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Maida Springer Insisted Unions Were Essential for Improving Black People’s Lives

Maida Springer isn’t a household name even among trade unionists and labor historians. But she was a lifelong union member and organizer who was committed to using unions to improve black people’s lives in the United States and Africa.

Maida Springer c. 1950. (Kheel Center)

Murray Gross, a former leader in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), said that the name Maida Springer was “a password in most of Africa” for opening doors of influence. Labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph had a deep working relationship with Springer that spanned decades, once telling Tanganyikan independence leader Julius Nyerere, “Her whole heart is dedicated to the development of the African trade union movement and African freedom.”

Though largely ignored by history, Maida Springer deserves a place among the towering figures we usually associate with civil rights and anti-colonial movements. The work of historian Yevette Richards in gathering her oral history provides a glimpse into Springer’s extraordinary life. Rising through the ranks of the ILGWU in Harlem, Springer became a key component of the AFL-CIO’s international work of developing programs with labor movements in other countries and a beloved figure among labor movements in several African countries.

Springer’s work reflected a specific moment and generational cohort in black political history. Her milieu believed that building the labor movement and pursuing a social-democratic agenda were instrumental tools for improving the lives of working-class black people. She brought this same perspective to her work in African countries like Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, and Tanganyika, where she was caught in the middle of the AFL-CIO’s complicated Cold War politics.

“A Member of That Class Without Apology”

A child of a Panamanian mother and Barbadian father, Maida Springer moved to Harlem in 1917 at the age of seven. This move would place Springer at the center of a vibrant ferment in black political, social, and intellectual life.

Maida’s mother, Adina Stewart, was an active member of the early black nationalist Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Some of Springer’s earliest childhood memories were of marching with her mother in Garvey parades as a Black Cross Nurse and going regularly to the UNIA hall to catch discussions of political issues. Despite being known as a Garveyite, Springer’s mother was still ecumenical and hosted a broad range of political gatherings at the house. 

A young Maida Springer (center) with two other women, year unknown. (Kheel Center)

This dense network of political connections exposed Maida at a young age to a variety of perspectives on how to improve black people’s lives. Maida became friends with her next-door neighbor Dona Murray and routinely went to her house folding leaflets and stuffing envelopes, not knowing exactly what the leaflets and stuffed envelopes were for. Only later in life did Springer realize that Murray’s father was a Pullman porter, a member of the all-black workforce that attended to the needs of customers on luxury Pullman train cars. They were folding leaflets for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters’ organizing drive.

At age thirteen, Springer was sent to the Bordentown School in New Jersey, known as the “Tuskegee of the North” because of its focus on training students for manual labor, much like the Alabama university founded by Booker T. Washington to serve black students, mostly in trades. Despite this reputation as a trade school, academic classes were offered with esteemed guest lecturers like Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois. 

These early years were also accompanied by the harsh reality of racial discrimination, shaping Springer’s views on how racism operates in the workplace and the wider economy. She had to work early, starting at a garment factory at age eleven. When applying to work for a telephone company, the person in charge responded, “What white mother would want you to sit next to her child?” 

The issue of workplace discrimination was a central focus of the broader black Harlem left in the 1920s and 1930s. One of Springer’s first experiences with activism came in the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns, which were prevalent in Harlem during the Depression. This initiative mobilized black communities to boycott businesses that didn’t hire black workers and brought together a wide coalition of black nationalists, socialists, and communists.

It was in this ferment that Springer met A. Philip Randolph, who would remain a close mentor for the rest of her life and seemed to embody the connection between race and class she was experiencing. She was twenty-two when she first encountered Randolph as a soapbox speaker, and his speeches gave her the broader political perspective she was searching for. 

A. Philip Randolph. (Getty Images)

Springer remembers, “He excited my interest and challenged my mind to think about something besides the prejudice against the black community. I owe him a debt of gratitude for this. I got a PhD education in survival from Randolph and an awareness of a struggle and of black and white relationships.” She would remain a faithful ally of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, describing herself as a “volunteer member” of the union, and joined their victory march after winning a first contract in 1937.

After taking a break from the garment industry to take care of her children, Maida returned to garment work in 1932. Again, her timing was favorable, as she returned in time to take part in a huge garment industry strike in August 1933. By May, she joined the ILGWU.

The strike was transformative for Springer and firmly set the trajectory of her political life: “I was intoxicated with the drama, beauty, and importance of the occasion. As a result of this exhilarating experience, I proudly accepted more assignments and enrolled in more classes than was reasonable.”

It was also not lost on her that many of the new gains for labor were made possible by various New Deal policies. She described Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration, which gave workers some minimal protections and bargaining power, as “the Magna Carta for labor. That workers should and could have representation really was a whole change in the climate of America.”

Maida threw herself into a whirlwind of union activity. The ILGWU was overwhelmed by the constant stream of new members and always looking for people to step up and take on union responsibilities. She joined committees that established prices for garment work, learned parliamentary procedure, and studied the contract. The union sent Springer to summer school events and lectures with institutions like the Rand School for Social Science and the Harlem Labor Center.

By 1938, the union had 620 educational groups attended by 22,050 students across the country. It established a vibrant cultural life that included film screenings, dances, parties, concerts, hikes, museum trips, and more. In 1940, Springer became chair of the Education Committee and continued to build on this work.

A deserted shop after ILGWU members stopped work to attend union meetings on January 24, 1940. (Getty Images)

One can’t overstate the social significance this institutional life had for ILGWU members. Springer recalls, “It was a whole new world. It was a whole education. And it was so fast. It was so rapid. It was hard to keep up.” It would be difficult to find other institutions at this time that could offer working-class black women like Maida Springer these same kinds of opportunities for dignity, fulfillment, and exercising leadership.

Unions during this period were crucial for giving working-class people a broader cultural significance to their lives and work. Minnie Lurye, a later friend of Springer and ILGWU member, said in a letter to the ILGWU president that the union “has taken an occupation of making dresses and transformed it into a purposeful life. It has given them an ideal to live by that transforms a drab and humdrum existence into actual living.

Springer’s heart and soul were won over to the labor movement during this period. Aside from cultural opportunities, the union brought concrete improvements to workers’ economic conditions. By the late 1930s, the ILGWU had won a thirty-five-hour workweek, rising wages, the first employer-financed worker vacation fund, and a health and welfare plan, solidifying her absolute loyalty to trade unionism as a tool of working-class advancement:

I have an unending love affair with the American labor movement. I make no apologies for whatever has been found to be wrong with the American labor movement, but so much has been right that I will always be an advocate . . . to the degree that a government can be challenged and workers can have the right to help to determine their hours of work, conditions of employment, redress of their grievances, it’s the labor movement that made this contribution on behalf of the working-class. I remain a member of that class without apology.

Springer’s deep involvement in labor brought her into close contact with various stripes of the Left. She considered herself a socialist in the mold of A. Philip Randolph, but was never convinced by the Communist Party’s constant efforts to get her to join their ranks. Her disagreements with them were centered around the way they approached union work. 

“I don’t see the union the Communists do,” she said. “I think that the union is moving along the ways to help the worker. The Communists in my view were concerned with an international political agenda, which I did not want to be a part of.” She also sensed a patronizing attitude toward her as a black worker: “I think they loved me too much. And I’m always suspicious of that.”

Maida Springer (left) observes sewing in an ILGWU shop, c. 1949. (Kheel Center)

Instead, Maida focused her efforts on continuing to build the alliance between labor and civil rights. She thought it was vitally important to educate black workers about the opportunities the labor movement provided and get them involved. This labor focus during the 1930s and 1940s influenced even more conservative civil rights organizations, such as the Urban League. For example, the Urban League’s education secretary Lester Granger wrote a booklet called The ABCs of Labor aimed toward getting black workers to support unions.

In 1946, Randolph tapped Springer to be the lead organizer of a large Madison Square Garden rally for a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee. Though she usually didn’t attract headlines, Maida Springer played a key role in many of the major developments in the labor and civil rights movements. As involved as she was in domestic politics, her attention would soon be drawn to the international scene.

Africa

In 1945, Maida was selected by the ILGWU to travel to England as part of a delegation to observe wartime conditions. An unintended consequence of this trip was her exposure to key figures from the independence movements in Africa and the Caribbean.

In England, Springer made contacts with people like Jomo Kenyatta from Kenya, George Padmore and Eric Williams from Trinidad, Una Marson from Jamaica, and Ras Makonnen from Ethiopia. Her conversations with rank-and-file soldiers in the fight for the independence of colonial territories from the Caribbean made her realize that the postwar world wouldn’t be the same as the one she grew up in.

In conversations with Jomo Keynatta, he challenged her to bring consciousness of the international struggle back to workers in the United States. Kenyatta’s question always stuck with her: “Young girl, what does the working class of America know of the struggle for liberation from colonialism?” From then on, Springer became dedicated to the cause of helping African countries both win independence and build strong democratic labor movements.

But this newfound love for Africa was fraught with political contradictions. Africa was a Cold War battleground, and the labor movement was a key front. As Cold War tensions mounted in the postwar period, the international labor movement began to split. The US labor movement, along with noncommunist European unions, broke off from the World Federation of Trade Unions and formed the anti-communist International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), part of a broader effort to undermine the power of Communist-affiliated trade union groups that were often tied to Moscow, but were also the most militant, democratic, and social justice–minded unions. Both federations competed for influence in Africa. 

Especially in the early period of the Cold War, the US labor movement had a relatively good reputation among African trade unionists. The United States did not own colonies in Africa and officially opposed colonialism, something most European countries could not claim. A. Philip Randolph, who for decades had advocated for a free Africa, was a national figure in the AFL-CIO.

But as is well documented today, the international policy of the AFL-CIO was often intertwined with the United States’ imperialist efforts. While Springer was aware of the Cold War politics at play, she didn’t realize how closely US labor and the Central Intelligence Agency were collaborating in Africa.

While she was critical of Communism and did not want it for Africa, she was also always critical of how the AFL-CIO let Cold War considerations influence its approach. In a letter to the AFL-CIO in 1959 she wrote, “It is to be hoped that American foreign policy for Africa in the future can be based on a premise more acceptable to Africans than the threat of Soviet domination. . . . Soviet domination, though real, is less evident than the terror, violence, discrimination endured by Africans in parts of North, South, East, and Central Africa.”

Just as she did domestically, Springer felt that a social-democratic path was the best route for independent Africa. She was skeptical of Soviet Communism but had no illusions that capitalism could bring justice to the continent: “I believe that the independent countries cannot bear the price of capitalism exacted from people for such a long time. Neither will they stand for the harsh brutality created by Stalin’s forced investment exacted from the backs of the peasants and factory workers.”

In the various African countries she worked in, Springer viewed her role as helping to lay the groundwork for strong, democratic unions that could help build stable, independent nations. Springer summed it up by saying, “My view was that you were attempting to structure opportunities for African trade unionists to improve their skills so that at some point down the line, as independence became a reality, they could contribute something positive to that society.”

She believed that trade unionists in Africa could learn from the experiences of labor movements in other countries. Springer and Randolph worked to get the AFL-CIO Executive Council to approve the American Trade Union Scholarship Program for Africa. This program paid for trade unionists across Africa to come to the United States and learn various aspects of trade union principles.

Tom Mboya, the legendary Kenyan union leader and independence leader, became a close associate of Maida Springer. He stressed to her the urgent need for housing and observed the union-sponsored cooperative housing built by the United Auto Workers in Detroit. Springer became a key broker in an arrangement to get the German Federation of Labor to build housing.

Also in Kenya, Springer was instrumental in putting together the Institute for Tailoring Cutting. The initiative was done for the Kenya Tailors and Textile Workers Union in an effort to help increase the skill level and union consciousness of its workers.

Julius Nyerere, first prime minister of independent Tanganyika (later renamed Tanzania), remarked in a letter to A. Philip Randolph, “In Tanganyika she is ‘Sister Maida’ in more than a conventional sense. She is one of them.” She was a beloved figure in Tanganyika — which is why the colonial government found her a nuisance. As a token of appreciation, Tanganyikan carpenters built the furniture she used during her stay. In Nigeria, Springer worked with the Nigerian Motor Drivers’ Union to establish the Motor Drivers’ Driving School in 1964. The AFL-CIO helped with a $25,000 grant, and the school taught skills like map reading, driving skills, and traffic regulations.

Maida Springer speaks to taxi drivers in Nigeria. (From Maida Springer: Pan Africanist and International Labor Leader by Yevette Richards [University of Pittsburg Press, 2008])
Along with the rewarding work she took part in throughout Africa, Springer also observed the contradictions that beset newly independent countries transitioning out of colonialism. Desperate for foreign aid and investments, many newly formed governments in Africa expected industrial peace. They wanted the labor movement to join with the government at the hip and play the role of partner in nation-building.

Springer was always wary of labor unions becoming an arm of the state and regretted the fact that many talented labor leaders took administrative roles in new governments. She joined with the ICFTU in criticizing Ghana’s 1958 Industrial Relations Act, which allowed the government to place restrictions on strike activity. 

Despite her critiques, she understood the difficult bind independence movements were in, saying, 

They had to make decisions for their country, and the standards of industrialized society did not reflect their interests. . . . As an American trade unionist, I couldn’t support the locking up of the principal officers of unions. You disagreed with them. But you remained friends, and you maintained the respect of a lot of people.

Even with her immense talents and effort, Springer often was not able to overcome the deep divisions with the labor movements she worked with. The prestige of the United States declined throughout Africa in the 1960s due to high-profile US interventions throughout the Global South in countries like the Congo, Cuba, and Vietnam. As this took place, it became more difficult for Maida to establish productive relationships with trade unionists around the world who saw the United States executing these imperialist interventions — and top American labor leadership falling in line behind them.

Her efforts to work with everybody regardless of political affiliation came up against the AFL-CIO’s contradictory policies in the region, most clearly on display during her stay in South Africa in the late 1970s. The AFL-CIO refused to support the anti-apartheid African National Congress because of its ties with Communists. This created problems for Springer, who was often accused of trying to split the South African labor movement.

Still, Springer’s work in Africa holds some hope for the potential of international labor solidarity. While her hopes of a strong, democratic trade union movement emerging in Africa after independence were not fully realized, she left behind a legacy of programs that offered concrete assistance to labor movements struggling in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

The Final Chapter

Failing health led Springer to return to the United States for longer periods of time. In 1966, she became a general organizer with the ILGWU. From this position, she began to observe troubling signs of the union’s decline. There was a downslide in union activism, with worsening working conditions leading to worker demoralization on the job.

But the union was still taking on ambitious initiatives, and she participated in an organizing drive of garment workers in the South. Garment firms were fleeing to the South to avoid unionization and enjoy lucrative tax breaks. This organizing drive involved an interracial workforce. The union tried to keep a civil rights spirit alive, working in close coordination with groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on voter registration as well.

Marchers from the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) in a Labor Day parade in New York City, September 1, 1982. (Barbara Alper/Getty Images)

While the results of the organizing drive were mixed, Springer continued to see the potential of interracial organizing. In April 1969, Bayard Rustin tapped Springer to become the Midwest director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, an organization created by Randolph to facilitate ties between the Civil Rights Movement and labor. During her tenure, she focused on addressing the divide between black communities and trade unions. Since her return to the United States, she noticed an increasing skepticism about unions that filtered through black media outlets and political movements.

Springer felt that many labor leaders did not fully grasp the depth of the problem. In a letter to ILGWU Southeast region director Martin Morand, she wrote,

The misguided notion that most union members are highly paid white featherbedders is all too pervasive. In the Negro communities across the nation, the cynicism and hostility against “The Establishment” which includes the trade union movement is much deeper than we are prepared to acknowledge.

Maida Springer in 1985. (Georgia State University Library)

Though never denying the labor movement’s shortcomings, Springer felt that this notion was misguided and did not recognize the opportunities trade union activity could bring for black people. She also feared that new black studies curricula were leaving out the struggles of black people in unions, which reinforced the belief for black youth that they had no place in labor. To address this, Springer published educational works like Profiles of Negro Pioneers in Chicago 1919–1945, which focused on the contributions of black trade unionists.

Though the pace would slow down, Springer continued to work tirelessly for international labor solidarity toward the end of her life. In 2002, she worked with the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center on a tour throughout Africa on child labor. She died in 2005, and the Maida Fund was established in her honor to help fund efforts to end child labor.

Maida Springer straddled many worlds and never lost faith in the power of labor unions to improve the position of the working class. Having directly experienced the power of unions to move forward civil rights causes, she fought to make these same opportunities available to others. Her life highlights an era when the projects of labor, civil rights, and social democracy were closely intertwined, at home and abroad.