Double podcast episode about Ben Fletcher, a very important but little-known dock worker and labour organiser in the US with the Industrial Workers of the World union.
In these episodes, we speak with historian Peter Cole, author and editor of Ben Fletcher: The Life And Times Of A Black Wobbly. We also hear words written by Fletcher, voiced by fellow Wobbly, Alki. We learn about his life, as well as his union branch, Local 8, which in the early 20th-century organised thousands of workers on the Philadelphia docks and was the most powerful multiracial union in the country at the time.
Our podcast is brought to you by our patreon supporters. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes, ad-free episodes, bonus episodes, free and discounted merchandise and other content. Join us or find out more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory
You can listen to our podcast on the below links, or on any major podcast app. Links to a few below.
- Part 1: Fletcher’s life, and Local 8 organising the docks.
- Part 2: Fletcher’s imprisonment, later life, and the demise of Local 8.
- Part 2.1 bonus episode: Fletcher’s views on the struggle against racism, his relationship with the Communist Party, and more on his personal life. Available exclusively for our patreon supporters.
- Peter Cole, Ben Fletcher: The Life And Times Of A Black Wobbly (PM Press, 2020)
- Timeline of people’s history stories about Ben Fletcher
Sources used by WCH over the course of these episodes.
- “Debs and the poets,” New York Socialist, June 20, 1908, accessed March 22, 2023, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/59110/59110-h/59110-h.htm.
- Debs E. “A Glimpse into the Future.” Appeal to Reason 536 (March 10, 1906), 2, https://www.marxists.org/archive/debs/works/1906/060310-debs-glimpseintothefuture.pdf.
- Milestones: 1914–1920 – Office of the Historian. State.gov. Published 2023. Accessed March 23, 2023. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1914-1920/wwi.
- Black. Black Boys Viewed as Older, Less Innocent Than Whites, Research Finds. https://www.apa.org. Published March 6, 2014. Accessed March 27, 2023. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/03/black-boys-older
- Tamir Rice. Say Their Names – Spotlight at Stanford. Published August 6, 2020. Accessed March 27, 2023. https://exhibits.stanford.edu/saytheirnames/feature/tamir-rice
- Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I A Woman? (U.S. National Park Service). Nps.gov. Published 2017. Accessed March 23, 2023. https://www.nps.gov/articles/sojourner-truth.htm.
- Sojourner H. The Sojourner Truth Project. The Sojourner Truth Project. Published 2014. Accessed March 23, 2023. https://www.thesojournertruthproject.com/the-readings.
- $30,000 in 1918 → 2023 | Inflation Calculator. In2013dollars.com. Published 2023. Accessed March 23, 2023. https://www.in2013dollars.com/us/inflation/1918?amount=30000.
- Dec. 11, 1917: Black Soldiers Executed for Houston Riot – Zinn Education Project. Zinn Education Project. Published February 14, 2023. Accessed March 24, 2023. https://www.zinnedproject.org/news/tdih/black-soldiers-executed/.
- Mexican Workers in the IWW and the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM). Washington.edu. Published 2016. Accessed March 24, 2023. https://depts.washington.edu/iww/mexicaniwws.shtml.
- Kelly Lytle Hernández, Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, and Revolution in the Borderlands (WW Norton, 2022).
- Ben Fletcher, Local 8, and Me – Peter Cole. libcom.org. Published 2014. Accessed March 24, 2023. https://libcom.org/article/ben-fletcher-local-8-and-me-peter-cole.
- Tourek M. President Roosevelt Pardons WW I Espionage Act Victims. Today in Civil Liberties History. Published February 4, 2014. Accessed March 24, 2023. http://todayinclh.com/?event=president-roosevelt-grants-amnesty-to-last-of-ww-i-political-prisoners
- Fragments: a memoir – Sam Dolgoff. libcom.org. Published 2015. Accessed March 27, 2023. https://libcom.org/article/fragments-memoir-sam-dolgoff.
- Thanks to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible. Special thanks to Jazz Hands and Jamison D. Saltsman.
- Words of Ben Fletcher voiced by Alki. Check out his YouTube channel here, or follow him on Twitter here.
- Episode graphic: Ben Fletcher in 1918, enhanced by WCH. Courtesy US National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons.
- Theme music: “Solidarity (Forever)”, written by Ralph Chaplin, performed by The Nightwatchman, Tom Morello. Buy or stream it here.
- Edited by Louise Barry
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In early 20th century PhiIadelphia, Black and white dock workers defied segregation and racism, organised themselves, and took action to win better pay and conditions. One of them, Ben Fletcher, became one of the most important labour activists in the United States, feared by employers, surveilled by the FBI, thrown in jail, and then largely forgotten, until recently. This is Working Class History.
Before we get started, just a quick reminder that our podcast is brought to you by our patreon supporters. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes, ad-free episodes, bonus episodes, free and discounted merchandise and other content. For example, our patreon supporters can listen to both parts of this double episode now. Join us or find out more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes.
This is the first part of a double episode about the most important US labour organiser you’ve never heard of, Ben Fletcher, who was a member and activist in the Industrial Workers of the World union, known as the Wobblies.
I am from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The city of Brotherly love. While that might sound facetious it is a fact nevertheless, that a little more unity has prevailed there during the present maelstrom of Labor oppression, than in most cities.
These were Ben’s words, penned in January 1920 from inside Leavenworth penitentiary in Kansas and sent to one Othelia Campbell of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His words are read by Alki, a Wobbly, historian, retail worker and YouTuber.
The IWW is very strongly represented in the Marine Transportation Industry of Philadelphia — We have about seven thousand longshoremen and seamen, there… Like yourself, I suppose I was born a rebel, though I have had varied experiences some which would have caused me to align myself with the employing class if I could have forgotten the place from which I sprung. While I do not countenance against the working class striking at the ballot box, I am firmly convinced that foremost and historical mission of Labor is to organize as a class, Industrially, train and develop our own technicians “scientific” men and woman and thereby prepare ourselves to successfully continue the operation of Industry, when capitalist Society [dies it will be] of ‘dry rot.’ Of course any political gain, redress or concession that we can secure is the meanwhile and should not be ignored. And so political unity follows industry unity, being its shadow— we go marching onward to certain victory. “We are living in stirring times
Given Fletcher’s importance, people may ask why he has been forgotten. This question is addressed by Robin DG Kelly, who wrote the foreword for an excellent recent book, Ben Fletcher: the Life and Times of a Black Wobbly.
Peter Cole: Robin Kelly’s essay is very interesting in that he also talks about how, essentially, the Left has been whitewashed. That word is really a good word in this context because what it means is that non-white people have been eliminated from or made invisible to; whereas, in fact, during the 19-teens and ‘20s and then ever since, African Americans and other people of colour have been instrumental to the communist movement, the syndicalist and anarchist movement and other movements on the Left.
This is Peter Cole, professor of History at Western Illinois University, and author of the aforementioned book on Fletcher. It’s a really great book, we highly recommend you get hold of it, and as luck would have it it’s available in our online store, link in the show notes.
So Ben Fletcher is the most important African American who was ever in the IWW and one of the most important Black labour leaders and early Black leftists in American history but he’s almost entirely unknown, even among those who know a lot about the history of American labour and the history of American radicalism, forgetting about the history of world-wide labour and radicalism. Fletcher is wildly unknown but I have suggested that that’s a mistake. For those of us who are interested in capitalism and the struggle against it but also racial capitalism, these twin concepts that were foundational and in constant conversation which you can’t really separate, let us dig deep into why it would be that an African American, a working-class man from Philadelphia, became a Wobbly and then how he helped to lead the most successful interracial union of his time.
So, who was Ben Fletcher and where did he come from?
Ben Fletcher was born Benjamin Harrison Fletcher. At that time, in 1890, the President of the United States was a man named Benjamin Harrison who was a white man, like every president except one, and he was a Republican. For those of us who know our US history and political history, since Abraham Lincoln, the Republican Party was the ‘party that freed the slaves’ which is correct if a bit general. Almost every single African American was a Republican and so Fletcher was named after the Republican president. That’s actually normal. Fletcher’s parents were both migrants from the South in Virginia. His mother was from Virginia or maybe Maryland and his father was from a place called the Eastern Shore of Virginia which is a maritime province.
Peter has been unable to find conclusive proof one way or the other, but given their location, it’s most likely that both of Fletcher’s parents were born into enslavement.
This was ended after the civil war in 1865.
They moved to Philadelphia which is a city in the Lower North, you might think of it. Ben Fletcher was born in Philadelphia in 1890 and so was a native Philadelphian. His parents went on to have a number of other kids and actually, his mother lost several children at birth and his mother died when he was in his teens. They moved around a lot like typical working class or poor people with multiple apartments that they rented. Fletcher, by around 1910 at 20 years old, was a working man. He never graduated from high school which would have been normal at that time. That’s when we can pick him other. Other than that, it’s just little tidbits from census records but around 1910, he joins the Industrial Workers of the World. He also joins, around that time, the Socialist Party of the United States led by Eugene Debs. Why is actually a fascinating question which we can guess at perhaps in an educated way but not for sure because he never actually makes clear why or when precisely 1910 or 1911.
The IWW was a union unlike any other at that time. Founded in 1905, unlike nearly all other unions in the US, it sought to organise all workers, regardless of race, nationality or gender, into One Big Union. To fight for better conditions now, and to take over society and build a new world, run by workers, for workers. We give an introduction to them in our podcast episode 6, also with Peter.
Debs was one of the founders of the IWW, who also served as the presidential candidate for the Socialist Party, receiving at its peak over 900,000 votes, about 6% of the total. Although Debs didn’t actually put too much stock in electoralism, or leaders in general, believing it much more important for workers to organise themselves. In one of his famous quotations, he declared that he was “not a labour leader” and said that “I would not be a Moses to lead you into a promised land, for someone would lead you out again.”
But back to Fletcher…
But we know he’s working manual labour jobs, including on the waterfront in Philadelphia which was one of the largest and busiest ports in the country at that time in Philadelphia, the third largest city in the country at that time. It had the largest African American population outside of the South at that time and also has a long history of being a large ‘free Black community’ going back to the 18th century. So Fletcher is a part of this urban Black milieu but he wouldn’t have lived in an all-Black neighbourhood, although people clustered together in South Philadelphia which is where he lived for most of his life. There were many, many Italian migrants, many, many East European Jewish immigrants and many Irish immigrants as well as maybe second and third-generation Irish Americans. There were some Poles, Lithuanians and Anglo-Americans. Philadelphia is actually pretty physically small and it would have been a very diverse area. Even street by street, according to census records, he lived in places where, on the same block as he lived, there were people different from him. In other words, it was not racially segregated in the way it later came to be. He would have been able to even walk to the waterfront because it’s a small city and because you could save five or ten cents by walking a mile or two instead of taking the streetcar. He would have very likely walked to the Delaware River which was the main river on the East side of the city. The other side of the Delaware is New Jersey. He would have lived and worked there and along the way, he joined the IWW and joined the socialists and a few years later, he helped found the branch of the IWW that I focus upon. That was Fletcher’s life which would have been a very typical life of a Black Philadelphian at that time.
Of course, the experience of Black residents would always be substantially different from that of white residents.
They definitely suffered from racism. Most jobs were simply denied to Black people. Most employers simply didn’t hire Black men or women for them. The famous African American intellectual and activist, W. E. B Du Bois’ first book was actually called The Philadelphia Negro published in the 1890s. He basically argued that the number one factor that defines the experience of Black people in Philadelphia was racism. So that would have been Fletcher’s milieu in which he grew up.
Soon after joining the IWW, scraps of information about Fletcher to appear in the union’s press.
So Ben Fletcher was already in the IWW no later than 1911 and he shows up in 1911, 1912 and then in early 1913 in IWW publications. One of them is called Solidarity and another is called The Industrial Worker. So we know that Fletcher was already in the IWW and already was an activist. He’s named by others who are writing reports about what’s going down in Philadelphia. He actually wrote several short pieces for IWW publications that came out nationally or were read nationally and even internationally. We know he was considered to be a really great speaker. One of the first documents about Ben Fletcher is by one of his fellow workers, as Wobblies refer to each other, as being a dynamic speaker. He very likely was among the very few African Americans in Philadelphia who were in the IWW. Although we don’t really have demographic information on their membership, we generally know that there weren’t many Black people in the Wobblies at that time. We also know, like I said, that he was a longshoreman or at least some of the time, you could go down to the waterfront on the Delaware or to the West on the Schuylkill River and if you were a man (and in this time, it was an all-male occupation) and you were willing to work hard physically doing manual labour that was dangerous and also if you were willing to accept low wages but if you had nothing better, there were thousands and thousands of men (immigrants, migrants and local people) who would have basically seemed to pick up jobs where even though you don’t have skills, you might have enough labour and savvy to lift and load cargo in and out of ships.
The first significant industrial action which is recorded Fletcher took part in, began in 1913.
In May of 1913, dockworkers in Philadelphia go on strike. They go on strike because they need or want a raise. They also have other demands but as in the majority of cases, the strike’s primary demand was usually about making more money. We know that before the strike that there was not a chapter of the IWW representing dockworkers. There were already Wobbly locals in the city of Philadelphia but in other industries. The largest industry in Philadelphia is textiles.
Lots of people worked in textile factories in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the north-east, like New York and Massachusetts, but these were segregated and excluded Black workers. So Black workers had to seek employment in other industries, like the docks.
So African Americans work on the waterfront and about a third of dockworkers in Philadelphia in that era were Black, maybe a third were Irish and/or Irish American and maybe about a third were other sorts of European immigrants but particularly Polish and Lithuanian people and some of those were Jews. In May 1913, workers go on strike. That strike shuts down the waterfront meaning that ships that are in the Delaware River are stuck. They’re not going to get loaded or unloaded for several weeks. We know that in the midst of that strike, the IWW and representatives of the American Federation of Labour, which has a dockworker union as well called the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA), both apparently show up to try to convince strikers to join their union and for that union to lead that strike. Now the AFL’s dockworker union, the ILA, actually represents workers in almost every other port in the country; not necessarily all the workers but they are present.
Now, while the IWW had dockworker members in Canada, as we discuss in our episode 52, the union didn’t have any dockworker members in the US at this time.
However, in the middle of this strike in May 1913, workers who were on strike, approximately 4,000 of them, voted to affiliate with the IWW and then were given a charter and they become known as Local 8. They’re not the eighth union in the IWW. At that time, the numbers are confusing but they might have been the eighth charter perhaps in marine transportation. Nevertheless, Local 8 is the name that we know them by. Fletcher is actually present but he’s not named as a leader. Because the strike was so important to the local economy, the local newspapers covered the strike every day and we also have other sorts of documentation. But in the aftermath of this two-week strike, workers win. Employers concede to the demands of the workers which is to grant a raise but also to actually not discriminate against hiring strikers or union members. We know that by the end of the strike, the Employers’ Association was negotiating with Local 8 and that the Local 8 negotiating committee intentionally had representatives of every ethnic group that had significant numbers on the waterfront. From their inception, this diverse group of strikers chose to affiliate with the IWW which was this radical, anti-capitalist, militant union. We know this union was anti-racist and if we just read their constitution, literally, Article 1 is that no one will be denied membership based on race, creed or colour. We know that Fletcher is there. It’s very reasonable to conclude that Fletcher was crucial to convincing those 1,500 or so Black people that the IWW was legit. The ILA, in other ports, often does not organise African Americans or puts them in all-Black locals and puts white people in a separate segregated local. We know that the strike wins and a raise is granted and then we know that the IWW, Local 8, immediately pushes to integrate the gangs, i.e. the workplaces on the waterfront. Before the strike, as was the case in most American workplaces, jobs but also work within job sites were often segregated by race, ethnicity and gender. So there would have been an Irish gang, a Polish gang, an Italian gang, etcetera, but not necessarily always. There would definitely have been separate Black gangs.
Employers in the US at this time would frequently encourage racial and ethnic divisions in their workforce, and use this to discourage organisation. And then they would use workers of different ethnicities to scab on each other’s strikes. So to avoid this happening the IWW would attempt to breakdown ethnic and racial divisions within the workforce.
The Wobblies, Local 8, immediately says, ‘We are going to integrate our gangs,’ which is incredibly radical and incredibly unusual for the United States in 1913. We know that Fletcher immediately is touted before but also after this moment as being the leader of Local 8. Very quickly, Local 8 doesn’t just, in other words, say that they believe in racial equality. Very quickly, Local 8 demonstrates this through its policies, including pushing employers to change how they do their work… this integration. This would, of course, be 50 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which ended legal segregation based on race in the United States. Many unions also were dragging their feet on racial equality both in the 19-teens and for decades after. Very quickly, we see Local 8 demonstrating power and demonstrating some material gains for the members but also inserting this other matter into the conversation, you might say, even though it wasn’t required by anyone. They just pushed this issue because it seemed that the IWW generally, and Local 8 particularly, put this front and centre. Fletcher was immediately the most prominent African American and, for that matter actually, the most prominent member of Local 8 in the entire IWW.
In addition to dockers, boatmen joint local 8 as well. Boatmen are basically responsible for getting boats and safely connecting them to moorings in the docks. After the May 1913 strike of dockworkers, boatmen went on strike in autumn. Some employers gave into the workers’ demands, while others didn’t. After the dispute, authorities tried to crack down on the workers. Here is a short article written by Fletcher about how workers tried to defend themselves. In it he mentions miner and IWW leader “Big” Bill Haywood. Like every other reading we are including in these episodes, this extract is from Peter’s book.
Another victory was scored by the IWW last week in Philadelphia. McKelvey, Loux and Wilmot were liberated from the capitalist hellhole, Moyamensing prison, February 19. Although sentenced to one year on probation, we are more than confident that the subservient lickspittles of the shipping trust will not dare lay their hands again on these fellow workers for that account. McKelvey, Loux and Wilmont were convicted December 13, 1913, on a charge of mentally conspiring to beat scabs and “get Tucker.” Tucker is one of the shipowners that refused to grant the demands of the workers during the boatmen’s strike last fall. A defense conference was organized shortly after their imprisonment. For obvious reasons the conference at first pursued the method of “watchful waiting.” The judge, a faithful lieutenant of the parasites, took advantage of the conference’s policy. He kept McKelvey and the other two fellow workers in jail for nine weeks, while making up his mind as to what sentence should be pronounced upon them, without arriving at any conclusion. The up till now, somewhat slumbering rebels began to feel aggravated. The conference changed its tactics. The IWW began to manifest itself. A local newspaper, sympathizing with the working class, gave publicity to the case, arousing public sentiment. The different labor organizations readily answered the call for support. But the most essential factor that contributed to the release of the three fellow workers is the mighty weapon possessed by the waterfront slaves— the Marine Transport Workers’ Union of the IWW. The judge before sentencing the prisoners questioned Tucker as to his feelings toward McKelvey, Loux and Wilmont, to which he replied that he no longer held any grievance against them. The reason for it is as follows: As it reached the ear of the shipping trust that Bill Haywood was coming to Philadelphia March 1st, to have a consultation with the Marine Transport Workers relative to the imprisonment of the three fellow workers, Tucker’s heart suddenly expanded to make room for a “Christian magnanimity” that was traveling with lightning speed towards his auricles and ventricles. This is what labor can do everywhere if organized. Make the bosses become “magnanimous.”
Local 8’s organising across racial and ethnic lines was particularly important in Philadelphia, which has a long history of deep internal divisions.
Going back to the 1800s, African Americans often worked in the maritime industries of Philadelphia. It’s really a port city, even though it’s on a river as opposed to on an ocean. It’s about 100 miles downriver from Philadelphia to get out to the Chesapeake Bay. Even in the mid-1800s, there are a lot of racial tensions in the city of Philadelphia, in particular, between working-class Irish and working-class African Americans, including multiple different incidents before the Civil War of violence in which Irish and Irish Americans perpetrate violence against Black people, including in waterfront jobs because those jobs are valuable. Even though they pay badly, they pay better than nothing. So there’s a long history actually, going back into the 1840s at least, of racial tensions between working-class Blacks and working-class Irish. There’s simultaneously persecution of Irish immigrants by the Anglo-American majority, including in Philadelphia. In fact, the deadliest riot in Philadelphia before the Civil War was one in which Protestant Philadelphians killed 20 Irish Catholic Philadelphians in 1844. What we’ve got is a city that’s rife with tensions and simultaneously, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was a major increase in immigration to the United States, including port cities like Philadelphia. There is simultaneously an increasingly diverse local population in a country where racism is the norm but also xenophobia where immigrants are often treated hostilely by Americans, even though immigration is ‘open’ and generally speaking, employers love immigration for two reasons. One is that it increases the population numbers and a larger labour supply means you can pay workers less. Secondly, employers, time and time again in Philadelphia and other cities, would play different ethnic and racial groups off of each other. We see this actually repeatedly during strikes that the Local 8 pulls off where workers are ethnically and racially diverse and employers will try to make a pitch to one group like the Irish, the Italians or the Poles in order to peel them off. In other words, they used ethnicity and race as a wedge to weaken workers. Now if you’re clever, you think to yourself, ‘I’m smarter than the boss. I know that they’re going to do this.’ Unfortunately, even though you might know it, the prejudices are not just coming from the top down and not just from the elite. Unfortunately, working-class people also have some prejudices. So Local 8, from its inception, will have to struggle with this issue of how to overcome the mainstream racism and xenophobia in Philadelphia and across the country. Generally speaking, the IWW is committed to doing so but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy and that’s never not an issue. After World War I, in fact, racism will re-emerge in the country but also on the Philadelphia waterfront. That’s a bit later but we’re mindful that there are people like Fletcher who are crucial to keeping this together. There’s lots of evidence, including in my book, of how Fletcher was giving talks all the time and that he was considered to be very good at appealing to workers, not just Black workers, and explaining the logic of being interracial and that, essentially, racism weakens workers and, therefore, disempowers them. It’s really central to the whole story. I’m mindful that, in 2020, racism and diversity continue to be divisive issues, including among unions and working people. To me, constantly, the lessons of the 19-teens and Ben Fletcher’s book seem to resonate with people a century on.
After the first big dispute, Local 8 really got busy trying to organise on the docks. And they did so in a democratic way, under the control of the workers themselves.
After Local 8 is established, Fletcher is not the only leader and the IWW nationally, as well as locally, was committed to democracy which meant that you could only be elected for one year at a time. You never were paid more than anyone who worked in the industry that you toiled in. So these organisers, like most members of the IWW, are true believers in the cause. Everybody who is a member is an activist; a bit less so if you’re just in Local 8. Once the union is established, if you want to work on the waterfront, you have to actually be a member of Local 8. One of the ways that Local 8 organised is fascinating. It’s not unique to them by any means. After Local 8 got established, they did a bunch of things to the benefit of workers. One of the things they did is they radically changed the hiring process. Before Local 8, the system was nicknamed the ‘Shape Up’ and so if you wanted a job, you’d go down to maybe the pier. In some cases in some port cities, there might be specific locations where workers, who wanted to get hired, would be picked by the boss or hiring bosses. There could be 200 people who show up for 40 jobs. How does the boss pick? Well, the boss picks who they like, who they know, who is the same ethnic or racial group, who is the same religious group or who is willing to pay a bribe or a kickback to the hiring boss, etcetera. So, in other words, from the jump, you see your fellow workers as rivals as opposed to friends. Local 8 obliterates the Shape Up. Dockworkers hated the Shape Up. Everybody hated the Shape Up. If you were a worker, there was just nothing you could do about it. However, once Local 8 gets established, the system changes and now you have to call the Local 8 hall as telephones already existed. You call the hall and you say, ‘I want 40 guys to come down to Pier 20 tomorrow to load coal.’ Local 8 picks members, who are in good standing, to go down to the hall. They also, of course, would pick a diverse workforce to do that. They would issue buttons on a monthly basis if you paid your dues. They were very low but nevertheless, you had to pay them, then you got a new button saying ‘January 1914, Local 8.’ That way also, because there are thousands of guys who work on the waterfront and you don’t know everybody, you look around and you make sure that everybody in your group has your button. If not, you’re not a loyal member. The boss, of course, doesn’t give a crap about who’s paid up and who’s not. Local 8 members would constantly be enforcing basically their own ranks and they would tell the bosses, ‘You can’t be hiring people otherwise. They have to be Wobblies.’
In true IWW fashion, if bosses didn’t do what the workers wanted, the union would respond, not by filing a grievance, but by taking direct action on-the-job.
Famously in the story, one interview was done with a Black dockworker named Abraham Moses who said, ‘You know what the Local 8 would do if the boss tried to hire non-Wobblies, they’d wait a few hours into the shift and then in the middle of a shift, without announcing to the boss, they would put some cargo in slings, pull up the ropes and cut the ropes or attach them and leave all this cargo hanging in the air. They’d walk off the ships and say, ‘Until you are willing to do what we tell you to do, then we’re not going to work.’ The bosses were faced with a situation. You either listen to the workers and get your work done or you’re stuck.’ In the industry of shipping, where time is money, that’s a very powerful tactic. So the Wobblies, not just in Philadelphia by any means, on the waterfront would use these direct action tactics which were sometimes nicknamed quick strikes or ‘quicky strikes’ where they would be able to prove their power to the bosses and the bosses would, therefore, basically back off. We know that the bosses hated the IWW, as they did everywhere, but we also know that they continued to basically play with the Wobblies because Wobblies had enough power to maintain their ranks but also impose their will, to some extent, on employers. We also know that Fletcher was instrumental to this not just in Philadelphia.
In addition to these everyday, guerrilla actions on-the-job, there were also other significant disputes on the docks which broke out.
For example, on 27 January 1915, a mass meeting of grain trimmers in the port of Philadelphia voted to go on strike demanding a pay increase from $0.20 per hour to $0.60 per hour, with $0.90 per hour for overtime and $1.20 per hour for work on Sundays and public holidays.
Most employers soon caved in and agreed to increases up to $0.40 per hour base pay, $0.60 overtime and $0.80 on Sundays and holidays. But one employer, Chas Taylor, refused to permit the increase and instead locked out union workers. So the IWW continued the strike. Fletcher wrote a report of the strike for Solidarity, and recounted a visit by Irish socialist, James Larkin, who addressed a crowd of striking workers:
He arrived on the following Tuesday and spoke that evening. In an able and eloquent manner he portrayed the conditions of the workers generally and clearly showed how by industrial organization on the job it was possible for workers to gain control of industry. His recital of how the marine transport workers of Dublin after striking for twenty odd weeks were forced to give up the struggle and go back to work apparently defeated— yet won the strike in a few hours when they got back to work again by practicing “ca canny” that is going easy — brought round after round of applause which bodes no good for Chas. M. Taylor if the strikers go back to the docks defeated. Fellow Worker Larkin pledged the support of the Irish Transport Workers if necessary and promised to present the situation in this port of dockers across the sea with a request that they hold themselves in readiness and refuse to discharge any grain or cargo from ships loaded by scab labour.
A few days later, amidst high unemployment and easy availability of scab labour, the IWW decided to go back to work without having achieved the new rate at Taylor, but instead quote” “renew the fight at some more favourable time”, having got agreement from Taylor to discharge all of the scabs and take back all of the union workers.
In addition to organising on the docks where he works, Fletcher also travelled around the country for the IWW, public speaking and organising.
Thanks to his recollections as well as documentary evidence in Wobbly newspapers as well as the Federal Government spies, he was regularly sent up and down the Atlantic Coast. He was in Norfolk, Virginia, a major port; Baltimore; New York City occasionally; Providence, Rhode Island which is not a huge port but, nevertheless, Southern New England and Boston. Fletcher was dispatched from 1912 through 1917 on a regular basis. He would travel up and down the coast probably by rail but maybe by ship to organise more dockworkers and more Black workers specifically. For example, in Providence, Rhode Island, those of us who know Southern New England, there are more Portuguese in that part of the US than in other places and some of those Portuguese people are of African descent, especially those who are from Cape Verde and the Azores. Racism being racism, Black Portuguese had limited job opportunities and a lot of those people in Rhode Island also worked on the waterfront. Fletcher is sent up there to essentially prove… because it’s one thing for the Wobblies to say that they believed in racial equality but unlike the ILA or most labour unions at that time, they could actually demonstrate through Philadelphia and often Fletcher that the Wobblies are committed to Black inclusion and Black equality. Fletcher is considered to be – not the best as I wouldn’t say that – a premier organiser and he was trying to constantly overcome the ethnic, racial and national divisions that plagued the American working class. That also was the case in Baltimore where Fletcher was repeatedly sent and where there was a significant Black population but also Irish and Poles who didn’t necessarily get along with each other.
Typically, Wobbly speaking engagements would involve setting up a pitch on a street corner, and just starting to talk to people, normally after having advertised the meeting at that particular spot. The IWW waged fierce battles for the right to free speech in public places, which we spoke about in our episode 6. Sometimes, however, Fletcher’s meetings could get a bit hairy.
In early 1917, he’s in Norfolk, Virginia. Norfolk, of course, is in the South and in the so-called Jim Crow South, it’s more overtly racist and more actually racist perhaps than Pennsylvania. According to reports of stories he tells, he’s giving a speech one day, in early 1917, in Norfolk when white hecklers, who might be just provocateurs of a sort, start asking him provocative questions about his opinion about interracial sex which is a no-go zone and actually illegal for Black and white people to marry in the state of Virginia. That was actually the famous 1967 Loving v. Virginia supreme court case that overturned bans against mixed-race marriage. Fletcher happened to be a very dark-skinned Black man which is to say that he probably had less white blood in him than many other African Americans who probably were lighter-skinned due to the rape of Black women who had been enslaved by their white masters. So that all comes around because when this heckler asks Fletcher’s opinion on interracial marriage, he responded with his brief explanation and said something to the effect of, ‘Well, I’m about the darkest guy in this room around here.’ Actually, it was open air but he turned it back on him and pointed out, ‘Don’t ask me about interracial marriage. White men are the ones who, of course, are the ones engaged in interracial sex all the time, even if it’s against the will of Black women.’ Well, it might have been that response or it might have been the fact that he was a radical labour organiser but according to Fletcher, he heard that he was threatened with a lynching and that he might be killed. So friends of his in Norfolk quickly got him aboard a ship to Boston. In early 1917, he ends up living in Boston and starts to organise there.
Later that year, Fletcher was up in Providence, Rhode Island. He wrote a brief report of goings-on there for an IWW journal.
In the port of Providence, Rhode Island, the Marine Transport Workers are getting ready to lock out the scabs and riffraff hereabouts in their second attempt to unionise the port in the IWW. They are determined to win for themselves a better life, working conditions and more job control, regardless of whether the costs be great or small.
Well, that’s all the time we have for part 1. Next episode were going to be looking at how Fletcher ended up in prison, what became of Local 8 on the docks, and what Fletcher did later in life. Our patreon supporters can listen to that now, as well as a bonus episode with more information about Fletcher’s life, and his views on the fight against racism. For everyone else it will be out in the next couple of weeks.
If you haven’t already, I would highly recommend getting hold of Peter’s book, Ben Fletcher: the Life and Times of a Black Wobbly. It’s available from our online store, link in the show notes. And as a listener of this podcast, you can get 10% off it and everything else in our store using the discount code WCHPODCAST. Also check out our friend, Alki’s YouTube channel, where he has loads of great videos about working class history and workplace organising. Link in the show notes.
As always, we’ve got sources, links to more info, transcripts, and more on the webpage for this episode, link in the show notes.
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Our theme tune is ‘Solidarity Forever’originally written by Ralph Chaplin, and performed by Tom Morello, The Nightwatchman. You can buy it or stream it on the links in the show notes.
This episode was edited by Louise Barry.
Finally, thanks to you for listening. Catch you next time.
Interview transcribed by PODTRANSCRIBE