Solutionary Rail had the honor of interviewing Gabriel Prawl, President of the A Philip Randolph Institute-Seattle (APRI) and President of ILWU Local 52 and Clarence Thomas, retired member of International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 in San Francisco and a leading radical African American trade unionist and author of Mobilizing in Our Own Name.
This will be a rich conversation that takes us through the history of the first black trade union to affiliate with the AFL-CIO (in 1925, the AFL, the American Federation of Labor) to the 1963 March on Washington and the 2004 Million Worker March, to the present day labor movement in the context of freight transportation. APRI Seattle has been a supporter of Solutionary Rail from the beginning, and this will be Solutionary Rail’s opportunity to learn more about APRI and the ILWU, building on our solidarity work with Railroad Workers United.
On September 30, we will learn about the leadership and legacy of A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979) -- actor, socialist, union organizer, civil rights leader. Solutionary Rail advocates may be especially interested to know that Randolph was a lead organizer and first President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925, the first African-American led labor union to receive a charter from the American Federation of Labor. Six weeks after the formation of the BSCP, the African American and Chinese American women who were the "maids" on the trains formed the Women's Economic Councils. All were subject to retaliation by their employer, the George Pullman company. (See below for more information on the BSCP.)
The A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI) was founded in 1963 by Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the two chief organizers of the history-making 1963 March on Washington. In its own words, "APRI is an organization of Black Trade Unionists to fight for racial equality and economic justice." Accomplished labor organizer and leader Clayola Brown has been APRI's president since 2004. In February 2021, Ms. Brown was named the new Civil, Human, and Women's Rights Director for the AFL-CIO. To hear APRI President. Clayola Brown in her own words, here is a 15-minute address APRI President Brown gave to A Philip Randolph chapters throughout the country in June 2020, via Facebook over Zoom.
We will also learn more about the International Longshore Workers Union, including the leadership of black workers and organizers like Leo Robinson and Clarence Thomas within the ILWU. ILWU is a powerful, progressive, radical union with global solidarity through the International Dock Workers Council. The Longshore workers are responsible for the movement of cargo at ports, onto and off of ships, trucks, and trains. Understanding what they do, how they do it, and the complexities of their role in freight transportation is crucial to the economically just “mode shift” to rail that Solutionary Rail advocates for.
Gabriel Prawl was elected President of ILWU Local 52 in Seattle in 2019, the first African American in that position. He was born in Panama and followed his parents to New York at the age of 15, spending his young adult years in both Seattle and New York. He started working as a “casual” with Local 19 at the Seattle port in 1994, eventually getting his A-book, chairing the Education Committee, and becoming a member of the Executive Board. Due to injury, he moved over to Local 52 Clerks. Gabriel is also President of the A Philip Randolph Institute, Seattle Chapter, where his wife Vanessa Prawl is chapter Secretary and Program Director. Among his mentors are Clarence Thomas, retired Bay Area ILWU Local 10 leader and author of newly published book Mobilizing in Our Own Name, and Leo Robinson (1937-2010), also a highly respected leader in Local 10. More about Gabriel Prawl here.
More on A Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, from Wikipedia:
"His greatest success came with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, who elected him president in 1925. This was the first serious effort to form a labor institution for employees of the Pullman Company, which was a major employer of African Americans. The railroads had expanded dramatically in the early 20th century, and the jobs offered relatively good employment at a time of widespread racial discrimination. Because porters were not unionized, however, most suffered poor working conditions and were underpaid.
"Under Randolph's direction, the BSCP managed to enroll 51 percent of porters within a year, to which Pullman responded with violence and firings. In 1928, after failing to win mediation under the Watson-Parker Railway Labor Act, Randolph planned a strike. This was postponed after rumors circulated that Pullman had 5,000 replacement workers ready to take the place of BSCP members. As a result of its perceived ineffectiveness membership of the union declined; by 1933 it had only 658 members and electricity and telephone service at headquarters had been disconnected because of nonpayment of bills.
"Fortunes of the BSCP changed with the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. With amendments to the Railway Labor Act in 1934, porters were granted rights under federal law. Membership in the Brotherhood jumped to more than 7,000. After years of bitter struggle, the Pullman Company finally began to negotiate with the Brotherhood in 1935, and agreed to a contract with them in 1937. Employees gained $2,000,000 in pay increases, a shorter workweek, and overtime pay. Randolph maintained the Brotherhood's affiliation with the American Federation of Labor through the 1955 AFL-CIO merger."