The Evolution and History of the Union
American Railroad Travel Begins
The railroad sleeping car was developed during the industrial revolution. Within a few years, its success created huge increases in the transportation industry. This national need for labor provided free African-Americans with new employment opportunities in a new industry. The passenger railroad industry provided national travel for people even before the invention of the automobile and construction of the national highway system, and the advent of commercial air flight. The Pullman Palace Car Company built, owned, and operated the majority of the passenger trains during this era. These luxurious trains were known as “hotels on wheels” because passengers could amuse themselves with social activities and conversation in the lounge cars, eat meals in the dining cars, and rest comfortably overnight in the sleeping cars. Train travel was truly revolutionary because it allowed the common person a higher level of personal freedom and traveling comfort than ever before in history.
Ambassadors of Hospitality
During the heyday of railroad travel, the Pullman Porters were the workers aboard the trains. They provided service to and attended to the needs of the passengers. In the beginning, the Pullman Company hired only African-American men for the job of porter. The Pullman Porters and the excellent service they provided were integral and indispensable to the rise and success of the passenger railroad industry.
Service not Servitude
During the century spanning the years 1868-1968, the African-American railroad attendant’s presence on the train became a tradition within the American scene. By the 1920s, a peak decade for the railroads, 20,224 African-Americans were working as Pullman Porters and train personnel. At that time, this was the largest category of black labor in the United States and Canada.
Founding of the Union
American Labor History
The Pullman Porters organized and founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925. The BSCP was the very first African-American labor union to sign a collective bargaining agreement with a major U.S. corporation. A. Philip Randolph was the determined, dedicated, and articulate president of this union who fought to improve the working conditions and pay for the Pullman Porters.
The porters had tried to organize since the beginning of the century. The wages and working conditions were below average for decades. For example, the porters were required to work 400 hours per month or 11,000 miles—whichever occurred first to receive full pay. Porters depended on the passengers’ tips in order to earn a decent level of pay. Typically, the porters’ tips were more than their monthly salary earned from the Pullman Company. After many years of suffering these types of conditions, the porters united with A. Philip Randolph as their leader. Finally, having endured threats from the Pullman Company such as job loss and harassment, the BSCP forced the company to the bargaining table. On August 25, 1937, after 12 years of battle, the BSCP was recognized as the official union of the Pullman Porters.
Protected by the union, the job of a Pullman Porter was one of economic stability and held high social prestige in the African-American community. A. Philip Randolph utilized the power of the labor union and the unity that it represented to demand significant social changes for African-Americans nationally. The museum’s exhibits tell the story of the power of unity, leadership, action, organization, and determination. This story is one of ordinary men who did extraordinary things. A. Philip Randolph and the members of the BSCP understood the power of collective work and community involvement. They improved the quality of life for themselves and made sure that their efforts improved the lives of those who were to follow. They worked together to fight many battles and they won many victories for African-American people. They demonstrated and personified the meaning of the word brotherhood. These African-American men were American heroes.