes of white workers by attacking UE’s anti-racist record. To UE’s enemies, the fact that our union fought for equality of African Americans was strong evidence that UE was part of a “communist conspiracy.” But those UE locals that had done the most to promote equal opportunity and interracial solidarity were generally in the strongest position to defeat raids.

UE had fought for and won equal job upgrade rights for black workers at the RCA plant in Pulaski, VA in 1949, and used the local NAACP hall for union meetings. But when the IUE showed up attempting to raid the shop, it attacked UE for its association with the NAACP, which one IUE leaflet called, “one of the Commie lines and their program is to make the Negro equal with the white people in the South.” In a raid against UE in Louisville, KY, the IUE asked white workers, “Do you want to be a member of a Union with a Negro man as president?” (The president of UE District 7, Ohio and Kentucky, was African American.)

Despite the intensity of the raids and heavy losses to the union, UE refused to retreat from its progressive program on racial equality. At the 1953 Convention, Delegate Loretta Hopke from Local 161F at Ingersoll Steel called on UE members to stand firm in the face of attacks. At her plant, she said, “Negro and white workers banded together, particularly the white women” in a work stoppage demanding the ouster of the industrial relations man who said openly that he was “going to get rid of all the Negro workers in the plant.”  She added “Now I make this point because our union has been red-baited.  We have been called Communists.  We have been called everything because we take a forward position on Negro rights…(but) if Negroes are not free in this country and do not have equal rights with the white people, we can’t win this fight.”         

Among the workers who started UE in 1936 were many who’d had bad experiences in unions that practiced discrimination, and in some cases completely banned black workers from becoming members. The UE founders made a point of putting a “no-discrimination clause” into the preamble of the UE Constitution, pledging to “form an organization which unites all workers on an industrial basis, and rank and file control, regardless of craft, age, sex, nationality, race, creed or political beliefs...” Since that time, it’s been the responsibility of each generation of UE members to put those words into action.

This article is adapted from a paper researched and written in 2003 by Carol Lambiase, retired UE international representative. An earlier version of this article was published in the UE NEWS in February 2007.

The graphic is a detail from the mural in the Local 506 Union Hall, "A Woman’s Place: A Warrior in the Struggle for International Solidarity; El Lugar de le Mujer: Una Guerrillera en the Lucha para la Solidaridad Internacional." © Juana Alicia, world rights reserved.

Subscribe!

If you like what you read, please consider subscribing to the UE NEWS — for as little as $5/year you can support great labor journalism and receive the print edition of the UE NEWS four times per year.

You can also sign up to receive monthly UE NEWS Bulletins via email, or follow UE on Facebook or Twitter.