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James Haughton on Racism in the House of Labor

As the Civil Rights movement began to dismantle formal racial segregation, African-American union activists such as James Houghton sought to integrate the workplace by challenging racial segregation in industrial unions. Houghton was active in the Negro American Labor Council, founded in 1960, before Cold War fears of communist infiltration disbanded the organization. Frustrated by what he saw as a lack of militancy to combat discrimination within the labor movement, Houghton founded the Harlem Unemployment Center, which later became Harlem Fight Back, to challenge racial discrimination in the skilled building trades. The organization played an important role in creating equal employment opportunity programs, increasing minority hiring at construction sites, and forcing unions to open their membership rolls.

Listen to Audio:

HAUGHTON: In 1959 when I started with the Negro American Labor Council we had great expectations for major advances in labor, in government, in industry at large. And there have been some because of the struggles that have been waged by black working folk, but those struggles have not been sustained because we have not had the organizational capacity to sustain them. The NALC dissolved in 1963. A. Philip Randolph says “Rather,” at the third annual convention in Chicago there were thousands of African American workers from steel, from auto, from mining, construction, transportation, everything. And he said “Rather,” in his eloquent voice, “rather than see the Negro American Labor Council become the dupe of the Communist conspiracy I would move to disestablish the Negro American Labor Council.” We may have had a few communists here and there, but it was really a group of militant black workers who wanted to get on with the business of racism and the American economy.

That early effort has not been duplicated. We have never had a major black workers' organization since that period of time. In 1963 it dissolved, we’ve had small pockets in different communities of organizations like Fightback in Chicago, Detroit, down in North Carolina, here and there. But never the kind of organizational strength that we had in building a major independent black workers organization that could do battle with racism as A. Philip Randolph used to call it, within the house of labor, racism in government, and in industry. And so we have not been able to stay abreast of the struggle. And in this society in which we live if you are not struggling to move forward, then you are going to be moving backwards, which is exactly what we are doing.

The building trades are very strong unions, they control the labor supply, basically. And I know that I have been trying to penetrate that with Black and Latino folk and women folk for forty years and still trying. And as we talk, I know a lot of Black, Latino union members, carpenters, plumbers who still, and there’s a building boom out there now, who still can’t find work. Now it’s the building trades, it would seem to me, as well as the AFL-CIO at large, organized labor at large to speak out for major, massive jobs creation programs to address the burning, critical need for armies of workers, black , Latino, white, women to be brought into the labor market where they could become productive.

Source: Interviewed by Janine Jackson, 1999
Courtesy of Labor at the Crossroads