When the media noted the Aug. 15, 2012, death, at age 107, of Benjamin Isaacs, America’s oldest Pullman server, a spotlight was also trained on the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African-American labor union to win bargaining rights from a major corporation.
Isaacs, blind at his death, died of kidney failure at his Victorville, Calif., home. A Pullman porter for 32 years, from 1936 to 1968, Isaacs served thousands of passengers who ate and slept aboard the sleek, overnight trains that crisscrossed the nation before airplanes offered much faster alternatives.
The BSCP — the union, established in 1925 by A. Philip Randolph and Ashley Totten, that represented men like Isaacs — was the staircase leading to social and political liberation for its members. At its peak the union, the biggest ever created by African Americans, boasted more than 7,000 members. In 1978 it merged with the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks.
Led by the humble, soft-spoken, indefatigable Randolph, the union was the first black-led labor organization to win official recognition and a charter by the American Federation of Labor. Randolph’s triumphant leadership gave blacks a groundbreaking voice at the AFL’s negotiation table, where labor’s power brokers plotted strategies on pensions and direct action. Before then, blacks were denied access to all labor organizations.
Randolph, who had a reputation in New York’s Harlem as a principled activist and spellbinding orator, had been approached in 1925 by 10 porters — who lacked any representation — to organize them into a union. Often refused other employment, the men were grossly underpaid, overworked and mistreated.
They were often forced to work up to 20 hours without rest. In addition, in 1926 the Pullman Palace Car Co. was paying porters only $810 annually and demanded that they log up to 400 hours a month or 11,000 exhausting miles a year. Despite miserly wages, the porters had to pay for their own meals and uniforms and the polish used to shine passengers’ shoes and boots.
Randolph faced the daunting task of organizing these men, who lived in far-flung cities across the country. But he was determined, despite the Herculean odds and limited funds — and even as the Pullman company threatened porters with dismissal, hired goons to intimidate them for supporting the union and paid prominent blacks to condemn the organizing.
Yet in the end, after a bitter, 10-year struggle, Randolph — with help from other organizers, including Milton Webster in Chicago and C.L. Dellums in Oakland, Calif. — reached the top of labor’s mountain. The BCPS signed its agreement with the AFL on Aug. 25, 1935. All previous black-led efforts to create a union for black rail porters and waiters — including the one spearheaded by Isaac Myers, a founder of the Colored National Labor Union in 1869 — had failed.
Read more: The Root