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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Clyde Cook, July 10, 1977. Interview H-0003. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Unionization and African American workers at Alcoa

Cook argues that work conditions began to change for the better following the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. Cook describes his support of Roosevelt and goes onto discuss the unionization of workers, specifically African American workers, shortly thereafter. According to Cook, employers tried to discourage and intimidate African American workers from supporting the union; however, the union eventually won enough support among the workers and the color line within the union eventually faded, resulting in improved conditions for African American workers.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Clyde Cook, July 10, 1977. Interview H-0003. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

ROSEMARIE HESTER:
When did things start to improve during the thirties? A lot of people were laid off during the middle part of the thirties, and then when did things start to pick up again at Alcoa?
CLYDE COOK:
I'm not much of keeping a record in mind of what year. But let me say this [laughter] : I remember mighty good if you want to know the change of Presidential administration, the change that taken place. I won't ever forget it. I was a youngster, working hard, as I've told you, ten and twelve hours a week [sic]. And Election Day came up, and there was only three construction workers working for Alcoa in the construction department at that time, and I was one of them. And we was working on the railroad out there, another black by the name of Will Sturdemire, John Biggs, and myself, the three of us. Mr. Culp , the walker boss, came out that day and said to us… Mr. Herbert Hoover was President of the United States, and that was Election Day, and he said, "You boys better pray that Mr. Hoover be reelected the President. If Roosevelt's elected, the company will close this plant down." And I never will forget it. I stopped. I was driving spikes, and I stopped and set my hammer down. And I stood up and I told him, "Mr. Culp, there's one thing I wants to say, and I'm going to say it. I don't care if they'd close the plant down and throw the damn key in the lake down yonder. I pray God that Herbert Hoover won't be reelected the President of the United States." He looked at me, and he said, "You ain't got good sense, and you ain't never had." And I said, "I never will have if I have to pray for Herbert Hoover to be a President for another term." And he turned around and walked off from . And Herbert Hoover lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt. And as soon as Roosevelt got in office, the wheel of industry started turning. They started the calling in and putting more people back to work and started raising the wages. I believe that's when N.R.A. Johnson brought in the forty-hour work week. And they started making some changes in the working man's position under the early stages of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
ROSEMARIE HESTER:
Do you remember when the union was first organized?
CLYDE COOK:
Yes.
ROSEMARIE HESTER:
Did you help in the organization of the union?
CLYDE COOK:
I joined the union in its early stages, when it was just beginning. You were supposed to hide; the company had Chief Melton, and the policemen would sit around and keep a tab on who were going to union meetings. And blacks was afraid to be seen going to the union hall and those kind of things, was afraid to let it be known that they was members. And I remember mighty well; I was janitoring at that time at what they called the wash house down there. That's the entrance where they'd change clothes and go in to work at. Whenever it was before the employees to vote on whether they would be represented by a union or not. And Chief Melton for Alcoa came in and said to another old black that was working there as I was, Eli Matthew, and said to myself, "You people are in a position to talk to these colored people whenever they come in. And the company has taken care of you down through the years. You know you can depend on the company. Now if you want to vote and let certain people, this Robert Kearns and them kind of people, run your business, it's up to you. The best thing you can do is to try to advise all the black people to go vote against that union." And I listened to him make the statement, and I went right the opposite direction. Every black that came in that consulted and some that didn't, if I felt that it wasn't a direct contact back to the office, what I was doing or what I was saying, I was using my influence for them to vote for the union for better working conditions and better opportunities for blacks.
ROSEMARIE HESTER:
What type of impact did it have?
CLYDE COOK:
In the terms of influencing blacks? Well, the union won. They won and have, but of course they was weak for a good many years. But the union won out, that the employees would be represented by the AFL-CIO.
ROSEMARIE HESTER:
What kind of impact did it have for blacks, though? Did they have greater opportunities in the plant?
CLYDE COOK:
In some respect, in the wages, but they had a division line, a color line that was well understood between the company and between the union, certain lines that they held for white, and certain they held for blacks. At that time there weren't even any blacks could go in for crane operators or truck operators or nothing of that king. That came in way years later, that blacks began to gradually improve.