Labor Day is a highly anticipated holiday across the nation, and a time where many working families take a day to relax and reflect. The holiday, established in 1887, was to honor the American Labor Movement. Unions and labor organizing is a hallmark of the American landscape, and African-American unions began to flourish in the 1800s.
In 1869, the all-white National Labor Union (NLU) realized that its efforts to protect the rights of workers should be applied to all regardless of race. The group invited a handful of Black ship workers from Baltimore to attend its national conference that year, with Isaac Myers and others among that group. Myers, a native of Baltimore and a ship caulker by trade, created the Colored Caulkers Trade Union Society.
Under his leadership, other Black ship workers began to organize which caught the attention of the NLU. During the NLU’s conference, Myers was named the president of the Colored National Labor Union (CNLU) and was effective in negotiating fair wages and other benefits for members. However, the union would fizzle in 1871. Although A. Philip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters is known as the first Black union to be recognized by a national body in 1925, many point to Myers’ union as the true first Black union.
The Knights Of Labor, the largest and most effective labor union of its time, formed in 1869. Perhaps inspired by NLU’s inclusion of Black workers, it opened its union doors to Black and women workers. This move was unheard of at the time, and it became a powerful force in the labor movement. Yet, the Knights were not organized and the group eventually faded by the 1890s.
Scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois noted in several writings that national labor unions were excluding qualified workers unfairly and often spoke out against the divisive practice.
Today, there are several national union groups that work within the African-American community and even assist in important campaigns such as voter registration, education reform, health laws and other causes that effect all.