Shifting alliances can make strange bedfellows and surprising adversaries. The push to integrate the New York City Plumbers Union as the Civil Rights Act was cobbled together 50 years ago shows how our perceptions and expectations can change with time.
Not long before the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, construction began on what is now the Hunt’s Point Food Distribution Center, the largest food distribution complex in the world. Full integration of the union workers at Hunts Point, supported by many, might have derailed or undermined this important legislation.
One of the major goals of the civil rights struggle in the Northeast was an effort to increase minority representation in the New York City construction unions. Although New York City has long prided itself on its multi-ethnic diversity, labor unions at that time were virtually all white. City sponsored construction at Hunt’s Point was seen by civil rights organizations as a way to advance minority employment.
Because the unions, particularly Local 2 of the Plumber’s Union, opposed these plans, some politicians feared disrupting the Democratic Party coalition, of which organized labor was an important part. This was also a time when jobs in the construction industry were scarce due to an economic downturn.
The situation at Hunt’s Point came to a head in late April 1964. The city government had forced the main plumbing contractor for Hunts Point to hire four minority employees: two Puerto Rican, one Cuban and one African-American. This provoked a walkout on the site, ostensibly because the men were not members of the Plumbers Union.
I represented the four men during this process. As a young lawyer working zealously for my clients, I almost derailed The Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Labor movement and unions had done a lot to improve the lives of working men and women. But some unions would not accommodate minorities. In construction craft unions applicants had to pass stiff tests and they had to have a family member or a special friend sponsor them.
My baptism into this controversy began on April 29, 1964 when Louis Hernandez, the senior Puerto Rican elected official in New York City, brought four plumbers to a Young Citizens for President Johnson gathering. The four men were going to seek employment at a major New York City construction site: the Bronx Terminal Market at Hunt’s Point.
Hernandez had recently formed NAPRA, the National Association for the Advancement of Puerto Rican Affairs. He asked those gathered to contribute money for the support of the plumbers’ large families. He circulated a brown paper bag. When the bag was opened, there was one contribution – my five dollars. Later that evening when Hernandez found out I was an attorney, I was recruited to represent the four plumbers.
I appeared at the Bronx construction site the next morning. My clients were hired along with several dozen union plumbers. Immediately after the hiring, the union plumbers walked off the job.
I told the press and cameras that day that I was going to file an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) accusing Local 2 of the Plumbers Union of violating the law by imposing a “closed shop,” a job requiring union membership as a condition of employment.
Without realizing it, I had walked into the midst of a dispute which had been brewing for months: The City Human Rights Commission had just cobbled together a program that required contractors who won bids for city jobs to hire minority applicants who the Human Rights Commission found to be qualified to work on city projects. The penalty for failure to comply was cancellation of the contract.
The roots of the immediate controversy began several months earlier when Theodore E. Brown, chief of the human rights commission employment division, contacted Corbetta Construction, the overseeing contractor for the Terminal Market to determine if their work crews hired minorities.
Astrove Plumbing and Heating, the first on an alphabetical list of sub-contractors for the site was chosen to be put to this test. Astrove had been the successful bidder for all the plumbing work at the Bronx site.
Ralph Astrove, the company’s president, was invited to a meeting with Theodore E. Brown. Brown felt that Astrove appeared willing to hire minority workers although he had never hired non-union workers for his crews in the past. Astrove evidently appeared eager and felt he could “handle” the union, and asked the Commission to send him some minority plumbers.
Astrove told a slightly different story: He stated that the commission told him if he didn’t hire the non-white minority workers, they would recommend cancelling his million dollar contract. He contacted his union president – Jack Cohen, President of Plumbers Local 2 and told him he was pressured to hire nonunion men.
After three months of pressure from the city, Astrove agreed to hire four plumbers that the city had identified as qualified: Bernard Allman, an African American, Jose Rodriquez, a Cuban, Jerry Gonzales and Isaac Borges, both Puerto Rican. The four were told to report for work on April 30, 1964. Before the day was out, the Plumbers Union Local 2 filed a grievance against Astrove for hiring unqualified men.
Local 2 immediately sent a letter to the Joint Industry Board protesting the threatened hiring as violating the priority-of-employment provision in the collective bargaining agreement, and it requested an arbitration hearing.
The union then called a strike over an alleged lack of sanitary facilities. Widely reported comments by union plumbers fueled racial tensions.
“Animals don’t mix, one plumber said. Why should people have to?”
Another union man agreed:
“God created me white. Is it any fault of mine they’re created another color?”1
A New York Times editorial supported my clients:
“The plumbers’ boycott which will soon force all other workers on the $25 million dollar project into involuntary idleness stems from a sordid combination of bigotry, sophistry and intra union politics. The facts make a mockery of the explanation of the officers of the union . . . that the only cause for the tie-up is the unwillingness of their members to work with nonunion men when union men of greater experience are jobless. This is a specious alibi for a union that long excluded members of minority groups from membership and still has only sixteen Negroes in a total enrollment of 4,100 plumbers.”
For two weeks, Astrove’s work on the project was stopped. Astrove requested Local 2 to supply men for the job, and the President of Local 2 refused to do so until arbitration had been heard and decided. Gonzalez and the other three men reported for work each morning, and they remained each day until Astrove’s foreman advised them through the representative of the Human Rights Commission that there would be no work.
Behind the scenes pressure mounted for a settlement: George Meany, national president of the AFL-CIO – who started his career as a plumber in New York – came to the city to defuse the conflict. But his public statements added to the furor.
He told the press:
“They walked off the job and as far as I’m concerned, they’re going to stay off. This union won’t work with non-union people.”
Meany neglected to observe that the “non-union people” were excluded because the local union had so few Blacks and Hispanic members.
Before I entered the fray, unfair labor practice charges had been filed against the local plumbing union by CORE, the Congress Of Racial Equality. James Farmer, head of CORE, charged the union with racial discrimination but didn’t raise the issue of a closed shop.
As the controversy continued to heat up, major civil rights organizations like the Urban League and CORE picketed the union headquarters for days. Behind the scenes, however, many civil rights leaders and advocates were concerned that the New York dispute would cause the AFL-CIO and other unions to oppose President Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964, because it included Title VII, which prohibited employment discrimination.
Publicly, positions hardened on both sides. Herbert Hill, national labor secretary of the NAACP publicly criticized the “deep silence” of the city’s Central Labor Council and called for the AFL-CIO to revoke Local 2’s charter.
A union man warned the four men that there would be trouble. Another told the New York Times: “You can’t come here every day with cops. Sooner or later, you’ll have to come alone. What do you think will happen to you then?”
No plumbing work was being done at the Bronx site. The President of the AFL-CIO, who was also a member of Local 2, was quoted as saying he would resign from the Local if any member of it worked with a non-union man. The Unions were clearly trying to paint this controversy as a issue of hiring non-union men. But ultimately everyone knew that this was about the hiring of these four minority men.
As I agonized over what to do next, President Johnson intervened. The President contacted New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner, and sent Labor Secretary W. Willard Wirtz to New York. Then the President made a last minute decision to come to the city to address a dinner gathering of the Garment Workers Union, at which George Meany would be present. In his talk, President Johnson made it emphatically clear that racial discrimination in employment was unacceptable and that legislation was necessary to protect minority workers.
However, by the end of May, public pressure in the New York press was tilting against my clients. The New York Post published an editorial accusing me of jeopardizing the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It was then that I decided to call on the NAACP, which had made no public statement on the subject. When I arrived at the NAACP offices, the receptionist introduced me to the highly reputed Columbia Law School professor, Jack Greenberg, who had joined the staff of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 1949, and worked closely with future Chief counsel for the NAACP and future United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Much to my amazement, Greenberg asked if I would agree to have the NAACP join in the battle as co-counsel. Without hesitation, I said, “yes.” I was told I’d be working directly with NAACP General Counsel Robert L. Carter.
Carter had already been in touch with Mayor Wagner’s office. That afternoon, a meeting was arranged for my clients and me to meet with Stanley Lowell and other people from the City’s Human Rights Commission, at the Hotel Biltmore.
My four clients and I gathered in the Biltmore lobby. Lowell announced that he had brokered an agreement between George Meany and Mayor Wagner. They had persuaded Local 2 to administer qualifying tests to the four men the next day. If they passed, they could immediately go to work. Lowell insisted he must have our answer that afternoon.
I was concerned that a test would not be fairly administered. I also knew that the tests required a great deal of preparation, which included tutoring at the Burke School of Plumbing. I was also aware that the men were not fully fluent in English.
Most importantly, a union administered test flew in the face of the position that it was up to the employer and not the union to determine eligibility for employment. After I explained the risks as well as the principle involved, the four men said they would refuse to take the tests.
I told the media that the men had made up their own minds after I had put the alternative to them this way:
“You can either take the test with no guarantee that it will be fairly administered or you can think about the men who come after you. You can be the Jackie Robinsons of the construction unions.”
Stanley Lowell decided that because my clients refused to take the tests, the matter had become a labor dispute and was no longer a civil rights issue, and the Human Rights Commission would withdraw from any further involvement.
The Times issued a blistering editorial the next morning under the headline “Turn Away from Equal Rights.”
“The veto by three Puerto Ricans and a Negro of the peace pact negotiated by Mayor Wagner and George Meany in the Bronx plumbing dispute is a disservice to the cause of equal employment opportunity. Its end result can only be to poison relations between organized labor and civil rights groups to impair their highly effective working relationship to push a strong civil rights bill through Congress. . . Apparently under pressure from careerists in the civil rights field, they have chosen to turn their battle into an assault on the whole structure of union security in the building trades. As we have previously observed the kind of union job control that exists in construction is decidedly unorthodox according to the rules prescribed in the Taft- Hartley Act. Whether it can stand a full legal test is open to question. Yet nothing could be more unfortunate than to link such a test to the civil rights issue.”
I was offended, of course, at being referred to as a “civil rights careerist.” To my surprise, Robert Carter publicly restated his position that the union test system was illegal, but he said that if the men were now willing to take the test, he would make no objection. He added the NAACP was dropping the idea of a court challenge “at this time.”
A day later, on May 16, Mayor Wagner announced the settlement of the two week old walkout by the white plumbers. The union agreed to immediately administer tests to the three Hispanic and one Black plumber and admit them to the union if the tests were passed. Wagner admonished his own City Human Rights Commission for acting as an “employment agency.” Reluctantly, three of the men agreed to take the test.
The tests were taken by three of the men under glaring lights, TV cameras, lots of noise and many distractions. All three failed. According to a later study of this incident, “It was in this environment, without preparation, that they attempted to answer the inordinately difficult questions, some of a theoretical nature, that were put to them.”
That evening, Carter disclosed that the NAACP was considering a court test of Local 2’s system of giving qualifying examinations for union membership and jobs. I told the press flatly, “It’s not up to the union to tell the employer whom he can hire.” I added that my clients were “perfectly willing” to submit to tests given by the employer, if they were supervised on an impartial basis.
The men who took the tests did so at the urging of city officials who assured them that they had nothing to worry about.
No one exhibited any sympathy for the four individuals at the heart of the controversy. They were abandoned by the human rights commission at the direction of the mayor, thrown to the wolves by the NAACP general counsel who urged the test taking and offered nothing to make up for their time, trouble, and lost wages from working elsewhere. One city official was quoted as saying, “The poor schnooks. Maybe someone should have found out how they felt about the whole thing.”
Bernard Astrove, thought he was being “used” by the city human rights commission. Peter Brennan head of the city’s Building Trades Council, a group of all the city trade unions, was questioned about the lack of progress in opening employment opportunities to minorities. He responded that it had taken 100 years to reach this point, and that some things take centuries.
Later that summer, Bob Carter tried unsuccessfully to have Robert Allman and Isaac Borges retake the union test under independent supervision. The union refused.
Jack Greenberg directed that matters were in the hands of NAACP general counsel Robert L. Carter and I stepped aside. The Urban League of Greater New York pursued the unfair labor practice charge I had filed. The National Labor Relations Board eventually found in favor of the plumbers, as did a Federal appeals court in 1965.
But The four plumbers gave up hope and never became union members.
There was very little more I could accomplish for them. My analysis revealed that they could only collect one month’s wages for the union’s discrimination. To continue the fight would have meant economic disaster for them and their families. The best I could do was to send each of them a letter reminding them of their courage, the precedent they had set and that they were the “Jackie Robinsons of the construction industry.”
Today, the four men should be recalled as pawns in a battle involving major political figures, each trying to preserve something. In the case of President Johnson, it was the ideal of equal opportunity; in the case of Mayor Wagner, the retention of a political coalition; for George Meany’s case, a racist hold on union hiring; and for NAACP counsel Robert Carter, the devoutly hoped for enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which meant postponing individual battles for another.
Photos, from above: New York City Mayor Wagner and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman look at architect’s drawing of new Hunts Point Market during ground breaking ceremonies in the Bronx (Library of Congress photo); Ground-breaking ceremony for Hunts Point produce market, New York City, 1962 (Library of Congress); President Johnson meeting with Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz (C-Span Collection); NAACP General Counsel Robert L. Carter (LoC); City Human Rights Commissioner Stanley Lowell (LoC); NAACP Counsel Jack Greenberg; NYC Mayor Robert F. Wagner (photo by the Museum of the City of New York); George Meany, President of the AFL-CIO (The Data Bank).