Review: Workers on Arrival

By David Gill, reprinted from The 313.

Workers On Arrival: Black Labor in the Making of America 
by Joe William Trotter, Jr.(University of California, 2019)

Joe William Trotter, Jr., is distinguished professor of history at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Workers on Arrival is a superb, meticulously researched account of the contributions and challenges of black workers throughout American history. The focus here is not all kinds of work but labor – the physical exertion of harvesting, planting, manufacturing, building and so on. The important work of black intellectuals, artists, political and religious leaders and scientists (e.g., Hidden Figures, George Washington Carver) is secondary to Trotter’s main story and is covered elsewhere by other authors.

The black labor story begins with slavery, of course, for 250 years. That chapter of the story, by the way, is the subject of another recent book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery in the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2014) by Cornell historian Edward Baptist. In 500-page detail, Baptist describes the cruelty and brutality of slavery and its central role not just in generating wealth for the enslavers but for the cotton-dependent industries of the North. Trotter summarizes this slavery story well but adds some important discussion of the contributions of skilled tradesman and domestic workers among both slave and free black populations north and south. The black contribution to the American economy was not just by way of excruciating field labor but by skilled carpenters, bakers, seamstresses, blacksmiths, canoe-builders, ship navigators, managers and others.  We know this because of period advertising which sought blacks with these skills.

Trotter describes the chaos and struggles of Reconstruction in the late 19th century, when promises of “40 acres and a mule” were undelivered, when mechanized cotton harvesting and production began to eliminate jobs, and masses of immigrants poured into the country from Europe and Asia. The two world wars and the industrial revolution starting in the late 19th century drew blacks into America’s cities in the “Great Migration.” Trotter describes the massive contributions of black labor in the train system, the auto industry, the domestic and hospitality service sectors, and in constructing roads, buildings, and the physical infrastructure of America. Finding adequate housing near work was always a challenge because of segregationist attitudes as well as redlining and real estate “covenants.”  “Last hired, first fired” often meant jobs during wartime and economic bubbles but then taking the brunt of cutbacks and layoffs when they happened. Despite the constant indignities and obstacles, black labor forged ahead, even organizing to demand better wages and working conditions. Opposed and rejected for decades by organizing white workers, black workers organized their own unions (famously A. Philip Randolph’s union of sleeping car porters). Desperate for work black laborers were hired as strike-breakers (and laid off when strikes were settled – and you can imagine what this did for white/black relations among laborers).

Trotter brings the story up to the present day with chapters on the changing economy and disappearance of blue collar labor under the impacts of globalization and technicization. The Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s enabled significant progress but just then labor was being replaced by machines and low cost labor across the ocean or the southern border. The bottom line to the story is that black labor has contributed in multiple and often unobserved ways to the growth of the American economy. Black laborers have intermittently benefited from their work but rarely without a struggle against racist policies and practices. This is not an anecdotal but an irrefutable statistical case. Black labor today is caught up in the same chaos and uncertainty as all other workers when it comes to an unknown emerging new economy.

Two lessons for workplace disciples. First, there is a lot to be learned from studying the history of the black church as the default center and support for worker members lives. The black church has always had a broader more holistic ministry than a white church which could depend of public institutions for support. Second, faith at work or marketplace ministries sometimes seem to envision their subjects as white guys climbing the management ladder. Not always of course. But it is essential to correct that vision to include women, blacks, the jobless and other overlooked parts of the church and the workplace.  Getting some history into our consciousness is a good place to begin. Put Workers On Arrival on your “order and read” priority list.

  One thought on “Review: Workers on Arrival

  1. July 15, 2020 at 12:51 pm

    Thank you So important and so timely


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