The practice of segregated union locals, common in the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) during the first half of the twentieth century, led to racial confrontation in San Francisco. In 1934, black Local 648 sued its much larger counterpart, Local 6, which had attempted to control all musical employment in the Bay Area. Though Local 648 eventually withdrew its suit, its charter was revoked and black musicians were placed in “subsidiary” status. A new “colored local” (669) was chartered in 1946 and worked alongside Local 6 until the state forced amalgamation in 1960. Many other segregated locals did not merge until the late 1960s or early 1970s.
The saga of Locals 6, 648, and 669 brings into focus the complex social and economic forces buffeting the working musician in the early twentieth century. Racialist attitudes in the US labor movement, mirrored in the musicians' union, forced blacks to organize separately and accept lower wages in order to secure employment. The AFM, for its part, was constrained by its dedication to local autonomy. Black union musicians were themselves divided—torn between outrage at their second-class status and the apparent benefits of working for change from within the organization.