December 18, 1944 – The Supreme Court Decides Steele v. Louisville & Nashville R.R. Co.

In the 1940s, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen was a statutory “labor organization” (i.e., a union) which enacted a constitution limiting membership to white men to the exclusion of Negroes. The Brotherhood’s members constituted a majority of firemen employed by the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, but a substantial minority of the firemen was black. However, under provisions of the Railway Labor Act providing that “[t]he majority of any craft or class of employees shall have the right to determine who shall be the representative of the craft or class for the purposes of this chapter,” the white majority voted the Brotherhood as the exclusive bargaining representative for railway firemen.

Bester Steele, an African American fireman, was furloughed from his job and then rehired to perform more arduous work at lower pay.   His former job was given to a white Brotherhood member who was junior to Steele in seniority. 

The president of the Association of Colored Railway Trainmen and Locomotive Firemen’s Local No. 5 came to Washington and sought out Attorney Charles Hamilton Houston to determine “what [the union] should do to protect their rights.”  [Hamilton attended Harvard Law School and was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review.  He later became Dean of Howard University Law School and was a mentor to Thurgood Marshall.   As the chief attorney for the National Association of Colored People (NAACP), he played a role in many civil rights cases, and was primarily responsible for developing the legal strategy that led to the Brown v. Board of Education decision, although Houston died in 1950]. 

After researching the relevant labor laws and the plight of the African American railroad workers, Houston reputedly said: “You don’t have any laws to protect you, but I’m gong to make some laws that will protect you.  I’m going to make them.” 

Charles Houston, circa 1940

Charles Houston, circa 1940

Houston took up Steele’s fight and pursued it through the Alabama state court system. The plaintiffs alleged that the Brotherhood had used its status as exclusive bargaining representative to grant favorable opportunities and jobs to its (white) members to the disadvantage of the non-member black firemen. The Supreme Court of Alabama had sustained a demurrer to the complaint, ruling that it did not state a cause of action.

On Appeal to the United States Supreme Court, Steele v. Louisville & Nashville R.R. Co., 323 U.S. 192 (1944), Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone stated the issues to be adjudicated were (1) whether the Railway Labor Act imposes a duty on a labor organization, acting as the exclusive bargaining representative, to represent all employee members of a craft regardless of race or union membership; and (2) if so, whether the courts have jurisdiction to protect minorities from violations of that obligation.

Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone

Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone

The Court held that the language of the Railway Labor Act “expresses the aim of Congress to impose on the bargaining representative of a craft or class of employees the duty to exercise fairly the power conferred upon it in behalf of all those for whom it acts, without hostile discrimination against them.”  Justice Stone allowed further that “the discriminations based on race alone are obviously irrelevant and invidious,” but did not clearly base his decision on that fact alone.

In addition, since at the time there were no available administrative remedies, Justice Stone concluded that judicial remedies were in fact appropriate. His opinion was somewhat ambiguous as to whether it rested on the union’s failure to represent all members of the craft (including non-members of the union) or whether it condemned all racial discrimination by the union in discharging its statutory authority.

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Frank Murphy, serving from January 18, 1940 until his unexpected death in July 19, 1949

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Frank Murphy, serving from January 18, 1940 until his unexpected death in July 19, 1949

Associate Justice Frank Murphy concurred, but came in slugging.  He said that deciding the case on the legal technicalities was all well and good, but that the elephant in the courtroom should not be ignored.  His concurrence, which contains the first use in a Supreme Court opinion of the word racism, is worth quoting in full:

The economic discrimination against Negroes practiced by the Brotherhood and the railroad under color of Congressional authority raises a grave constitutional issue that should be squarely faced.

The utter disregard for the dignity and the well-being of colored citizens shown by this record is so pronounced as to demand the invocation of constitutional condemnation. To decide the case and to analyze the statute solely upon the basis of legal niceties, while remaining mute and placid as to the obvious and oppressive deprivation of constitutional guarantees, is to make the judicial function something less than it should be.

The constitutional problem inherent in this instance is clear. Congress, through the Railway Labor Act, has conferred upon the union selected by a majority of a craft or class of railway workers the power to represent the entire craft or class in all collective bargaining matters. While such a union is essentially a private organization, its power to represent and bind all members of a class or craft is derived solely from Congress. The Act contains no language which directs the manner in which the bargaining representative shall perform its duties. But it cannot be assumed that Congress meant to authorize the representative to act so as to ignore rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Otherwise the Act would bear the stigma of unconstitutionality under the Fifth Amendment in this respect. For that reason I am willing to read the statute as not permitting or allowing any action by the bargaining representative in the exercise of its delegated powers which would in effect violate the constitutional rights of individuals.

If the Court’s construction of the statute rests upon this basis, I agree. But I am not sure that such is the basis. Suffice it to say, however, that this constitutional issue cannot be lightly dismissed. The cloak of racism surrounding the actions of the Brotherhood in refusing membership to Negroes and in entering into and enforcing agreements discriminating against them, all under the guise of Congressional authority, still remains. No statutory interpretation can erase this ugly example of economic cruelty against colored citizens of the United States. Nothing can destroy the fact that the accident of birth has been used as the basis to abuse individual rights by an organization purporting to act in conformity with its Congressional mandate. Any attempt to interpret the Act must take that fact into account and must realize that the constitutionality of the statute in this respect depends upon the answer given.

The Constitution voices its disapproval whenever economic discrimination is applied under authority of law against any race, creed or color. A sound democracy cannot allow such discrimination to go unchallenged. Racism is far too virulent today to permit the slightest refusal, in the light of a Constitution that abhors it, to expose and condemn it wherever it appears in the course of a statutory interpretation.”


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