To say that Kentuckians are by and large a hard-working people is to dabble in generalities, and quite possibly at the expense of the industriousness of others who don’t hail from a land of Bluegrass worked over (and under) for centuries. Be they miners, paddock workers, factory linemen or even John Calipari, the collective blood, sweat and tears of our people is no less viscous, or salty, than those we’ve never met beyond the county line — people of all colors who have fought and died so that we may enjoy our weekends, higher pay, and the like, much less a Federal bank holiday.
Caveats such as this are important on days like this, when a reprieve from that thing called work (if we are lucky to get it) asks us to take a moment so that we may pause and examine the reasons for shuttered bank telling windows and the absence of blue-uniformed Postal workers trudging through our streets, if only because we are interested in what historically binds us across all applicable lines — men and women, free man or slave, Kentuckian or otherwise — rather than holding up those perceived idiosyncrasies like so many bedtimes stories of exceptionally in lieu of something approaching true solidarity. (Except for Indiana. Fuck you, Mr. Hoosier.)
If you’re lucky enough to coast through a day free from work and likely loaded down with your Uncle’s vegan barbecue and enough Kentucky Ale to make it somehow palatable, consider the following story of the defunct Local 236 of the United Farm Equipment Workers. Their story was kindly provided to Kentucky for Kentucky by Joe Brennan, director of the Kentucky Labor Institute, who describes the state’s first racially integrated union.
Local 236 no longer exists, nor does the International Harvester Company, nor, in fact, does the building in which production took place. What lives on is the history and memory of one union’s example of worker solidarity and dedication to the struggle for dignity and union representation. What was once described as one of the strongest unions in the nation became that because of the strength of the membership, and the willingness to share that strength as one.
Two of the outstanding leaders of 236 were Jim Wright and Jim Mouser, one white, the other African-American. The solidarity between these two men was to exemplify the unity that existed for ten year among union membership. In a city ruled by racial segregation, 236 stood out as a model of what could be achieved, and what was achieved, in the racial brotherhood created by the workers. The relationship that existed between black and white workers earned for them the self designated title of “the most perfect union”.
At the time, International Harvester was one of the four largest corporations in America. The Louisville plant was the fifth largest tractor factory in the world. There was a nondiscriminatory policy in the plant. In 1947, the union received a seventy percent approval by the workers who also agreed that the one way to avoid racial pay differentials was to unite against the management.
Members also agreed to fight the pay differential between Northern and Southern company plants. This resulted in a thirty day strike in which workers marched in protest, dressed in their former military uniforms. They blocked streets with their own cars. Some were arrested, but the eventually the company capitulated.
The company demanded higher levels of productivity. If one worker faced company threats of being fired, the workers determined that all were being equally charged, and all walked out. “They can’t fire us all”. The company could not create a racial wedge. Segregated rest room signs were quickly torn down.
Similar action was taken for separated eating facilities. Blacks and whites socialized in each others’ homes. When Jim Wright was fired all the workers walked out. Solidarity was demonstrated in the community. The union organized an inter-racial picnic in segregated Cherokee park. Police intervened and suggested the picnic take place in the predominately black Chickasaw park. The union later obliged and two hundred white union members attended the activity in Chickasaw park. This did not deter the membership from once more having its picnic at Cherokee park. Similar union activities were held at the segregated Brown hotel which continued to remain segregated until the late fifties.
What aided solidarity were bonds that exceeded racial differences. Among the rank and file most of the members were young. Three fourths were World War II veterans were they learned the value of freedom and equality, and dignity. They would not tolerate disrespect, and they were reared in rural communities.
Company offensive actions were met with “That just isn’t fair”. A Woman’s Auxiliary was formed in June of 1949, followed by a successful integrated union dance. Women brought their children to join in the picket line in 1952. For many years the union seemed invincible, the strongest in the nation. Then came the ultimate conflict.
Those were the days of fear of the communists, the Joe McCarthy era. The union’s leftist leanings promoted severe opposition. The union was expelled from the AFL. Union leaders pled their Fifth Amendment Rights when under questioning. The company provoked a long strike in order to break the union.
Wright and Mauser were arrested no fewer than thirty times. In 1955, the union faced its ultimate demise. Wright went on to continue union organization for the UAW, Mauser eventually found work in sales.
While 236 had a short life, it did prove what could be done. Racism, which was used as a tool to separate the workers and destroy the union, could be conquered. The union was years before its time in its struggle for workers’ rights, for civil rights, for human rights. It stands in history as a memorial to the true meaning of Solidarity.
At a time when the last union coal mine in Kentucky has closed, and union membership in the state remains well below the national average — dragging down with it wages and benefits that seem to be siphoned upward in a cyclone of greed and indifference — perhaps we need to follow the example set by the Local 236 now more than ever.
As Kentucky boy Abraham Lincoln once said, “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Now let’s all get shit housed.”
Amen, Abe. Amen.