An Open Letter To President Franklin D. Roosevelt by Activist A. Phillip Randolph

A. Philip Randolph wrote an open letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 12th, 1934. He was a civil rights activist and a founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. A labor union for African-Americans working at the Pullman Car Company.

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was the first African-American Labor Union to receive a charter in the American Federation Of Labor (AFL). The organization fought for the rights of those working at the Pullman Car Company as porters and maids. It was not long after the American Civil War that George Pullman started hiring former slaves to work on his railroads. They usually preformed job of porters, waiters, chambermaids, and valets all rolled into one person. Historian Timuel Black gives an account of these workers stating that they were active and contributing members of their respective communities.

“They were good looking, clean and immaculate in their dress, their style was quite manly, their language was very carefully crafted, so that they had a sense of intelligence about them … they were good role models for young men.” 

[ A. Phillip Randolph ]

The job of being a porter or maid for the Pullman company was far from ideal because the conditions were awful due to overwork, lack of pay, and unsuitable environments.

In an article title Pullman Porters: from Servitude to Civil Rights. The article details the rough overworked conditions despite it being a stable income and considered “prestigious” employment by the community.

“The porters were also mistreated, underpaid, overworked and subjected to countless indignities on the job. “A Pullman Porter was really kind of a glorified hotel maid and bellhop in what Pullman called a hotel on wheels,” explains former porter and historian Greg LeRoy. ” The Pullman Company just thought of the porters as a piece of equipment, just like another button on a panel – the same as a light switch or a fan switch.” Pullman demanded 400 hours a month or 11,000 miles – sometimes as much as 20 hours at a stretch — and paid ridiculously low wages (in 1926, an average of $810 per year — about $7,500 in today’s economy). “It didn’t pay a livable wage, but they made a living with the tips that they got, because the salary was nothing, ” says Lyn Hughes of the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum. The company expected its employees to pay for their own meals, supply their own uniforms and shoe polish, and allowed them only short naps on couches in the smoking car. Disgruntled porters began to question their situation and decided to take on the enormously powerful company. ” 

This leads us to today’s post. A Philip Randolph fought actively for the rights of these workers due to the mistreatment they were receiving from their employer. He worked tirelessly on their behalf and even wrote a letter to the President of the United States to find a solution that would allow porter and maids their right to fair wages and hours. Their voice was being silenced at every turn especially from government agencies and congress themselves. It was a massive battle to get things changed for the improvement of these workers in their daily work and home lives.

[Pullman Car Company Porters]


His Excellency Franklin D. Foosevelt
The White House
Washington, D. C.
Dear Mr. Presidents

Reports in the Press seem to indicate that the Congress will adjourn the last of this week, and that the labor bills will fail of passage.

This, I assure you, is not only a source of discouragement to the Pullman Porters and Maids, but has engendered and fostered in their hearts a deep feeling of bitterness and a sinister and sullen sense of resentment against those charged with the responsibility for providing the legislative privilege of the workers to exercise the right of self-organization, and the selection and designation of representatives of their own choosing.

Because of the long, hard fight the porters and maids have made, covering a period of some nine years to organize a union of their own, free from intimidation, interference and coercion by the Pullman Company, they looked forward to your pronouncements that the principle of workers’ self-organization as set forth in Clause 7 A of the National Recovery Act, and the Emergency Railroad Transportation act as a definite promise and assurance of relief from the notorious and vicious industrial slavery fastened upon them by the Pullman plan of Employee Representation or Company Union.

But, they have looked in vain. Yes, they have looked in vain, for the Pullman Porters and maids are the victims of special-discrimination. The porters end maids are beginning to believe that they are the victim of both race and class discrimination.

Strangely or naturally enough, this belief has some semblance of fact and truth for the Pullman Porters and maids, are the only workers on the railroad who neither come under NRA or ERTA. When the porters and maids raised their case to the Coordinator of Federal Transportation, they were told that they (the porters and maids) are not under the jurisdiction of the former because the Pullman Company is a carrier and not under the latter because IT IS NOT A CARRIER by railroad.

Now, Bill 3 32 66 and Bill H R 9689, to amend the Railway Labor Act approved May 20, 1926, and to provide for the prompt disposition of disputes between carriers and employees, will establish jurisdiction over the Pullman Company, and is upon these bills upon which the porters and maids are depending to insure and safeguard their rights of collective bargaining through a national labor organization which they maintain and control. If these amendments to the Railway Labor Act are not passed by this Congress, the porters and maids will be utterly without any means of redress of their grievances, since the existing Railway Labor Act is ineffective, which is the only reason for the proposed amendments.

The porters and maids have noted that by executive proclamation, you have extended the life of Emergency Railroad Transportation Act, which would have died June 16, another year. Other railroad workers, because the carriers, on which they work come under the jurisdiction of E R T A, have definite means for adjusting their grievances, at least, until the Act expires next June 16, 1933. Bill 3 2411, introduced by Senator C. C. Dill and a similar bill In the House introduced by Congressman Crosser will correct this condition by amending the Emergency Railroad Transportation act, so as to include the Pullman Company and thereby bring the porters and maids under its jurisdiction.

In every instance upon which the porters and maids have attempted to meet with the management of the Pullman Company directly to adjust their grievances, they have been refused a conference, although the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, through which they have sought conference, embraces the large majority of the porters and maids in the service. The porters and maids have sought the service of the United states Mediation Board, but to no avail. They have taken their case to the Interstate Commerce Commission, but this Commission decided by a majority vote in 1928, that the case of the porters and maids did not come under its jurisdiction, but properly falls under another arm of the government, the Mediation Board which had just failed to adjust the dispute between the porters and maids and the Pullman management.

Our next effort was to secure a petition from the Federal-District Court to enjoin the Pullman Company from maintaining and operating the Plan of Employee Representation or Company Union. Judge Charles E. Woodward of Chicago, whom the House Judiciary Committee in a vote of 15 to 5, voted to recommend his impeachment for improper conduct as a Judge, handed down a decision against the Brotherhood of Sleeping car Porters, declaring that the Plan of Employee Representation, though financed by the Pullman Company, printing the ballots for the annual elections in its own printer shop , and holding said elections on its property, paying officials of the Plan, which does not allow the porters and maids to select anyone to serve as their representative to adjust grievances unless he is a porter in the employ of the Company, is not a Company Union.

We therefore have no other recourse but to appeal to you to either put Bill S 3266 and H S 9689 on your “MUST PASS” list, permit and require that Bill S 2411 with its counter part in the House to come to a vote, or the porters and maids must avail themselves of the most drastic measures in their power to win the right you have declared all workers posses, under your labor policy, namely, to organize and collectively to bargain as free workers.

Every Government agency, to which the porters have carried their case, has given them the “run around”, until there is widespread suspicion and distrust of both officials and the law. Officials have proven to be vague, uncertain, indefinite and timid before the power of the Pullman Company, on whose Board of Directors sit, J. Pierpont Morgan & R.K. Mellon, George Whitney, George F. Aker, Alfred Sloan, Harold S. Vanderbilt, the high and mighty monarchs of industry.

As for the laws, experience has proven to the porters and maids that they, the laws, never mean what they say, and clever corporation lawyers, twist, distort and contort them, together with ambiguous, Janus-faced, judicial decisions, to mean almost anything, except in the interest of the porters and maids.

Naturally, to the porters and maids, the question arises, *IS THE PULLMAN COMPANY MORE POWERFUL THAN THE GOVERNMENT?” Are they (the porters and maids’ to be Included in the new Deal? fill the government permit the largest single group of Negro workers in the industry to be the victims of legislative discrimination, while they serve as faithful, efficient and necessary employees of an interstate carrier, which is the beneficiary of Federal Law, has no funded indebted-ness, and boasts of having never passed paying a dividend, even during this depression, an unheard of and unprecedented record in world financial history.

It is this very Company which compels the public to Pay a part of the porters wages in tips, which by the way, have fallen since the beginning of the depression over 75 percent. It forces the porters, underpaid as they are, to buy shoe-polish, to shine passengers’ shoes. Porters, according to a survey made by the Labor Bureau, -Inc of New York, are required to payout as occupational expense, including uniforms, meals on cars, insurances, ^33.62 a month, out of a monthly wage, if they make a month, which is seldom done, of $72.50.

It is this Company, too, Mr. President, which despite your effort to reduce unemployment by reducing hours of work, forces the porters and maids now to work nearly 400 hours a month. As a consequence of these long, inhuman, stretch-out, sweat-shop-hours, thousands of porters and maids are furloughed and put on the extra board.

Without the right to organize a union of their own, it is imposeile for the porters and maids to correct this condition.

Unless the porters receive your aids they shall rely upon such forces they themselves can mobilize to free themselves from Pullman Company Union tyranny, even if it means to STRIKE.

Respectfully yours,
A. Philip Randolph, National President.


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