Rudolph ”Rudy” Bogue, age 70. A Union Man
What would you say is your greatest accomplishment?
Staying alive. Is that good enough? (laughing but serious) Because, my mother told me “you ain’t going to live long, you ain’t gonna live past 30.” I said, what do you mean? “Police gonna kill you.” They gonna kill me for what? “The way you walk, the way you talk, they gonna kill you!” Well, I’m still here.
So how did you walk and how did you talk?
The same way I do now, but without the cane. (deadpan) I took after my father. They called him “The Mayor.” He took no stuff from nobody. He always had two guns on him.
Tell me about your father.
Every summer my sister and I would spend the summer with our grandparents in Emporia, VA. He’d come down and get us at the end of the summer. This particular time he came down to bring us back up on the train. In those days, all the Black people had to fit in one car. They had to stand all scrunched up into a single car until you reached Washington, D.C. where the segregation law stopped. In the car immediately next to us there were just three white people. My father said “Come children, were going to sit up in this car where the white people are.” When the conductor came over he said “My children are not going to be standing in that crowded car all the way to Washington.” The conductor went to speak to the three white people who went to the next car, and all the Black people all scrunched together started to come in where we were sitting. My father could have been lynched.
How did you become involved in the union?
I couldn’t find a job. So, I went down to the New York State Employment Office and was sent to a chandelier manufacturer on Greene Avenue as a helper. I was making $1.11 an hour. It was 1952. After I was there 30 days here comes a guy talking “you gotta pay some dues.” What?? He said “you gotta join the union.” I said “what’s a union?” I make $1.11 an hour and you want some of my money? I gotta pay YOU — to work? I went along with the program and was mad as hell for 3 years. But it was the best thing I ever did.
What was the turning point for you?
I was a committee man for the union, the one who backs up the shop steward. But one day they fired a Black man on the job unfairly and the shop steward went along with the program. I said, “No, you can’t do that. I was there. I saw what happened. He was set up.” The issue went up to a business rep named Lou Stein who listened and got into it. The Black guy in the end got his job back and lost no pay. But by now, the whole shop is in an uproar against the shop steward. They had a big meeting and he was replaced. Then the replacement died. The shop said “we want Rudy.” That’s how I became a shop steward. Lou Stein taught me as I watched him. He introduced me to Harry Van Arsdale, who helped to open doors for Blacks at a time when the union was just father and son. We went to many places together I would not have gone to had I not entered the union.
Give me a ‘for instance.’
In 1955, at a convention in Atlantic City, NJ, Van Arsdale came over to me and said “Rudy, A. Philip Randolph is down there at the hotel on the boardwalk. Did you go over and see him?” I said, who?? “You mean, you don’t know?” he said. I got everybody together and went over. A. Philip Randolph and I talked for over an hour and I still had no idea who he really was. But the man was sharp! Years later, I wrote a college research paper about him. And man, when I saw what that guy did! And at that time!
Who else did you have a chance to meet?
Lots of people. All these experiences, all the people I’ve met and I started out as a kid that didn’t know what a union was. In 1963, we organized buses for the March on Washington.
What was the March On Washington like?
Being from Brooklyn, I had no idea of all that was going on at that time in the south. There were limited reports in the newspapers up here. But I did know it involved – us.
When the buses rolled in I saw lots of people and the Secret Service carrying sub-machine guns. I saw them cart off American Nazi Party Leader, George Rockwell, and his six thugs in storm trooper uniforms before they incited a riot. And I met Dr. King and Corretta, Abernathy, Hosea Williams and Jackson up on the steps, by Lincoln’s statue. Van Arsdale took me up there. I met King several times after that. Whenever he came to New York to meet with the unions I met with him. He knew the unions played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement.
Are unions still needed today as they were years ago?
A union is needed for the working people. We are the buffer between the haves and the have-nots. We (unions) are in the middle, we’re a stopper. You’ve got good unions and you’ve got bad unions. But a bad union is better than no union. You have no union you ain’t got no protection at all. Now, they (the bosses) have figured out a way to get around it. . . It’s called outsourcing. It’s a way to rob us.
Why don’t we know about people like Harry Van Arsdale or A. Phillip Randolph?
Because Van Arsdale never liked publicity, he just didn’t like publicity. He was just going to do his thing – quietly. And a. Phillip Randolph was fighting everybody to organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters: George Pullman, the Black preachers, the white press – everybody. But as the saying goes, “eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.”
How would you describe yourself politically?
“Actively involved” And I vote in everything. A couple of elections ago when I was in the wheelchair I had them push me around. So I could vote. Politically active, that is the only way you can be. About voting, there’s gotta be something to it. Otherwise they wouldn’t be trying so hard to keep us from it. If only we would understand that.
What leaders out there on the horizon do you like?
I subscribe to the theory that we have always been put in that position, that we must choose whoever’s going to hurt you the least. One guy’s going to put his foot up your behind up to his knee, and the other guy’s going to put his foot up your behind up to his ankle. The second guy is the guy you vote for!