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This Month in Business History

Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union Formed

Brown Brothers (New York, N.Y.), photographer. [Eleventh anniversary parade of the New York division of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters]. 1936. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) was founded on August 25, 1925 in New York City. The union was led by A. Philip Randolph and was the first predominately African American labor union. The members of the BSCP were porters employed by the Pullman Company.

The Pullman Palace Car Company was established by George Pullman in 1867, becoming the Pullman Company in 1900.1 The company was the largest employer of African Americans, purposefully hiring formerly enslaved people to achieve the high-quality customer service the Pullman cars were known for. Sleeping car porters shined shoes, made up the beds, woke passengers, and provided other services to ensure a comfortable trip. African Americans were not allowed to fill higher paying and better regarded jobs such as conductors. The porters endured poor working conditions; working long hours for little pay which was meant to be supplemented by tips. They were expected to pay for their uniforms, meals and sleeping quarters while traveling. Porters were dehumanized, sometimes called racial slurs, “boy,” or “George,” which referred to porters as the belongings of George Pullman.2

Civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph was chosen to be the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. As a person who was not employed by the Pullman Company, unionizing would not cost him his job. Randolph was known for being an advocate for workers' rights and edited a socialist magazine, The Messenger, which he used to raise awareness of the labor movement.3 Randolph used The Messenger to directly address Pullman porters, making statements such as "the call of the hour is to you to be men."4 Cartoons (PDF, 8.1 MB)External about the Pullman porters were also published in the periodical, including one depicting George Pullman as a corrupt Santa Claus bribing people to speak against the porters' unionization. Another publication that altered public opinion was a pamphlet called The Pullman Porter, which informed an unaware public of the poor working conditions and wages faced by the porters. Although a strike was considered, and the date set for June 8, 1928, the Pullman porters never held the strike but the planned strike did provide additional publicity for the union.5

The porters based their demands off the ones made by another union, the Order of the Sleeping Car Conductor. Founded two years before the Employee Representation plan in 1920, the union had successfully achieved many of the goals that the sleeping porters were hoping to achieve. These included a "240-hour basic month, pay for preparatory time and delays, shorter runs, more sleep on the road, decreased work expenses, control of ‘doubling-out,’ a living wage, and an independent union recognized by the Pullman Company."6 The Employee Representation plan that represented the porters was a company union dominated by men who represented the company's interest. The porters could see how much more effective an independent union would be.

The BSCP faced resistance from both the Pullman Company, the American Federation of Labor, and from Black leaders who viewed the Pullman Company as one of the better organizations that hired African Americans. Pullman employees known to be unionizing were often dismissed from service and so it was hard to convince porters to join the BSCP. In addition, the American Federation of Labor was unwilling to charter the BSCP as an international charter. Another struggle was the Great Depression which caused a reduction in membership. It took twelve years from the formation of the union for a contract with the Pullman Company to be signed and for the AFL to recognize the BSCP as an international charter. The BSCP were the first African American union to be chartered by the AFL.7 Achievements of the union included higher wages, fewer hours in the work month, right to hearing before discharge, and reduction of the abuses of service inspectors who spied on the porters and reported discretions to the company.8

In 1978, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters merged into a larger union called the Brotherhood of Railway, Airline, Steamship Clerks, Freight Handlers, Express and Station Employees (BRAC). This union still exists today as the Transportation Communications Union/IAM. This union represents around 35,000 people who mainly work in the railroad industry.9

As being a Pullman porter was one of the better paid and socially regarded positions available to African Americans, the Pullman porters contributed to the growth of the Black middle class. Many famous African Americans were former porters or descendants of Pullman porters. These include North Pole explorer Matthew Henson, Jamaican writer Claude McKay, and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Many members of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters were important influences to the civil rights movement including A. Philip Randolph, E.D. Nixon, and C.L. Dellums.10

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  1. Pullman Porters: Topics in Chronicling America (accessed June 7, 2023). Newspaper and Current Periodicals, Library of Congress. Back to text
  2. L. Tye, Rising From the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making the Black Middle Class. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004). p.93-95. Back to text
  3. Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The Pullman Porter. External New York: Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 1927. (accessed June 7, 2023). p.6. Back to text
  4. Philip A. Randolph, “Notes of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.” The Messenger (PDF, 14.5MB) External 8, no. 1 (January 1926). p.15. Back to text
  5. R. Turner, Memories of a Retired Pullman Porter. External (New York: Exposition Press, 1954). p.133. Back to text
  6. The Pullman Porter External (accessed June 8, 2023). p.13. Back to text
  7. Salter, D. (2007, November 24). Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (1925-1978). External (accessed June 8, 2023). Back to text
  8. Memories of a Retired Pullman Porter. External p.137. Back to text
  9. Transportation Communications Union/IAM. Transportation Communications/IAM: A Union of Unions (PDF, 254KB) External (accessed June 8, 2023). Back to text
  10. Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (1925-1978) External (accessed June 8, 2023). Back to text