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Philadelphia’s “War Heroes” of 1944

How many of you know what happened in Philadelphia in the summer of 1944?

We would like to share with our readers how members of what is today’s AFL-CIO Union “distinguished” themselves as unpatriotic, racists during WWII.  It may help shape your view of public sector unions which is at the heart of Wisconsin's recall primary on Tuesday and the recall election in June.

During World War II Philadelphia was the number two war production city in the United States, that is until it was crippled by the worst U.S. transportation strike during the war.

In the first week of August 1944, employees of the Philadelphia Transit Company (PTC) effectively shut down the city's transit system, defying both the federal government and their own union. A wildcat strike, which lasted for six days, halted much of the city's war production, was in response to aPTC decision to promote eight African Americans to the position of motormen (trolley car driver).   In the decade leading to what would become known as the “hate strike,” African Americans had demanded that the PTC hire them as bus and trolley drivers, motormen and conductors, and station cashiers.  However, in August 1944, the Company refused to hire any new African American employees and all of the company's 537 current black employees were restricted to menial and backbreaking jobs in its maintenance divisions and primarily worked as porters and messengers and were not permitted to interact with the public. Many transit companies around the country employed similar discriminatory hiring practices. The PTC system was owned in-part by the city and was one of the largest transit systems in the country, carrying 2,500,000 passengers daily. 

Due to this war-time strike, 900,000 war production workers who poduced everything from hub caps to vital radar equipment were forced to hitch hike to work, others trudged miles in Philadelphia's sweltering August heat—or just stayed home. Army & Navy officials estimated that at least 500,000 man-hours of war production were lost due to this illegal strike. In addition, Philadelphia's taverns and liquor stores were shut down by police and department stores lost thousands of dollars in trade.

The genesis of this historic unerasible black mark on the AFL-CIO began in March, 1944, when Philadelphia’s transportation workers elected the Transport Workers Union (TWU), Local 234, an affiliate of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), as its official bargaining agent. The TWU promised to make racial equality the highest priority in contract negotiations.

The former bargaining agent, Philadelphia Rapid Transit Employees Union (PRTEU) had close ties to the company and supported its racist hiring practices. The PRTEU contract expired in April of 1944, and as contract talks with the TWU dragged on for months, the PTC received pressure to integrate its workforce from both the federal Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC) and the TWU. The PTC ignored this pressure, providing the excuse that it wanted to await a new TWU contract.

Maybe worst of all, just two months earlier (June 6, 1944—D-Day) allied forces had landed on the beaches of Normandy, France on their way to liberating Europe—leading to the end of WWII and the Third Reich’s fascist reign of terror.


In this video, community elders and passionate participants in Germantown, Pennsylvania’s “Speaks Project, “ answer students questions on the history of Germantown, and describe life in Philadelphia during the public transportation strike of 1944, when US Marines had to be brought to Philadelphia to ensure the safety of African American drivers and motormen.  This video was uploaded to YouTube in 2010.