|The founding convention of the Colored National Labor Union from Haper's Weekly.|
Isaac Meyers did not want it this way. Neither did William H. Sylvis. Myers was a Black 34 year old marine caulker from Baltimore who had organized a union of Black caulkers in the Chesapeake ship yards and a cooperative association to market their services to ship builders and dry docks. Sylvis was a White 40 year old Philadelphia iron molder who was the founder, visionary leading light, and President of the National Labor Union (NLU), American labor’s first stab at a national federation uniting existing trade unions. In the wake of the recently concluded Civil War and the end of slavery, both men dreamed of a united working class undivided by race. Alas, that was not to be.
|William Sylvis of the National Labor Union.|
Sylvis and other Philadelphia unionists had called a founding convention for the NLU in New York City 1866. He was taken ill and unable to attend that meeting, but the organization was launched and over the next two years had some success in attracting local unions, municipal Central Labor bodies, and a handful of national or international trade unions. When he NLU met in Baltimore for its convention in 1868 it was clear that Sylvis would be elected the organization’s president.
Sylvis had taken note of the work of Meyers and his Colored Caulkers Trade Union Society and invited him to address the convention held in his home town. Meyer reported on the progress of his union and of the co-operative shipyard and railway, the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company. He also appealed for membership in the NLU on behalf of his union and a handful of other fledgling Back unions. Sylvis, who also envisioned worker-owned cooperatives as a model to escape from exploitive wage slavery, endorsed the application.
Aside from Sylvis, Black unionists had some support. Delegate A.C. Cameron told the assembly, “…interests of the labor cause demand that all workingmen be included within the ranks without regard to race or nationality…”But it was not enough. Many organizations in attendance had Whites only rules embedded in their constitutions and bi-laws. Others simply feared competition from Blacks who the assumed would either undercut wages or replace their members. The convention voted overwhelmingly not to extend membership to Black organizations, although those few local bodies that accepted Black membership would be allowed to continue to do so.
Meyers was saddened, but likely not surprised. He was also determined to find a way for Black unionists to unite nationally. Acting quickly, Meyers and associates called for a founding convention of a new organization. On January 5, 1869 214 Black mechanics, engineers, artisans, tradesmen and trades-women, and their supporters from 21 states assembled in Washington, D.C. Notably absent were common laborers. The new organization would mirror the NLU philosophically and structurally and be an organization of the skilled trades.
That structure was not the only thing the new organization had in common with its inspiration. In its founding documents it called itself simply the National Labor Union—the identical name to Sylvis’s organization. Perhaps this reflected a forlorn that once established and up and running it might yet be allowed to merge. To avoid confusion newspapers covering the founding meeting called the organization the Colored National Labor Union (CNLU). The name stuck and quickly the organization was using that name as well.
Many issues came before the founding body. One was a resolution calling on the Federal Government to stop “importation of contract coolie labor” to prevent it from becoming a “system of slavery.” This was a slightly different take on Chinese exclusion passed by the NLU opposing, “the importation of a servile race, bound to fulfill contracts entered into on foreign soil.”
The wide-spread use of Chinese workers in the construction of the Southern Pacific Railroad and in large-scale mining operations had made eliminating the Yellow peril the number one issue of White unionists in California and the west. There was a general fear that if it continued successfully it would spread east.
The CNLU, however, couched their resolution in far less racist terms than did the NLU and did not oppose free Chinese worker, unbound by servile contracts, and promised to include any who wished to join in CNLU unions. In fact the CNLU constitution opened the organization to Whites and any ethnicity as well as to women.
Delegate John Mercer Langston, a former employee of the Freedmen’s Bureau and President of the National Equal Right League laid out the expansive and inclusive vision of the new organization:
We know the maxim, ‘in union there is strength.’ It has its significance in the affairs of labor no less than in politics. Hence our industrial movement, emancipating itself from every national and partial sentiment, broadens and deepens its foundations so as to rear thereon a superstructure capricious enough to accommodate at the altar of common interest the Irish, the negro and the German laborer; to which, so far from being excluded, the ‘poor white’ native of the South, struggling out of moral and pecuniary death into life ‘real and earnest’ the white mechanic and laborer of the North, so long ill-taught and advised that his true interest is gained by hatred and abuse of the laborer of African descent, as well as the Chinaman, whom designing persons, partially enslaving, would make, in the plantation service of the South, the rival and competitor of the former slave class of the country, having with us one and the same interest, are all invited, earnestly urged, to join us in our movement, and thus aid in the protection and conservation of their and our interests.
Among the CNLU’s other resolves were for the extension and expatiation of the Freedmen’s Bureau’s Forty Acres and a mule policy to provide of farmland for the rural Southern poor, government aid for education, and new nondiscriminatory legislation that would help black workers access the labor market. Items like this show that the organization hoped to go beyond action over job issues to be the voice of Black labor as part of a broader movement for full emancipation and integration into society.
Both the NLU and CNLU after initial success would find troubled waters ahead. Sylvis died unexpectedly on July 27, just six months after the CNLU’s founding. Without his visionary leadership the NLU slowly foundered.
Efforts at job action by CNLU member unions were met by the united opposition of not only employers but the press and government, which was quick to provide police power to break any strikes. And all too often local White unions joined that opposition. Unable to produce improved conditions on the job, membership began to dwindle, affiliate unions failed or disaffiliated when they could no longer afford to support a national body.
In 1872 Meyers was replaced as President by the veteran abolitionist and leading voice of Black aspirations, Frederick Douglas whose newspaper, the New National Era became the official organ of the union. Douglas was an immensely talented and energetic man, but he had no experience as a trade unionist or much interest in the day-to-day administration of a labor federation. The use of his paper helped boost its circulation. The CNLU became just another platform for a broader Black agenda. Within a couple of years it all but disappeared as a functioning union.
Both the NLU and CNLU were supplanted by the rising Knights of Labor, which aimed to organized skilled and unskilled labor together and which claimed, at least, to welcome members “without regard to race or color.” Many of the NLU’s local unions and some of the surviving CNLU chapters switched affiliation to the Knights. In practice local Knights assemblies often followed local custom in regard to Black membership. But some notable strikes, including the St. Louis General Strike of 1877, a part of the broader Great Railway Strike, were notable for cooperation between Black and White unionists.
As for Meyers, he worked as a detective at the Baltimore Post Office between 1872 and 1879 then operated a small Baltimore coal yard. In 1883 he was rewarded for loyal service to the Republican Party with a political appointment as a Customs revenue officer for five years. His public life continued as he organized and became President of the Maryland Colored State Industrial Fair Association, the Colored Business Men’s Association of Baltimore, the Colored Building and Loan Association, and the Aged Ministers Home of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He died Baltimore in 1891.