Service Not Servitude

Service Not Servitude

A. Philip Randolph learned early in life that there was dignity in honest
labor. Therefore, when a small group of sleeping car porters approached him to
help them organize a union, he accepted. Sleeping car porters were black male
employees of the Pullman Company which owned and operated sleeping cars on
overnight railroad passenger routes. The sleeping car service was introduced by
George Pullman in the 1860's. Pullman cars were rolling hotel rooms built in
railroad cars. The service was very popular and profitable. The porters were
unhappy with the Pullman Company and wanted Mr. Randolph to help them organize a
union which would represent their concerns about working conditions and wages.
It was the job of the porters to care for the passenger's travel needs, which
included handling baggage, making beds, and keeping the sleeping cars
clean.  Pullman porters shined shoes and performed other services requested
by passengers for which they were not paid. The porters felt that they were
treated more like servants rather than as employees of the railroad. The men who
worked as porters were paid wages far below the wages of other railroad
employees. Porters had to depend largely upon tips. With a union, it was felt
that working conditions, wages and benefits could be greatly improved. This was
the task Randolph had accepted. Mr. Randolph knew unions had been successfully
organized for other workers. White employees of the railroad had organized and
won wage increases. Randolph felt it was possible for a group of black workers
to do the same. In the summer of 1925, Randolph and the leaders of the New York
branch of Pullman porters met to plan the organization. The group named their
new union the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. On August 25, 1925, in Harlem
"the brotherhood" had its first meeting. At this meeting Randolph announced that
the new union would work for an increase in the minimum wage, a shorter work
week, payment for free services, termination of the Plan of Employee
Representation, "a company controlled union," and company recognition of the
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. This meeting marked the beginning of
one of the most dynamic and successful organizational efforts for the rights of
workers in America. Working together, Randolph and the Pullman porters designed
a campaign which resulted in the Pullman Company signing a contract with them.
The campaign lasted twelve years, from 1925 to 1937. It was a long, tough
campaign, but it was a great and worthwhile victory. During this same period
(1925 - 1937), Randolph organized thousands of black workers, and got them
included under the provisions of the Railway Labor Act of 1926. Randolph
also gained membership in the American Federation of Labor for his
union.

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