Nothing scares the ruling elites more than when working men and women join together and refuse to allow themselves to be divided over petty concepts like race and ethnicity.
The election of Obama to the presidency is merely a milestone in a very long and well-traveled road.
"Never in the history of the world was such an exhibition, where with all the prejudices existing against the black man, when the white wage-earners of New Orleans would sacrifice their means of livelihood to defend and protect their colored fellow workers. With one fell swoop the economic barrier of color was broken down."
- AFL leader Samuel Gompers
The year 1892 saw a rash of violent strikes across America, many of them ending in defeat. The most famous was the bloody Homestead steel strike. Despite popular support in the community, and the willingness of the strikers to engage in gun battles with Pinkerton thugs, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers was crushed.
Around the same time that the Homestead strike was ending, a very different labor drama was being acted out in the deep south.
The Triple Alliance
"The white men and colored men are standing together as solid as the rock of Gibraltar and there is no chance of a break in the ranks."
- E. S. Swan, Black Longshoreman
In 1884 the streetcar drivers of New Orleans won union recognition in a strike that saw small-scale violence. In the spring of 1892, with tough bargaining, they managed to win a 12-hour day and a closed union shop.
This victory inspired many New Orleans workers to form their own unions. By summer there were 30 new labor unions in the city, 49 of them were part of the AFL.
At the time, employment was segregated, with trades and unions either all black or all white.
That's why the Triple Alliance was so astounding.
The Triple Alliance was a combination of the virtually all-white Scalesmen and Packers, and the virtually all-black Teamsters.
Under the direction of a central labor council known as the Workingmen's Amalgamated Council, 2,000 to 3,000 members of the Triple Alliance struck on October 24, 1892. Their demands were a 10-hour day, overtime pay, and a union shop.
The city bosses were horrified. Just one generation after slavery was abolished, working class white men and black men were united!
The capitalists organized themselves as well. The struck employers were joined by the four railroads that entered the city, the bosses of the cotton, rice, mechanics and dealers' exchanges. Under the New Orleans Board of Trade, they organized a massive defense fund and pressed for legal and military action.
The bosses refused to recognize the Workingmen's Amalgamated Council. No negotiations took place during the first week.
The bosses then turned to their most reliable weapon - splitting the whites from the blacks.
They agreed to recognize the white unions, but refused to recognize the all-black Teamsters. The city's newspapers then began whipping up anti-black hysteria. Headlines screamed "Negroes Attack White Men". Lone white women were no longer safe because of the "rampaging Negro strikers."
It certainly seemed like a winning strategy. The deep south at the time was a KKK stronghold. It was incomprehensible that whites would stand alongside blacks under such a well-funded onslaught.
Which is why the bosses must have been shocked when the Scalesmen and Packers replied that they would never return to work unless the bosses signed an agreement with all three members of the Triple Alliance.
Other unions in the city began calling for a general strike. Meetings were held and the solidarity was so strong that a Committee of Five was formed to lead the general strike. They included the Printers, the Boiler Makers, the Car Driver's Union, the Cotton Screwmen's Union, and the Cotton Yardmen's Union.
"The very worst feature seems to be that the white element of the labor organizations appear to be under the dominance of Senegambian influence."
- The New Orleans Times-Democrat
On November 8, 1892, 25,000 workers from 42 union locals from every industry walked off their jobs. New Orleans was paralyzed.
"There is no newspapers to be printed, no gas or electric light in the city, no wagons, no carpenters, painters or in fact any business going on...It is a strike that will go down in history."
- Samuel Gompers
After some negotiation with Mayor John Fitzpatrick, the Amalgamated Council agreed to send the utility workers back to work for the sake of the hospitals and fire departments.
It was the first general strike that the AFL had ever called. It was the first strike in American history to enlist both skilled and unskilled labor.
Every striking local backing the Triple Alliance also demanded union recognition, a closed shop, shorter hours, and wage increases for themselves.
The line in the sand had been drawn.
The Bosses Respond
The New Orleans employers controlled the press and the government. They had allies in northern and western industrialists. They figured they could crush the strike now and for years to come "lest the virus of labor organization infect the Negro and spread to the plantation."
The bosses offered to pay special deputies wages. Yet, in a city of 100,000, the bosses could only find 59 volunteers to scab! The city remained shut down.
The bosses offered to pay for the use of the entire state militia, and the governor agreed. But the militia failed to defrost the frozen city.
The New Orleans Times-Democrat screamed that black workers would "take advantage of the crisis to seize control of the city." Also "ladies and school children had been insulted by blacks."
But the appeals to racism completely failed. Violent incidents never occurred and picket lines were so quite that the Board of Trade couldn't find any evidence of physical intimidation whatsoever. That didn't stop the mayor from declaring martial law.
Mayor John Fitzpatrick
The secretary of the Marine and Stationary Firemen's Union said the black and white strikers were responding to the racism by vowing "to cement the Bonds of Brotherhood and Fraternal ties as an everlasting monument of strength, and show the world at large that in unionism there is strength, and that our order stands pre-eminently at the head of the Human Race."
The bosses had lost.
The Board of Trade agreed to binding arbitration to settle the strike. Reluctantly, they agreed to bargain with both the white and black union leaders. The general strike ended and the militia was withdrawn from the city.
The AFL, despite having the upper hand, caved in on several important conditions, the most important of them was calling off the strike without getting the bosses to recognize all the unions.
After two days of bargaining, the Triple Alliance won the 10-hour day, overtime pay, and adjusted wage schedules. The other unions that participated in the strike won shorter hours, higher wages, and agreements not to discriminate against union members.
However, the AFL failed to win the closed shop that the union members had wanted.
Angered by this humiliation, the Board of Trade sued all 44 unions of the Amalgamated Council for violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. The AFL appealed the ruling, but the district court upheld it.
The corporate world also went to work with re-writing the history of the strike. Even today, most historical accounts of the strike tell us that the strike was "crushed". The New York Times December 12 edition ran the headline: "Labor's Defeat in New Orleans: The Victory of the Employers Complete and Emphatic."
The AFL completely failed to follow up on this victory, and continued to its white, skilled worker only policy until the emergence of the CIO in the 1930's.
Most notably was that the Triple Alliance between the white and black unions only lasted for two years. By 1894 they were divided down racial lines again.
On the bright side, black and white workers were once again united in 1907 during the General Levee Strike.