A. Philip Randolph wanted a $16.88 minimum wage

A. Philip Randolph (center) with Malcolm X and Anna Arnold Hedgeman at Local 1199 hospital workers’ rally, July 1962. Photo: SEIU

The anniversary of the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is approaching. The historic event is best remembered for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

What the capitalist media will almost never mention are the 10 demands of the march

“A massive federal program” was demanded to train and hire all unemployed workers “on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.” With 30 million people currently out of work, this 57-year-old demand is even more needed today.

Another demand was for a “national minimum wage” of at least $2 per hour. 

Two dollars an hour back in 1963 is equal to $16.88 per hour in July 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator. That’s a little bit over $35,000 per year, if an employee is able to work 40 hours per week for an entire year.

The current federal minimum wage is just $7.25 per hour, although some state and local minimum wages are higher. 

Winning a $16.88 minimum wage would bring a better life to tens of millions of workers and their families.

The 13.5 million “food preparation and serving” workers earned an average wage of just $12.82 per hour in 2019. The 209,000 laundry workers were paid an even more miserable $12.22.

Six-and-a-half million “health care support” workers got just $14.91 per hour. The 6.2 million “laborers and material movers” made $14.70. The 4.4 million “building and grounds cleaning and maintenance” and 3.3 million “personal care” workers received $15.03 per hour, according to the BLS.

From Pullman to Walmart

Fighting hardest for these demands at the 1963 march was A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Already 74 years old, Randolph was a key organizer of the march along with Bayard Rustin.

Amtrak has taken advantage of the coronavirus to cut service. Beginning in October, it wants to run its few long-distance trains just three days a week. Even before the pandemic, there were only 13 Amtrak trains with sleeping cars.

There were no jet planes in 1928. Every night, 100,000 people traveled in sleeping cars owned by the Pullman company. 

Pullman passengers were overwhelmingly middle and upper class. Fares in a sleeper were much higher than traveling in a coach.   

Eighteen thousand workers, virtually all of whom were Black, made the beds and were at the beck and call of passengers. Porters were expected to shine their shoes overnight.

Working more than 90 hours per week, the monthly wage of porters was $67.50, or just $810 per year. In the same period, steelworkers, who didn’t have a union either, were making an average $1,600 annually.

Yet hiring discrimination against African Americans was so intense that being a Pullman porter was a prestigious job within the Black community. Many were college graduates. In one railroad wreck, the body of a porter was identified by his Phi Beta Kappa key from Amherst College.

For decades, the Pullman Company was the largest private employer of Black labor in the United States. With the Great Migration of African Americans to the North, United States Steel overtook Pullman in the number of Black workers it employed.

The steel trust was succeeded by General Motors as the largest employer of African Americans, with Ford and Chrysler close behind. All these workers won union wages and benefits.

It’s a big step backwards that the largest employer of Black workers today is Walmart. Its 1.5 million U.S. workers are paid miserably low wages because none of them have a union contract. 

Postage stamp honoring A. Philip Randolph and Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

Pullman porters were freedom fighters  

  1. Philip Randolph helped found the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters on May 8, 1925. It sought to organize Pullman porters into a union.

The powerful Pullman Company, which also made passenger, freight and subway cars, crushed the BSCP’s organizing drive. Many pro-union employees were fired.

Black workers persevered. On Aug. 25, 1937, BSCP members forced Pullman to sign a union contract that included a big wage increase and reduced the work week by 40 percent.

The Black-led BSCP played a vanguard role in the freedom struggle. A. Philip Randolph started the March On Washington movement in 1941 to demand an end to segregation in the armed forces and discrimination in employment.

With tens of thousands rallying in St. Louis, Chicago and New York, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was compelled to sign Executive Order 8802, which established the Fair Employment Practices Committee.

It was BSCP member E.D. Nixon who, while going between Montgomery, Ala., and Chicago three times a week as a Pullman porter, was the main organizer of the Montgomery bus boycott. In his book, “Stride Towards Freedom,” Dr. King praised E.D. Nixon, who was a close friend of Rosa Parks.

A. Philip Randolph also fought against racism within the labor movement. AFL-CIO President George Meany didn’t like that.

Meany’s home union — Plumbers Local 1 in New York City — didn’t have a single Black or Latinx apprentice at the time. Meany viciously attacked Randolph at the labor federation’s 1959 convention.

Steelworker Ted Dostal, a founding member of Workers World Party, motivated the Youngstown, Ohio, Labor Council to pass a resolution condemning Meany’s racist tirade.

It was a shameful chapter in labor history when George Meany and the AFL-CIO refused to support the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom, although many unions, like the United Auto Workers, did so.

It’s just as rotten today to allow police organizations to belong to the AFL-CIO.

We need a $20 minimum wage

Back in 1963, A. Philip Randolph demanded a minimum wage of at least $2 per hour. Today, we need a minimum wage of at least $20 per hour.

Food prices are starting to go through the roof. Landlords are not reducing rents.

Workers are more productive than ever. But almost all the gains have gone to the rich.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, labor productivity increased by 69.3 percent between 1979 and 2018. Hourly wages have gone up just 11.6 percent.

The result is that the 400 richest scoundrels in the U.S. have as much wealth as the poorest 64 percent of U.S. households. In the capital of capitalism, 114,000 schoolchildren in New York City are homeless. 

Demanding a $20 minimum wage is no more impossible than winning Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. “In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold” is how the last stanza of labor’s anthem “Solidarity Forever” begins.

Let’s use that power to win $20 per hour and to abolish the police!

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