The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 106, July 2002 - April, 2003

Black Texans and Theater Craft Unionism:
The Struggle for Racial Equality
ERNEST OBADELE-STARKS*
THE EVOLUTION OF THE SMALL, CRAFT-ORIENTED, BLACK-LED LABOR UNION IN
an urban-industrial setting is one of the more understudied aspects of
American labor history. The struggle for black workplace rights was not
unique to the unskilled, and the pervasiveness and influence of black la-
bor extended beyond the ranks of prominent labor organizations to pen-
etrate the circles of urban craft unions. The experiences of two urban-
based, black craft unions in the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage
Employees and Moving Picture Operators (IATSE)-a union consisting
of stagehands, projectionists, motion-picture craft workers, and techni-
cians-provide such an example. Although small and somewhat obscure,
the trajectories of IATSE Locals 279-A of Houston and 249-A of Dallas in-
tersected many important issues in American labor, cultural, political,
and social history. The unique responses of the black workers in each of
these two major metropolitan centers toward the communications indus-
try, conservative unionism, workplace inequities, corruption, technologi-
cal advances, mergers, government labor policy, and social reform, re-
sulted in both similarities and differences. A look at the origins and the
development of each local reveals the labor-movement values held by the
members of each union as they struggled to define their place among the
skilled working-class. Although recent studies on the labor movement
have focused primarily on the unskilled labor force with racial and ethnic
in-fighting as a central theme, the racialization of craft unions, which
based their union strength and power on the physical abilities and skills
of their workers, holds a special place in the historiography of American
labor.'
* Ernest Obadele-Starks is an associate professor of history at Texas A&M University-College
Station. The author would hke to thank Denise Hartsough for reading and offering comments on
this article.
'C. M. Fox and S. A. Austin, "A Brief History of Motion Picture Operators: Local Union 330,"
Twenty-fifth Anniversary Banquet and Dance of M.P.O. Local No. 33 o. Recent labor studies have begun
to re-evaluate the role of African American labor in the union movement. Most agree that black
VOL. CVI, NO. 4 SOUTHWESTERN HISTORICAL QUARTERLY APRIL 2003

Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 106, July 2002 - April, 2003. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101223/. Accessed October 23, 2014.