Peter Cole's Blog, Review

How a Black Radical Helped to Build One of America’s Most Powerful Unions

By Pauline Bryan
Tribune Magazine (UK)
January 2021

Ben Fletcher is not a household name today, but in the early 20th century he helped to break down racial barriers in America’s labour movement – and build an IWW that threatened to overthrow the ruling class.

Peter Cole’s book, Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly, uncovers what there is to find out about an important trade union leader in the US from the early part of the twentieth century. The sad thing is how little is known: Ben Fletcher’s life was extraordinary by any measure, but there’s hardly any record of his personal life or his motivations in engaging with trade unionism and radical politics.

Fletcher was born in Philadelphia in 1890, after his parents escaped the resurgence of white supremacy in Virginia. At just 20 he had already become active in a trade union, and was an accomplished street speaker.

The impact of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)—known as the Wobblies—on the docks of Philadelphia was unprecedented. Ben Fletcher joined Local 8, a branch which achieved some of the most significant involvement of black Americans in trade union activity of any eta. The IWW he became part of was unlike other trade unions of its time, both in terms of being avowedly revolutionary and its determination to organise all workers regardless of race, nationality, or sex.

British Connections

Despite the difficulty of travel between the US and Europe, there was a cross-fertilisation of ideas and activists, and although unlike any British trade union, the IWW had resonance.

The author of this book, Peter Cole, wrote a chapter in Keir Hardie and the 21st Century Socialist Revival covering Hardie’s contact with Eugene Debs, one of the founders of the IWW. Hardie was shocked at the level of violence used against trade unionists in the US, and the role of judges in carrying out employers’ dirty work.

Keir Hardie had, of course, fought hard for the trade unions to establish the Labour Party, and however frustrating and slow that route was, he stuck to it – but he never confined his activities to Parliament. ‘If democracy has any meaning,’ he said, ‘it must mean that the mass of the people in their own strength evolve solutions to their own problems.’

James Connolly and James Larkin of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union both spent time in the US working with the IWW too. Connolly was working in the Singer factory in Newark in 1906 and joined the IWW and Socialist Party of America; in 1914, after the Dublin Lockout, Larkin also travelled to the US and also became a member of the Socialist Party.

Claude McKay, a Jamaican-born communist writer, refers to Fletcher’s Local 8 in his novel Home to Harlem. Rachel Holmes, in her recent book on Sylvia Pankhurst, documents how, years earlier, McKay had been in London, and was recruited by Pankhurst to work for the newspaper Dreadnaught.

These political links across the Atlantic were transmitted through the migration of workers, the ship crews that docked in Philadelphia, the experiences during the First World War, and the birth of the Communist International.

Local 8

While Philadelphia was a refuge for Southern black people in the post-civil war period, there had been vicious attacks on black Americans there, including by Irish immigrants over jobs in the docks in 1842. The IWW was able to avoid the employers’ divide-and-rule strategies by recruiting members who had previously been used to undercut the wages of others.

Fletcher was involved in both the Socialist Party of America and the IWW, but a rift occurred over tactics, including the IWW’s support for the use of sabotage. The differences were, however, largely theoretical – once Local 8 was established as a major force on the docks, it didn’t need disruption. Fletcher wrote to a friend in 1920: ‘While I do not countenance against the working class striking at the ballot box, I am firmly convinced that the foremost and historical mission of Labor is to organise as a class, industrially.’

Local 8 issued monthly buttons to its paid-up members, which enabled them to know if their fellow workers were in the union. Through this mechanism they were able to force employers to stop using the ‘shape up’ system for hiring, in which workers were hired at the dockyard gate and could be fired after a few hours’ work.

This system was also in place in Britain, where proper employment had been a demand since 1889, but it took until 1947 to establish the Dock Labour Board. In 1913, Local 8 succeeded in replacing ‘shape up’ with a process in which the employer called the union hall to request the workers they needed for a shift.

The IWW also achieved a remarkable level of racial equality and integration. Before Local 8, groups of workers were racially segregated into all-Irish, all-Italian or all-black, and could be pitted against each other. Local 8 integrated these communities, and the position of chair alternated between black and white members.

Local 8 agreed not to strike during the First World War – a decision that was criticised by other leftists. Its single strike action occurred on the anniversary of their first big, successful strike, which they celebrated with an annual picnic. The members marched from their union hall led by three bands. Spectators describing it at the time said: ‘You could see in the lines of men walking five abreast, American, Polish, Lithuanian, Belgian and coloured in the same line,’ chanting ‘no creed, no colour can bar you from membership’.

But Fletcher didn’t spend all his time in the relative safety of the integrated workforce of Philadelphia. The IWW needed him elsewhere, even though, as Robin D. G. Kelly describes in the foreword, ‘he was especially susceptible to lethal violence’. In 1917, Fletcher was despatched to Norfolk, Virginia, the heart of the old Confederacy. It was not long before he was under threat of lynching, and was smuggled out on a ship to Boston.

Jail Time

Despite Local 8’s decision not to impede the war effort, the government were determined to attack the IWW. A federal grand jury in Chicago indicted a large number of IWW members on multiple counts for conspiring to hinder various acts of Congress and presidential decrees: Fletcher was one of 165 Wobblies charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917, conspiring to strike, violating the constitutional right of employers, and using the mail to conspire to defraud employers.

Along with other IWW leaders, Fletcher was found guilty by a jury after 45 minutes’ consideration. He and the others were transported to Leavenworth, Kansas on a dedicated train. Putting so many union organisers together in one prison meant they could support each other, and they even published a paper called News and Views from the Labor World. Their communication outside of the prison was limited and censored by no less than J. Edgar Hoover, who wanted Fletcher’s mail monitored for ‘Negro agitation’.

Fletcher was the only black American among the 165 jailed. When he was released on bail in 1920, he helped raise money for those still detained. Some funds came from British sailors who supported the Shop Stewards Movement.

Movement Tensions

Local 8 also came into conflict with the wider movement in what was known as the ‘Philadelphia Controversy’. It was suspended in 1920, for allegedly loading ammunition for anti-Soviet forces in the Russian civil war.

The accusations over failing to boycott supplies for the White Russians were linked to the worldwide differences between communists, anarchists, and syndicalists, which were to bedevil the movement for decades. The Wobblies considered themselves to be Marxist and believed in the class struggle – but were concerned that the Communist Party was anti-democratic and authoritarian.

Fletcher, particularly, feared that the Communist Party wanted to turn the IWW into the Bolshevik vanguard in the US. He blamed them for the Philadelphia Controversy, and for fabricating the story about loading ammunition. Peter Cole states that ‘Historians do not have sufficient documentation […] to ascertain what precisely happened.’

In 1922, Local 8 revived its long struggle to achieve an eight-hour day. They decided simply to declare that their members would only work eight hours, and reported for work an hour later than usual. The employers’ response was a lockout, for which the International Longshoreman’s Union (ILA) had workers ready to take over.

In the process of the lockout, the Local 8’s celebrated interracial solidarity broke apart. This was at a time of increased racist terrorism and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and relations off the job between black and white workers and their families were poor: ‘no more interracial picnics as during the Wobbly era,’ Cole writes. The IWW lost many of its black members, but Fletcher stayed. During the lockout, he received some good news: a pardon for his wartime conviction.

A Vital Legacy

Of Ben Fletcher’s private life, we know little. Documentation shows that he was married twice, the first time while in Boston after escaping from Virginia. His wife, Carrie Danno Bartlett, was a white woman of which nothing else is known. Soon after his imprisonment, there was a divorce. His second wife was a black American named Clara.

Much of what we do know of Fletcher comes from his writing in newspapers and reports of his speeches; the rest comes from the government’s spying. Cole appends a great array of documents including agent’s reports – some of them farcical, but illustrative of the level of surveillance he was under. Agents were turning up at his door, one identifying himself as health inspector and then demanding to see the contents of Fletcher’s suitcase.

Fletcher had a stroke at the young age of 42. The manual work he had performed throughout his short life took its toll, and he died in 1949.

To Cole, his legacy is the history of Local 8. ‘An avowedly revolutionary union led by a black man forced corporations in America’s third biggest city and fifth largest port to deal with a union in which the great majority of members were African Americans and European immigrants. And they did it without ever signing a contract, instead enforcing their demands based on the ever present threat of a strike.’

The final article in the appendices was written in 1921 by Robert Hardoen, a young black IWW member who was also active in Chicago’s Dill Pickle Club. It leaves the reader keen to learn more about the Club, which was founded by anarchists, Wobblies, and cultural radicals, and welcomed everyone regardless of ethnicity, race, sexual preference, or politics.

Hardoen writes: ‘The great danger attendant upon all the movements for group emancipation is that they may become purely nationalistic or racial in their aspects, rather than built along lines that take into consideration the economic foundations of society.’ He concludes: ‘The writer who is one of them [a black worker] wishes to say to our white fellow workers ‘Move over, fellow workers, move over. We’re coming in. We’ve heard that the water’s fine.”

Peter Cole offers the reader as much as he can about the extraordinary man Ben Fletcher. The book, along with its appendices, is a fascinating study of an individual as a central character in the US trade union movement, at a seminal time in its history.

Pauline Bryan is a Labour member of the House of Lords. She is a supporter of Campaign for Socialism in Scotland and a founding member of the Keir Hardie Society.

Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly

Peter Cole is a professor of history at Western Illinois University in Macomb and a research associate in the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Cole is the author of the award-winning Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area and Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia. He coedited Wobblies of the World: A Global History of the IWW. He is the founder and codirector of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project.

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