(Excerpt from Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987)
1940 or ‘41
Daniel often paused outside International Harvester gates at the end of his shift to listen to Jack Carpenter, a union organizer from Chicago. Black metal lunch pails in hand, weary men congregated, a few, like Daniel, clustering around Carpenter. Most, though, lurked in the background lest they be identified as opposed to management. The company’s goal was to make as much money as it could, Carpenter said, and it didn’t give a hoot about the workers. By uniting, organizing a union, the workers could unshackle themselves from the absolute control the company had over them.
There was little doubt in the men’s minds that Carpenter was right. Factory laborers had to work six days a week with no paid vacations, no paid holidays, and no benefits. Anyone unfortunate enough to get sick was quickly replaced by someone who was healthy. Conditions at the plant were hazardous, particularly in the foundry, where men worked with molten hot iron, and out on the tracks, where they did back-breaking tasks without the help of machinery. Workers were often severely burned or injured. Sometimes the company hired a new man, and a month later, without giving any reason, fired an employee who had been on the job five years. There was nowhere to go for redress. Wartime production had not yet begun, and the fact that people still desperately needed jobs made them subject to the whims of business.
At first Daniel didn’t approve of unions, but every day, when he got off work, exhausted and covered with grime, he couldn’t help but think that a united work force was the only means to better conditions and better pay.
Daniel: “Here I was, a college graduate with little hope of using my skills or reaching my potential. As long as laborers were afraid to organize, they were powerless. Besides, if I joined the union, what did I have to lose?”
On a Sunday afternoon in late spring, four workers from Harvester met with Carpenter. Three weeks and four meetings later the smoke-filled room was packed, mostly with men but also with a few women. Sitting on kitchen chairs, footstools, and the floor, they strategized into the early morning hours about organizing a local. In this setting a person’s color wasn’t as important as what he or she could contribute to the cause.
The Richmond plant was the first Harvester plant to organize. Aware that if one factory unionized others would follow, the company tried to frighten and isolate leaders.
Calling the strike in ‘41 was risky. The union was new and still unsure how much support it had among the workers. Its representatives spent hours at the negotiation table, trying to reach a contract with management, but couldn’t get anywhere. Finally, on a Tuesday afternoon union leadership informed Harvester that a vote would be taken that night and a strike was inevitable.
(Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987) is the story of an independent white woman, a talented black man, and the times in which these two remarkable people lived. The book is available wherever books are sold.)