On Aug. 25, 1925, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids held its first large meeting and elected labor and civil rights activist, A. Philip Randolph, to lead the group. And they did so despite threats from the Pullman Company's refusal to bargain with members and threats to fire them.
In the 1920s, Pullman porters were often the envy of the Black labor force because their work was steady and they got to travel around the country. In the negative column, they worked extraordinarily long hours essentially as servants to white passengers, and had to use their meager wages to pay for food, lodging and uniforms and other supplies. Tips were vitally important to their ability to earn a decent income.
"What this is about is making you master of your economic fate," Randolph said, vowing to push for a minimum monthly wage of $150 and a limit of 240 hours, nearly half of the 400 hours they were putting in each month.
His task was not easy. The fear of ending up in an unemployment line made it difficult to attract members. More important, the Pullman Company was a fierce and powerful opponent, and used donations to Black churches, YMCAs and other organizations to keep porters and maids reluctant to join the union.
But Randolph, who believed that “the time had passed when a grown up Black man should beg a grown up white man for anything," was even more determined, never giving up the fight.
In 1935, federal law changed, enabling the Brotherhood to become certified to represent the porters and the American Federation of Labor also fully recognized the group. In 1937, it signed its first collective bargaining agreement with the Pullman Company, earning pay increases, a shorter workweek and overtime pay.
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