Race, Class, and Social Movements: Black Worker Struggles in St. Louis, 1930–1973

30, June 2011

Stories of social struggle in the city of St. Louis demonstrate the deep ties between civil rights and labor rights there. The study of history has often discussed the fights of working people for better wages, safer working conditions, and a stronger voice in the workplace as distinct and separate from the fight of African Americans for equality, justice, and civil rights. The truth is these two movements, black freedom and labor, are linked inextricably. To this point, historian Clarence Lang quotes Manning Marable “Most historians fail to observe that the massive efforts waged for desegregation and, to a lesser extent, for Black Power were essentially black worker movements.” In St. Louis, the modern civil rights movement found its genesis in the African American workplace struggles and, into the 1970s, remained tightly tied to the labor movement.

In the 1930s, the great migration brought millions of African Americans from the rural South into northern cities. St. Louis saw its African American population explode from 43,900 in 1910 to 108,770 in 1940. Almost immediately, upon arriving in the city, blacks faced workplace discrimination. Electrical manufacturers such as Wagner Electric hired very few African Americans, and at nut-packing factories African American women faced significant discrepancies in pay and were relegated to the most difficult work.

Unemployed march, Pine Street, during Great Depression. Photograph by Ralph A. Ross, 1931. Missouri History Museum.

Faced with these challenges, workers at the Funston Nut Plant began organizing a union. On April 24, 1933, they presented their demands to the plant’s management: a pay raise, equal pay for white and black workers, and union recognition. When their demands were rebuked they went on strike. With its timing in the midst of the Great Depression the Funston strike drew community support from the large and active Unemployed Councils (UC) as well as the Communist Party (CP). In addition, white women who were active in the UC crossed racial divides to join black workers on the picket line. The strikers also called on churches, families, and local businesses to join them. Historian Rosemary Feurer describes, “Soon ministers as well as husbands and children dotted the picket line.” Through great determination and community support the strikers won their union and their demands for equal pay for African Americans, and in doing so inspired a generation of activists like William Sentner of the United Electric Workers (UE) in St. Louis to link community and workplace struggles.

In 1942, it was William Sentner of the UE who sounded the alarm that the U.S. Cartridge Company was discriminating against black workers, 600 of whom had become members of his union. In June 1942, 150 black porters were laid off while the company continued to hire up to 1,000 new employees. The black workers under the leadership of Hershel Walker called on the March on Washington Movement. When World War II broke out, A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, launched the March on Washington Movement, which sought fair employment for African Americans in war industries. The MOWM in St. Louis, under the leadership of Theodore D. McNeal and others, became one of the largest and most active chapters in the nation. Together the workers and the MOWM began plans to march on the local plant. On June 20, 1942, they did just that, forcing U.S. Cartridge to hire blacks equally.

With the end of WWII and when no March on Washington materialized, the MOWM suffered. The decline coincided with a growth in membership for the NAACP. Many of these new members hailed from unions. In 1955, Ernest “Cab” Calloway was elected president of that organization. He was also vice president of the International Teamsters Union Local 688. Calloway followed in the footsteps of the MOWM founder Randolph. In fact, Calloway had befriended Randolph while working with the United Transport Service Employees on a taxi driver strike in Chicago. As someone who worked in both the labor and the civil rights movements, he is the embodiment of how the two movements are linked. His work helped to end discriminatory hiring by white-owned taxicab companies and persuaded Coca-Cola to hire its first African American driver-salesman. The NAACP also gained powerful leadership from Ora Lee Malone, a union organizer for the city’s garment industry; T. D. McNeal, former leader of the MOWM; Fannie Pitts from Dining Car Employees Local 354; and Herbert Taylor of the National Alliance of Postal Employees.

Ernest "Cab" Calloway talking to striking city workers, date unknown. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri–Research Center, St. Louis.

By the 1960s, trade unionists like Calloway had come into conflict over tactics with more militant leaders like Percy Green. The older leaders saw mass demonstration as a tactical tool to bring companies to the negotiating table, while younger leaders saw them selves as “crusaders.” This changing of the guard did not indicate a deviation from focusing on labor issues in the civil rights movement. Instead, they continued to strive for the same goals, but in a more direct and militant way. In 1963, when CORE and the NAACP united to boycott Jefferson Bank for refusing to hire blacks, many young activists directly challenged the law by ignoring No Trespassing signs and refusing to heed police orders. This resulted in over 30 arrests, but also drew attention and larger support to the cause.

By the 1970s, things had come full circle. While labor continued to provide strength for the civil rights movement, now civil rights activists provided support for bread and butter labor fights. In 1973, when St. Louis City teachers walked out in the first teachers’ strike in the city’s history, many of the 4,000 striking teachers had cut their activist teeth in the civil rights movement, gaining support and encouragement from not only the city’s labor organizations, but from civil rights groups like ACTION and CORE.

While labor leaders provided great leadership and support for the growing civil rights movement, it is important to remember that the relationship between labor and black freedom was far from one dimensional. Unions were often tools of racial discrimination and black trade unionists often had to act outside of traditional labor networks sometimes depending on the help of the Communist Party, but more often forming their own organizations like the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and the March on Washington Movement.

The fact remains that the issues at the core of the civil rights movement in St. Louis were fundamentally labor issues, tying the two movements together. Exploring these ties adds depth to the way we view social movements, race, and unions in St. Louis and the United States. It is essential as we move forward in our study of the past that we are aware of this intricate link and use it to deepen our understanding of our collective legacy as St. Louisans.

—Daniel Gonzales, Special Projects Researcher