February 22, 2018

Discrimination in segregated Boilermaker's Auxiliary Unions

Boilermakers Union A-36 auxiliary, Richmond Calif., circa 1943. Photo by E.F. Joseph, courtesy National Park Service, RORI #686.

Contributed by Lincoln Cushing, Archivist and Historian

Auxiliary unions were a separate-but-unequal tactic by the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders and Helpers of America to expand membership to Black workers.

The massive expansion of the industrial workforce during World War II wasn’t the first time the union had to reckon with Black workers at their gates; a proposal for the auxiliary concept had been floated at their 1920 national convention, but failed because of light voter turnout.

The union's Executive Council raised it again at the next convention in 1937, where it passed. By 1942, over 1,500 Black workers were members. After Pearl Harbor the numbers climbed, eventually reaching more than 12,000.

The first Boilermakers auxiliary was established in Memphis, Tenn. on May 11, 1938.

In the regions where Kaiser operated shipyards, Local A-26 (Oakland, Calif) was established on Feb. 2, 1942; Local A-33 (San Francisco, Calif.) on Jan. 22, 1943, and Local A-36 (Richmond, Calif.) on Feb. 4, 1943. The Portland, Oregon area Local A-42 (Vancouver, Wash.) was established on January 2, 1943.

On November 15 and 16, 1943, the President's Committee on Fair Employment Practice held hearings on the discriminatory nature of the Boilermakers union auxiliary system, and outlined 10 separate ways that the system hurt African American workers.

Cover of Boilermakers conference proceedings 1944
Cover of Boilermakers conference proceedings 1944

Labor scholar Herbert R. Northrup summarized these findings in 1974:

  • Each Negro local was subservient to the nearest White local.
  • The auxiliaries had no democratic participation in the control of the International Brotherhood of the union. In fact, its members were not admitted to the International Brotherhood.
  • Negro locals were denied the right to have business agents. White local agents represented the auxiliaries.
  • Auxiliaries were denied their own grievance committees, having to accept the committee of the nearest white local to which it could send but one representative.
  • A severe limitation was placed upon the ability of the Negro to advance from helper to mechanic; such advancement requiring the approval of the auxiliary, the governing white local, and the International president.
  • Insurance programs paid lower benefits to the Negro, and they could not subscribe to increased insurance as could whites.
  • Negroes were denied the right to transfer except to other auxiliaries.
  • Negro apprenticeships were excluded.
  • Negroes were punished for creating disturbances in lodge rooms; no such restriction appeared in the white by-laws.
  • Negroes were discriminated against due to age; whites could be admitted between 16-70 years of age, while Negroes could be admitted between 16-60 years of age.

Source: Rubin, L., Swift, W. S., & Northrop, H. R. (1974). Negro employment in the maritime industries: A study of racial policies in the shipbuilding, longshore, and offshore maritime industries. University of Pennsylvania Press.

The complete list of findings was earlier published in the "Proceedings of the 17th Consolidated Convention of the International Brotherhood of Boiler Makers, Iron Ship Builders and Helpers of America" 1/31/1944-2/9/1944.

Also see: Path to Employment: African American Workers in Kaiser Shipyards and An Industrial Revolution All Their Own: World War II Women Stand Up for Equality.