Hazardous working conditions, discrimination, self determination and the need for job protection were the key elements for the establishment of the National Alliance of Postal Employees in 1913 by 35 black railway mail clerks who met at the foot of Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee to form a union for the immediate purpose of preventing the elimination of blacks from the railway mail service. At the time of the National Alliance's founding, the practices and policies of the existing craft unions excluded blacks from their membership. This attitude persisted well into the sixties. Since its October 6, 1913 founding, the Alliance, which was the first industrial union in the federal service, has kept its doors open to all eligible persons regardless of race, sex, creed or religion-- a factor which distinguishes NAPFE from the old line craft unions in the postal and federal service.
The sequence of events which led to the creation of the National Alliance in 1913 and its subsequent growth over the ensuing years constitutes a provocative and exciting segment in the history of the labor movement in general and the black struggle for equality in particular. Hazardous working conditions, discrimination, militancy, self determination and a desire for equal employment opportunity are key elements in the dramatic story of this Union.
It begins in the late 1890's and early 1900's when the Railway Mail Service was the most important phase of the postal service outside the area of first-class post offices. Nearly every railroad which passed through or near sizable towns had a mail car. The clerk in the mail car was responsible for receiving and dispatching mail in accordance with official schemes, schedules and special instructions. A great majority of the railway mail clerks were black. The Railway Mail Service was operating with dangerous wooden cars which guaranteed casualty in train wrecks. As a result, competition for the hazardous positions was slight and blacks were more readily hired as railway clerks until the railways conversion from wooden to steel railway cars in 1913.
With the advent of steel cars, a concerted effort was made to eliminate black railway mail workers. Since the Railway Mail Association excluded blacks from its membership, black workers did not have the benefit of an industrial organization to appeal to for their defense. This was the situation facing black workers when a call went out to black railway mail clerks in August 1913 to convene in Tennessee in October for the purpose of joining forces to combat the discrimination they were encountering.
Thirteen states were represented at that first meeting on October 2, 1913 at the foot of Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee when the National Alliance of Postal Employees was founded. The major concerns of that founding meeting were: to provide a beneficiary department and an insurance department to enable black railway clerks to make suitable provisions for their families; to launch a national journal dedicated to the interests of black railway mail clerks; and to establish means to effectively present their grievances and petitions to the Post Office Department.
In 1923, the National Alliance became the first industrial Union in the United States when it opened its membership to any postal employee who desired to join.
Although the Union was organized for the immediate purpose of preventing the elimination of blacks from the railway mail service, the Alliance has kept its doors open to all eligible persons regardless of race, sex, creed or religion - a factor which distinguishes the Alliance from the practices and policies of the old line craft unions in the postal and federal service.
Despite the predictions of failure, the Alliance has grown steadily. Its growth can be attributed to the reputation it has earned in the effective representation of its members in grievance, adverse action and equal employment opportunity cases throughout its history.
It was the Alliance along with other organizations who protested the use of photographs for identification for civil service examinations as early as 1914. The Alliance recognized that photographs could be used as a racial discrimination tool and continued its protest until the elimination of this practice 26 years later.