During Black History Month, we continue to honor the triumphs of and significant contributions made by Black labor leaders throughout U.S. history. African American involvement in the labor actions that gave workers the rights they have today predates the civil war. Today, Black workers remain an integral segment of the public sector. Today, we’ll share the stories of several historical and current Black labor leaders and their impact on the modern labor movement. 

Fredrick Douglass ⸱ Born into slavery in 1818, Frederick Douglass is well known as an abolitionist, writer, and public speaker–but Douglass also played an important role in the early days of the labor movement. When the National Labor Union began to admit members regardless of skin color or nationality in 1866, its affiliated unions continued to segregate Black workers and limit their job opportunities. In response, Douglass and other progressive leaders saw the need to create unions that would stand against discrimination by employers and other labor unions. He became president of the “Colored” National Labor Union in 1872 and founded the union’s official publication, The New National Era.

A. Philip Randolph ⸱ A. Philip Randolph is arguably the most well-known voice in American history for the Black working class. Following the turn of the century, it was clear that Black workers were integral to the American economy. In the throes of segregation and rampant discrimination, A. Philip Randolph established the first Black labor union to collectively bargain a contract with a major corporation. As the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), Randolph successfully influenced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue an executive order prohibiting discrimination in the workplace and to create the Fair Employment Practice Committee. He also directed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, along with other notable labor activists, Bayard Rustin, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and former United States Representative John Lewis. Randolph also served on the AFL-CIO Executive Council until 1974.

Bayard Rustin ⸱ Bayard Rustin was born into a large Quaker family in Pennsylvania in 1912 and lived immersed in Black advocacy his entire life. He was raised in part by his grandmother, Julia Davis Rustin, a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He grew up to become a prolific organizer, an orator, a strategist, and a civil rights activist. In 1955, he became the Vice President of the AFL-CIO trade union when the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged into one organization. Bayard Rustin also worked closely with A. Philip Randolph and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Bayard Rustin was also a gay man, which brought diversity, if not controversy, to the civil rights movement in the 60s.  Through his relationship with A. Philip Randolph and a founding grant from the AFL-CIO, Rustin created the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI), an interracial labor coalition focused on eliminating discrimination in the workplace and securing jobs for the Black working class. 

Velma Hopkins ⸱ A founding member of Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers of America-CIO, Velma Hopkins organized over 10,000 workers to unionize the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in Winston-Salem, NC, in the 1940s. The union was primarily led by African American women and focused on ending workplace segregation and improving working conditions for Black workers, who were disproportionately exposed to dangerous tobacco dust and oppressive heat. Through a series of strikes and labor actions, Hopkins and her union brothers and sisters made headway in the form of wage increases and job security. Though anti-unionism sentiment from the world’s largest tobacco producer and politicians ultimately prevented Hopkins from achieving all the changes she worked for, her advocacy is credited for establishing the Black middle class in North Carolina. 

Hattie Canty ⸱ Known as one of the greatest strike leaders in labor history, Hattie Canty’s hard work brought improved working conditions and wages to service industry workers in Las Vegas in the 1970s. After Canty’s husband died in 1975, she was left to support their eight children on her own. She took a job at the unionized Maxim hotel and became a member of the Las Vegas Culinary Workers Union Local 226. Canty recognized that without the collective power of the union, she may not have had the benefits, a pension, or the living wage that she relied on. Canty was elected to the union board in 1984 and organized a successful 75-day walkout against Vegas casinos so culinary workers could get health insurance. She became president of the union in 1990 and in 1991, the Culinary Workers began the longest labor strike in American history when they walked out of the Frontier Hotel over unfair labor practices. The strike lasted for six years before the hotel, and the union came to an agreement. Canty also established the Culinary Training Academy in 1993 to teach workers the job skills necessary for employment in the hospitality industry.

Rebecca S. ‘Becky’ Pringle ⸱ President of the National Education Association since 2020, the NEA’s website describes Becky Pringle as a “fierce social justice warrior, defender of educator rights, an unrelenting advocate for all students and communities of color, and a valued and respected voice in the education arena.” Becky Pringle was born in Philadelphia in 1955 and was just a child when her predecessors laid the groundwork for Black labor advancement. She taught as a middle school physical science teacher for 28 years in Pennsylvania and began her leadership career when she was elected to be her local’s president. She then rose through the ranks of NEA leadership, serving on the Board of Directors for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the NEA Board of Directors, NEA’s Executive Committee, as NEA secretary-treasurer, and as NEA vice-president. Pringle took the helm of NEA at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, steering the organization to safety during a great crisis. Pringle also notably co-chaired NEA’s Task Force on School Discipline and the School-to-Prison Pipeline, developing a school-to-prison pipeline policy statement that takes on the inequitable policies that disproportionately feed Black and minority students from the public school system into the prison system. 

Dr. Lorretta Johnson ⸱ In 1966, Loretta Johnson began her journey in education when she got a job as a teacher’s aide in the Baltimore public school system. The job came with low pay and no benefits, so Johnson organized her coworkers to become part of the Baltimore Teachers Union and negotiated the union’s first contract in 1970. She continued on a leadership trajectory as chief negotiator for multiple educator and paraprofessional contracts in Baltimore and throughout the state of Maryland, all while serving as an American Federation of Teachers (AFT) vice president, chair of the AFT Paraprofessionals and School-Related Personnel program and policy council, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union’s paraprofessional chapter, and president of AFT-Maryland. Dr. Johnson became executive vice president at AFT in 2008, and then Secretary-Treasurer Emeritus in 2011. In 2014, Johnson made history by chairing the AFT Racial Equity Task Force, which released the first-ever union-sponsored report on racial equity in America, entitled “Reclaiming the Promise of Racial Equity in Education, Economics and Our Criminal Justice System.”

Chris Smalls ⸱ Chris Smalls is a new face in labor organizing, representing a generational shift in the priorities of the working class. Smalls was fired from his job at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York in 2020 after leading a walkout due to poor working conditions, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. From there, Smalls and his former Amazon colleague Dereck Palmer created the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) in 2021 and successfully led the Staten Island Amazon warehouse workers in a vote to unionize on April 1, 2022. Facing one of the largest companies in history, Smalls organized Amazon workers on a personal level, hosting cookouts and meeting at bus stops to reach as many of his former coworkers as possible. Smalls faced an uphill battle–even getting arrested for trespassing for handing out food and union literature in the warehouse parking lot during his organizing efforts. After leading a public campaign to organize low-wage workers, Smalls’s work inspired similar movements, including the unionization of more than 250 Starbucks stores across the nation.

The National Public Pension Coalition stands with our brothers and sisters who are raising awareness of the pervasive inequality in American society. We honor and celebrate the Black leaders who paved the way for representation and equality in the labor movement, and we stand behind the leaders who are still emerging today