Interview, Peter Cole's Blog

Interview with Peter Cole in Partisan Magazine

Author of Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly

By Luisa
Partisan Magazine
March 30, 2021

Interview Transcript:

Luisa: Peter, thanks so much for joining us. If you don’t mind, I’ll just go ahead and ask you: the IWW was founded as an anti-racist organization because its members understood racial divisions as a tool for the bosses to maintain control over workers. Could you explain why the IWW organizer Ben Fletcher was considered so dangerous to both the capitalist class and then later on the FBI?

Peter: Yeah, of course. Fletcher was so dangerous because he was a revolutionary young black worker who had taken the leadership role in what could be the most large, militant, multi-racial, multi-ethnic union in the country in that era, the 19-teens, the World War I era. Of course, the IWW was also hated, as you say, by the capitalists and the government, and that didn’t mean just Fletcher. But, really, to be a Wobbly was to have a target on your back. Especially once World War I began, because the IWW was the largest, most influential union in the United States—the world really—and one that was committed very overtly to getting rid of capitalism and instituting a socialist world economy.

And so, Fletcher was a part of this revolutionary milieu, but the fact that he was himself, an African-American who had an incredibly diverse union that controlled one of the largest waterfronts in the country, that also was why Fletcher in particular was arrested, and then tried, and later imprisoned along with a bunch of other Wobblies in 1918.

Luisa: So, in your intro, you state that you don’t attempt to extricate Ben Fletcher’s life from the life and history of his union, Local 8. I’m curious, why did you choose that route as opposed to a more straightforward biography about an unusually talented organizer in the face of multiple types of oppression?

Peter: Yeah. There’s a lot of ways one could approach it as a historian. I have always been interested in unions, and social movements more broadly. Essentially, how people collectively have more power than they have individually such that most of the great changes in the country—in the world—that have occurred have happened in that way, right, organized collective action. And how workers in particular have more power than other groups of people, arguably than at the ballot box, right? And so for me, I guess, I saw the union as really the key story. In and of himself, Fletcher is not important. It’s because of what he was able to do. But he was one person. One person doesn’t change the world. Right? But when one person is part of a group of 5,000 workers, and they’re able to really radically improve their own lives, change their conditions, and then also be a part of a much larger organization… to me, that’s actually the story.

But there’s also the reality that the ordinary people of the past have very little written about them. They themselves didn’t keep such good records. They didn’t keep journals, diaries. The correspondence that they might’ve had, or did have, is often lost. And so it’s very hard, actually, to tell a book-length story about an individual who isn’t an elite person. And since Ben Fletcher was both a working class man, but also an African-American in the early 20th century, the truth is that there’s a lot we don’t know about him. And so what we do know about him is, in particular, his role, his sort of central role in organizing Philadelphia dockworkers and then being an important player in the industrial workers of the world nationwide; that we know. What he liked for breakfast, his personal relationships—sadly, we know very, very little about those parts of his life.

And so to me it’s really the public life of Ben Fletcher. I’d love to know and would be deeply interested in knowing much more about Ben, his personal life, but, sadly, we don’t have that information anymore, and he had no children and no collection of papers.

And so the approach that I took for writing this biography, I think, was logical in multiple ways, but it’s really because of what he did as a part of this organization. I mean, leaders matter, but leaders only matter if they have a lot of followers. And so Fletcher was so interesting because he led this incredibly powerful militant, multiracial union in a time when racism and xenophobia and anti-unionism were the norm.

Luisa:  I got the sense of an insistence; it wasn’t just acceptance of racial and gender unity. It was insistence around it – this is issupported certainly by the historical texts you cite, but it’s also evident that representation was important as well. And so, how did either Local 8 or Fletcher himself understand these concepts? And how did it inform Wobbly organizing at that time? 

Peter:  I mean, you can’t imagine Ben Fletcher being a part of any organization other than the IWW in the 19-teens. When the IWW was founded in 1905, it was very intentionally founded by revolutionaries and radicals, men and women who were not only anti-capitalist but also understood deeply that racism and sexism were part of the equation of how the ruling class divides and conquers the working class. And, simultaneously, Fletcher believes that, as far as we know. He was a great organizer and supposedly a brilliant speaker and very funny man, but his paper trail is limited, right, and so what we know about Fletcher’s thoughts on these matters is that at some level Fletcher believed that black workers were no different than other sorts of workers, that capitalism was the primary source of oppression, and that working class people needed to organize across all divisions within them in order to overcome capitalism.

At the same time, as a black man whose parents, very possibly, were born enslaved—even though we don’t know for sure, but we know that his parents were born in Virginia in the 1850s—you know, you wouldn’t have to tell Ben Fletcher that black people got a particularly raw deal in the United States. And so I don’t want to understate the realities of racism or say that as a black man, he wasn’t anti-racist. But, as a socialist, he actually believed that the best path forward was through a multi-racial unionism in particular.

I would also point out, for people who may not be thinking about it, that in the 1920s, the teens and twenties, there was a very large black organization called the Universal Negro Improvement Association led by Marcus Garvey. And Garvey was this brilliant Jamaican political revolutionary who lived in Harlem and had over a million people belong to his organization in multiple countries, but Garveyism was separatist, and so for someone like Fletcher, if he’s thinking about, you know, okay, we need to form black worker unions, that would make sense, given discrimination against black people. But, simultaneously you have this separate disorganization that really is putting race first in a way that Fletcher and other socialists rejected.

And Garvey really wasn’t thinking at all about capitalism, he actually just wanted to be a part of capitalism. He just wanted a fair shake for black people, but didn’t trust white people to make it happen. So we can understand Fletcher in the context of his time as being much more interested in interracial unionism as opposed to black organizations, and that made him similar to people like a Philip Randolph, probably the best known labor organizing and socialist African-American who comes out of that same era. Although Fletcher dies much earlier than Randolph, so Randolph is also much better known.

Luisa: So, let me ask, what do you think—considering there’s so limited information in terms of his early life, even just personal life, do you have a particular theory for why Fletcher went that route? 

Peter: That’s a great question. It’s an important question, and my answer is sort of weak. I have opinions, I guess I would call them, educated opinions, but I don’t know. We don’t even know precisely when he joined the IWW; it was probably around 1910. He was born in 1890. So he’s about 20 years old. Might’ve been 1911. So we know about when he joined. He also pretty certainly, but not definitively, joined the Socialist Party of America at that time or around that time. And that would have been common. There were a lot of Wobblies who were socialists and vice-versa. Big Bill Haywood was a famous Wobbly leader who also, at that same moment, a member of the socialist party.

But we can guess, right? Here’s this poor black guy. He suffers. Like most working class kids in Philadelphia in the first decade of the 20th century, he didn’t finish high school. He’s clearly very smart and well read based on the correspondence that we can read and that are included in the book, but it’s not because of a formal education. He probably finished school by the age of 15 or 16 at best. And so I surmised that Fletcher was walking down the streets of his neighborhood in Philadelphia, which was a working class area, industrial area, lots of people, not just black people. It wasn’t really segregated the way it later became, right, and he probably started to meet and hear Wobbly speakers on the streets. He later, shortly thereafter, I should say, became a very well-known soapbox speaker in Philadelphia and neighboring towns.

And so it’s reasonable to conclude that he basically was organized by some Wobblies who, you know, chatted him up, maybe gave him a newspaper like Solidarity or Industrial Worker, maybe sort of set him aside. He probably watched more than once before he decided to maybe take a pamphlet or come back. But that he was convinced because of his life experience, but also probably because, well, the Wobblies were already organizing in his neighborhood, in the city of Philadelphia. And that he also joined the socialist party is indicative that he has already, at a young age, rejected capitalism as the preferred economic system that humans should live under. 

Luisa: Could you talk a little bit about, about how the government investigating Fletcher ultimately led to this trial? Particularly, I’m reading from your book here in chapter 17—this is a report made by Agent Henry Bowen to what we now understand to be the FBI, it was then the U S Department of Justice Bureau of Investigation, but he’s writing this report about Fletcher. And he says before they had entered his house, another agent entered his house pretending to be a health inspector, this is just kind of a follow-up visit.

And he writes, “Fletcher is a real type of Southern n-word agitator,” obviously self censoring here, “with no education, poor grammar. He’s about 5’9 in height, weighs 185 pounds and is reputed by the police as a bad man or gunfighter. He did not display any of that to the agent. In reference to other matters about articles, purported to be written by “A Colored Citizen” in which the Draft Act is criticized, does not think Fletcher capable of expressing himself in the same manner as these matters have been expressed. Agent feels that Fletcher is not very harmful to the U S government.” Later on, of course he was indicted and he showed up a couple hours late to his trial and even then had to demonstrate with ID that he actually needed to be inside the courtroom because the bailiff wouldn’t let him in.

So my question is: how did the constant undermining of Fletcher’s intelligence work in favor of his organizing, if only for a limited time?

Peter:  Well, there’s a bunch of good questions embedded in there. But it’s interesting, actually, because this agent Bowen, who’s this federal agent who’s spying on Fletcher, surveying him in Boston where he’s living in the summer of 1917… it’s not clear actually, that he knows Fletcher. It’s so interesting because he says Fletcher’s 5’9 and weighs 185. Well, actually, you know, he was 5’4, and although he was stocky, I doubt actually he weighed 185. And the agent totally is duped by Fletcher. Right? I mean, you know that Fletcher basically is playing a role for Bowen if he’s coming off as this real Southern agitator, because of course he’s not even Southern. He’s from Philadelphia. There’s so many things we might think about, but, you know, the bigger issues are first and foremost, like you said, he’s being spied on. American workers were [spied on] in April, 1917; really less than two months later, the U.S. Congress creates the Espionage Act. Later, the following year, the Sedition Act is added, right? But the Espionage Act basically criminalizes dissent and then two months into the war, well, they already have Fletcher and many other Wobblies under surveillance. There wasn’t even time for the IWW to organize resistance to the war if they chose to, and they’ve already been targeted. 

And so, without any evidence that Fletcher’s done anything wrong he’s already been sort of spied on, and it’s interesting that they find him in Boston. He had been in Norfolk earlier in 1917, where he was organizing and was threatened with lynching, according to his local friends. And so he was smuggled onto a ship and went up to Boston, and then he just lived in Boston for a few months, and he actually ended up marrying a woman in Boston that same time. And then as he’s being surveilled, and then when he’s indicted as were 150 other Wobblies, rather than turn himself in—he was not obligated to do so, although some did—he just sort of hung out. And then he and his new wife and their stepchild lived in Philadelphia, his home city, until the police got around to finding him five months later.

And so the stories are sort of fascinating if we’re thinking about, like, Fletcher’s life experience in this moment. He’ll then, as you said, get on a train and go to Chicago because the federal trial is against the entire IWW leadership in Chicago, which was the headquarters of the IWW.

And, you know, then he has to convince the prison guards to let him into the courtroom because they don’t even know, really, who the hell this guy is, but Fletcher apparently is honest enough to travel across country and turn himself into court even though he knew that a fair trial was unlikely, given the hostility that the IWW really experienced from the U.S. federal government.

Luisa: So in past interviews you said you’re a historian who believes we study the past, understand the present and change the future. What could organizers in present union drives, for instance Amazon workers, have to learn from Ben?

Peter: Well, I like to think many things, although I do appreciate that some people see the past as the past, whereas I see history as sort of ever connected to and shaping the present. So, for example, working class people continue to be divided by employers based on ethnicity, race, nationality, sex, gender, and so on, right? One of the most important contributions of the IWW—they did not originate these ideas, they just dramatically popularized them in America in the 20th century—was this notion that an injury to one is an injury to all, that all people, regardless of their race, nationality, sex, et cetera, really shared a very common interest.

And they’re not treated well by the status quo, the capitalist world. Instead, that the system is set up on behalf of, and for, employers. And so, therefore, even though you might see each others’ difference, the reality is that workers have a common interest and that we’re therefore obligated to get over whatever hangups we may have, right, that we might’ve internalized, whether it’s racism, whether it’s sexism, whether it’s xenophobia, et cetera. Right? The fact that Fletcher led a union that was at its birth, a third African-American, a third Irish and Irish American, then a third other European immigrants, 118 or 110 years ago… That was almost unique, almost, it just didn’t exist, right? But it can exist in our time. And so that’s the most obvious, but in some ways still most important. I mean, we’ve just dealt with four years of ramping up racism, xenophobia, and other hatreds, and we’re mindful that a significant number of white Americans sort of have bought into that.

So, you know, I think that Fletcher’s story and the story of the union that he helped lead first and foremost, is that, like, we have to attack these problems that exist in our ranks. I’d say quickly, the second, a secondary sort of factor: IWW tactics are so clever in many ways. Even if you don’t have a union contract, a well-organized minority of workers within a workplace can in fact exert tremendous power. The IWW never signed contracts because they didn’t want to withhold their ability to stop work, i.e. to strike or to slow down. And I think those tactics have demonstrated themselves to be the most powerful tactics that workers have. 

And so whether you’re in an Amazon warehouse in Alabama or whether you’re working at the Amazon headquarters in Seattle, the same thing applies—workers actually have power when they are able to collectively collaborate, work together.

Luisa: So one question is, the socialist party embraced electoral politics as another tactic to engage the working class while the IWW eschewed politics for rank and file organizing. And Ben was clearly in mostly the latter camp, in terms of the socialist party versus the IWW, but he didn’t entirely dismiss electoralism. He wrote to a comrade in 1912, as you have reflected in your book “while I do not countenance against the working class striking at the ballot box,” which is a very interesting way of phrasing it, “I am firmly convinced that the foremost and historical mission of labor is to organize as a class industrially.”

I wanted to ask your impression, as a historian and somebody who’s on the left, your impression of this age old debate that exists. 

Peter: Yeah. Well, you know, it is so interesting ‘cause I mean… So, the Wobblies were not anarchists, but many anarchists were Wobblies and the anarchist ideology shaped the Wobblies. And in their early history, which was the formative history, right, the Wobblies became increasingly anti-electoral. And the rift between the socialist party and the IWW, really, was between Debs and others who actually saw the ballot as the way forward and then the more worker focused lefties who sort of rejected that electoralist approach. And literally, people took sides. And so Big Bill Haywood and other socialists who were Wobblies left the socialist party, and some socialists chose not to stay with the IWW. And so it was just, sort of split. 

And Fletcher was, like you said, like I’ve said, also a bit more tolerant. He was not anti-elections per se; there’s another letter in the book where he’s writing to a socialist friend in Milwaukee and said something similar. Fletcher very much believes in the IWW, is what I say first. And so he believes their mission is clearly true. I mean, it’s clear that from the 19-teens into the 1940s that he believes that working class people’s greatest power was in the workplace, and that unions were there for them. And he held fast to that idea. Even when the Communist movement grew in the twenties and really blew up in the 1930s in the United States, he chose to never join that group, even though he probably shared a great deal in common with, and knew and was friends with, some of its people.

He also remained close friends for a long time, to his death, with some really well-known Wobbly anarchists in New York City: Sam and Esther Dolgoff. As for my personal opinion, I guess I sort of appreciate Fletcher’s view. It’s like, if someone gives you a little power, it’d be stupid to waste it.

If voting can in fact push the needle, why would you possibly not use that tactic? We know what the goal is; and unions are really important, maybe central, but should I not vote as well? I don’t know. I actually think that the last four years are the single best reason why people should vote for one of the two main parties. It’s because it proves that actually in the short term, voting matters a great deal. And I think Fletcher, I don’t know, actually, if Fletcher ever voted, but I’ve never seen him ever take a doctrinaire stance against voting, even if he didn’t know if that was going to be the ultimate solution to capitalism.

And so I guess I find myself influenced by Ben Fletcher in many ways. 

Luisa: That was kind of what I was asking you as a person: How Ben, you know, Ben’s life and his steep commitment to activism has influenced the way that you see labor and politics. I think, personally, that electoralism is confused as being just purely a liberal value, and not as kind of a tactic or another way of engaging the working class. And this, you know, this plays out all over—I can tell you right now that socialists within DSA are vying to to turn DSA into a party instead of what it technically is, which is a nonprofit.  

Peter: Yeah. I appreciate the debates past and present and how they often echo and obviously are not unique to the United States. One of the other things I like to say about Fletcher and others in Local 8, as sort of a way to think about these matters is… so, African-Americans in the South couldn’t vote, which is how most black people lived even outside of the South. African Americans in particular have been skeptical about voting because it’s been denied them for so long. The second point related to that is that, you know, at that time in the 19-teens, there were millions, many millions of European immigrants who chose not to become citizens. It just wasn’t a high priority. There was this concerted campaign during and after World War I to change that, and then to end further large scale immigration, but you know, Polish immigrants working with black Philadelphians, working with Irish immigrants, none of them could vote, right. Cause they weren’t citizens.

And so they didn’t see electoral politics as an option anyway, right? The last thing I always like to say is that the IWW was fiercely committed to democracy. It was an organization that… I mean, although it’s better known in the 1960s scene with like SDS and SNCC and whatnot, the IWW’s internal democracy was robust, and arguably at least sometimes weakened them, because of for instance, having annual elections, instead of saying every two years, requiring very short term limits on elected leadership positions and members being very suspicious, really, of central power. A sort of hyper democracy. Some of this is more anarchist, but Fletcher was part of that milieu. 

And so they’re very much believers in democracy, of course. And that also put them at odds with communists who were less interested in internal democracy and more interested in power, and theirs was not a vanguard party approach, right? So I wish I knew more about what Fletcher thought, honestly, unlike his contemporary Hubert Harrison, who was another prominent black socialist in America in that same era. Harrison was voluminous in his writing. Fletcher wasn’t, or at least what was saved or what wasn’t confiscated and destroyed is limited. Sadly. And so what we often judge him on are the actions he engaged in as a union leader, cause that’s really sort of what we know the most about. And then his internal dialogue and correspondence. 

It’s ironic that some of this is only because the federal government spied on him and we have his correspondence that was transcribed. But those are of course so useful because we love to know more about what in fact were his… he had lots of thoughts on these matters, but I sometimes wonder, though, if I can fairly say what he really believes. 

Luisa: So one of the things that IWW is known for was direct action, right? Even folks who have limited knowledge of the Wobblies understood that that was the constant refrain, direct action gets the goods. So could you talk about what direct action was understood to be during that time, and the devolution of the grievance? Like, when we talk about grievances now it’s kind of this bureaucratic exercise. 

Peter: Yeah, right. Well, of course, again, the IWW actually was born before the Wagner Act. And so the whole national labor relations system that was created in 1930s America and which we still operate under, and the very legalistic, lawyeresque, lawyer up aspect of unionism is, well, many people have commented on it, how it sort of takes the militancy off the shop floor and puts it into a very different sort of venue: a courtroom or an arbitration where, well, unions are never going to have as many lawyers as employers. And the government is lobbied by business leaders to ever weaken the weak labor laws that exist. Fletcher didn’t live in such a time, even though this was an issue, right? Like, they never were under the false assumption that employers would play by the rules or that there were any rules that he had on his side.

And so seeing that sort of naked, raw power makes it very clear. But the Wobblies did do much more than, say, AFL unions did in these regards. So first and foremost, they never signed contracts, right? Because they believed that the greatest power that workers have is to stop work or to threaten to stop work.

And so these so-called direct action tactics, which often in the maritime industry are called quickie strikes—only a handful of such actions are documented, but they hint at what could be 10 or 50 times more of such actions. 

So for example, you know, the Wobblies didn’t have a contract, but they had an oral agreement that was understood to be enforced, and it was understood that if employers broke it, the workers would strike. And so the employers knew that they were only supposed to hire Local 8 members, and the union would issue a new button if you’d paid your dues for that month. And, you know, it’s not easy to know thousands of your coworkers ’cause there’s thousands of members on the waterfront.

So you’re on a ship. It’s a, you’ve got a hundred other people with you, you see a bunch of people have their Local 8 buttons for the proper year and month, but you see a few who don’t, right? Has the employer tried to basically put one on the union by hiring non-union workers in order to weaken the union?

Who’s going to enforce that? Well, those hundred people. And so in the IWW, every worker is an organizer, every member. As opposed to, I’m going to call the lawyer or I’m going to call the business agent, right, who didn’t exist. And so they’d say to the boss, you got to lay off these guys and call up the union hall and get some of ours. The boss says, no, they go to work for a couple of hours and then halfway through the shift they might pull up all the swings, tie off the ropes. Cut them, leave all these swings full of cargo hanging above the ship deck, right? And walk off the ship. That’s direct action.

How many times does an employer have to experience that? It’s not just that the union, a leader like Ben Fletcher is sort of pushing a militant line, but when you have workers who are willing to do that, that is how the union was able to force employers to only hire Wobblies, pay good wages, et cetera, et cetera. As well, I should note, the union forced integration on the employers. This waterfront workplace was segregated in Philadelphia, like almost every workplace in America was in 1913. Why did it become an integrated workforce? Well, the Wobblies pushed it on their bosses. 

And so action could get the goods. It could make sure that the union is protected. It could make sure that you’re not having an unsafe workplace, it could also actually promote other visions that are not just material. But in the case of Ben Fletcher, who is union Local 8, they pushed a racial agenda. And so, at the beginning, the IWW—his commitment to anti-racism in Local 8 is really their best example of putting that into practice in their heyday. 

Luisa: So, a couple of things: you talk about IWW’s refusal to sign a contract, but that’s also been leveraged as kind of a criticism. That, you know, IWW leaders would come to a certain location, a certain city they’d organized, right? Then they’d go away and there was kind of nothing. They certainly left their mark in the workers’ consciousness, so I don’t want to downplay that, but there was—because there was no contract, you know, these great instances of worker action eventually kind of fading away. 

Peter: Yeah. The Wobblies are best known for often spectacular strikes that may not even win, but are spectacular. But then the hard work that really is required to keep a workplace organized or a huge number of workers, across many miles and many employees, like, how do you do that? It requires a lot of commitment on the part of the members. There’s no question about it. And, as you said, the Wobblies are sort of… there’s a legion of examples in which the Wobblies get a victory, but then they’re not able to maintain it.

Take the most well-known strike, maybe the “Bread and Roses” strike of Warrens, Massachusetts textile workers. An incredible victory of 25,000 workers, mostly women, mostly immigrants. Well, you know, it’s incredibly multi-ethnic and then a year later, the Wobblies are no longer a force the way they were. We have to understand that, right? And so for people interested in unions and organizing today, we have to keep that in mind. Like, that period of Local 8 is interesting, right? Because it’s actually atypical. I don’t want to say unique. Because while they had standing success in a number of industries in places, they controlled Philadelphia’s waterfront for almost 10 years before governmental employers, union communists, and social forces ripped it apart. And so it’s unusual that it was durable as well as being so militant. 

But we can just point to any number of other instances where lack of a contract clearly didn’t, in the long run, benefit those workers, you know? And so I think your point is well said. I think we also have to understand that 2021 is not the same as 1913, and that we have to organize where we are. And so if, if you don’t have a bunch of revolutionaries today, then you don’t actually ask for revolution today, you instead work slowly and organize and build relationships and sort of gain small victories til you build to bigger victories.

I think that’s sort of obvious for organizers, right? And so I think the lessons of the IWW are both in the positive and the negative, as you say. 

Luisa: So let me be straightforward. Would you recommend that organizers now present drives, use card shagging drives, do you urge them to take into consideration some of IWW’s failures historically and agitate towards, you know, the contract-

Peter: Well, so, the term is dual carders, right, people who have an IWW card, but also were actually in a union shop in some other union, that’s generally not going to be revolutionary. And maybe even a craft union as opposed to an industrial union. 

And so in the same way that I personally think that, you know, if voting exists, do it, because it can’t hurt. In my opinion. So, too, a union contract has some clear benefits, at least in the short term, right? Of course it all is in the details. In a union contract, keeping a no strike clause out is incredibly hard. But there are some unions that have some provisions that allow for work stoppages, like the teamsters and the ILWU, and so it’s possible that workers could manage it if they’re strong enough.

Also, actually considering that, you know, under 10% of private sector American workers are in unions, you have to ask yourself about all of the organizing that can happen in the 95% of workplaces among workers—could a minority union, to use one term for it, be in fact, an effective way to organize workers, to gain some power, to empower workers, to gain raises, safety benefits, et cetera?

I think it’s both. And so I think actually there is a major place for IWW or IWW-like tactics to exist, especially in workplaces where the resources don’t exist or the will, whatever, to organize 51% of the workers to vote given all the anti-union challenges. 

But I personally am a member of the American Federation of teachers. I work at a university in Illinois, it’s a public university that has a union. And I think a union contract has benefited me personally. And I believe it’s benefited my coworkers, most of whom weren’t pro union before they got it, or happened to get a job at a university with a union.

And so I think there’s much to be said for, especially in the short term, material protection in the form of a contract. I also think that even without organizing a union vote, workers can have tremendous power and that the IWW tactics especially work there. 

And then the last thing I’ll say is: sadly, most unions choose not to organize many sectors of the economy, and the Wobblies, 120 years ago and now, continue to organize workers that most traditional unions have chosen to ignore.

Luisa: Yeah, I mean, you’re familiar with the Burgerville workers in Portland, Oregon, presumably.

Peter:  Yeah. 

Luisa: Yeah, so I think it is a good question. And I don’t think that there’s a straightforward answer. I think you have to take into consideration circumstances of the shop floor, the consciousness of the folks that you’re organizing with. So Portland, Burgerville workers, they originally started out kind of going the minority union route, and after about, I believe two years, they kind of, I don’t want to say they abandoned that, but I think they felt like they were forced to go the NLRB route, which was a successful run. I mean, they got international recognition. But I don’t think they ever lost that mentality of, you know, many of them were, or are, Wobblies. 

Peter: Yeah, no, I’m familiar with it. And I agree with how you frame it, especially in an industry like that one. Like part-time workers that cycle in and out quickly. I mean, that’s the reason that AFL and AFL-CIO never wanted to organize those sorts of workers, they didn’t believe they were organizable. That’s not true, but there’s a lot to be said, if, you know, you got a job at Burgerville and you’re a new worker, you can just enter into the bargaining unit, then learn what this is about instead of having to reorganize that person without having the benefit of a contract. And so my sense of that campaign was that it was a wise choice. And I think the Wobblies, also a very small organization even now, even though it’s grown some in recent years—I think actually the same debates were happening. I know they were still happening in the 19 teens and twenties. 

How do we approach these questions of tactics? Are they sort of core ideology? If I can be more flexible, that is often beneficial, unless there’s, of course, a core issue that you have to just remain true to. The Local 8 suffered from this same debate over, you know, setting the dues rate after World War One. I mentioned it some in my Ben Fletcher book, but more in my book Wobblies on the Waterfront. People in Local 8 were saying, look, we gotta close shop, if we keep dues low we get a labor surplus and the union is lost. That was the way this industry was non-union before, right? But other people said that low dues allow all people in and higher dues are a bar to membership. And so luckily it was temporarily suspended. This is 1920. 

And I don’t think that benefited either party. There was a sort of rift, which was healed, but not fully. But I do think these are the sorts of issues that we have to examine. Like, what are the non negotiables, and what are in fact the tactics that… you might have goals and methods, but then are you willing to change up the way the Burgerville folks did? I mean, your knowledge about Burgerville, I mean, you live in the area, is immensely more than mine, I’m sure. But that’s my sense. 

Luisa: I think the way you phrased it was perfect—you have to look at it tactically. And you have to do some self-reflection in terms of, well, how much is my ideology informing what I think should happen in this moment versus really weighing the reality of the people that I’m trying to agitate? I think that’s a great framing. 

Okay, well, let’s leave it there. Thank you so much, Peter, for spending time and talking about your book.

Peter:  Oh, well, yeah, my pleasure. I mean, you clearly read my book closely, but also already brought lots of knowledge and experience to the table, so it’s a pleasure to talk. And hopefully my responses were useful and interesting to other people.

Luisa: Oh, no doubt.

Peter Coleis 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.

Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly