As this Labor Day winds down, let’s not forget what it means for us. I took some time to understand the significance of this holiday as it pertains to my Black culture and here’s a brief history lesson of what I learned:
Shortly after the Civil War, George M. Pullman, owner of luxury railroad sleeping cars in Chicago, began hiring Black men to serve his white passengers. These men, some former slaves, were known as Pullman porters.
In the mid-1890s, the American Railway Union was organized and the Pullman Strike led to a labor movement. Since the porters were not allowed to join the union, they did not reap the benefits of higher wages and job security. They worked longer hours and were subjected to harsher treatment than the white employees. Although they were underpaid and overworked, porters still made more money than other Black field laborers, making it the most coveted sought-after job. And and by the 1900s, the Pulman company became the largest single employer of Black men in the country, partly due to the fact that there weren't many other businesses that would hire them.
In 1925, social activist A. Philip Randolph organized the first all-black union known as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), aimed to improve the working conditions and treatment of Pullman’s Black employees. More than a decade later, the BSCP were able to secure their first collective bargaining agreement that included higher wages and a limit of 240 working hours a month instead of the 400 plus hours that many endured. It is said that this union was instrumental in the advancement of the Civil Rights Movement.
Let's recognize and honor the Porters for their contributions and achievements. It was their superior service that opened doors for other Black men and women to work in hotels, restaurants, and what we now refer to as “customer service” jobs! Never mind that today marks the end of summer (unofficially), back to school, and a much needed day of rest. The actual celebration is knowing that our people fought for fair labor, and while we continue to fight for equity in the workplace, remember we stand on their shoulders.