January 26, 2021
From PM Press

By Peter Cole
New Frame
January 13th, 2020

As an organiser and orator for the Industrial Workers of the World – historically, America’s most radically inclusive union – Ben Fletcher was a working-class hero in his time.

(Illustration by Anastasya Eliseeva)

This is a lightly edited essay by historian Peter Cole, along with an excerpt from his book, Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly (PM Press, 2021).

Benjamin Harrison Fletcher surely ranks among
the greatest African Americans of the early 20th century and top echelon
of Black unionists and radicals in all of US history. Fletcher helped
lead a pathbreaking union that likely was the most diverse and
integrated organisation (not simply union) of his time and despite that
era’s rampant racism, anti-unionism and xenophobia. Along with thousands
of his fellow Philadelphia dockworkers, he helped found and lead Local
8, affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Perhaps
the most radical unions in all of US history, the IWW also was the first
predominantly white union in South Africa to actively organise African
workers. IWW members were, and still are, affectionately known as
Wobblies. If one has heard of militant Black American organisers of the
1960s, like Fred Hampton, Ella Baker or Stokely Carmichael, one should
know about Fletcher. Yet, today, Fletcher is unknown save for
aficionados of African American labour and radical history.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, then the country’s third largest
city, in the late 1880s Fletcher’s parents escaped the racist horrors of
the South – not long after the end of the Reconstruction era, which
should be understood as a Southern white counter-revolution to preserve
white supremacy. One might compare the migration of Fletcher’s parents
to Philadelphia as similar to the Sicilian immigrants travelling aboard
ships to escape desperate poverty though, more accurately, African
Americans migrating from the South also could be compared to Russian
Jews who fled the murderous, anti-Semitic pogroms in late 19th century
Russia. In the working-class slums of south Philadelphia, African
Americans like the Fletchers lived on the same streets as East European
Jews and Italians, as well as poor and working-class Poles and
Lithuanians, Irish and Irish Americans and more (only later did
residential segregation occur). Philadelphia proclaimed itself “the
workshop of the world” and, alongside Chicago, Pittsburgh and other
industrial cities, had made the United States into the world’s mightiest
industrial powerhouse. Fletcher was one of the countless thousands of
young men who walked a kilometre or two to the Delaware River
waterfront, looking for a day’s work to support themselves and their
families. These sons of peasants – no daughters, then, loaded and
unloaded cargo ships – submitted themselves to the “shape-up”, an
oppressive hiring system, in order to get hired to work in one of the
country’s busiest ports. The unloading of vast amounts of coal, iron,
cotton, sugar and other raw materials and loading of all sorts of
manufactured goods – everything from buttonhooks to locomotive engines –
meant thousands of backbreaking, dangerous, low-paying jobs for
desperate men with strong backs.

Undated: The cover of Peter Cole’s book Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly. (Image courtesy of the author)

Dockworkers in Philadelphia, like in most other port cities, were
horribly exploited by powerful employers in the global shipping
industry. The majority of dockers lived in poverty. Even worse, every
single day they walked onto a quay or ship, they risked being killed
because their trade was among the most dangerous. What these workers
needed – and which many including Fletcher understood – was a labour
union to represent them. However, their own diversity was a potential
obstacle. In 1913, when Fletcher helped organise Local 8, Philadelphia’s
waterfront workers were roughly one-third African American, one-third
Irish and Irish American, and one-third immigrant from other European
countries. However, in early 20th century America, most unions excluded
Asian, Black and Latinx workers due to pervasive racism and xenophobia.

By contrast, the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)
actively recruited people of colour, in keeping with their emphasis on
class solidarity and its legendary motto: “An Injury to One Is an Injury
to All!” The Wobblies! Even their nickname demands one sit-up and take
notice. WEB du Bois, a co-founder of the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People and editor of its influential monthly,
wrote: “We respect [the IWW] as one of the social and political
movements in modern times that draws no color line.” Of course, it was
Local 8, led by Fletcher, that turned the Wobblies’ antiracist vision
into that reality. In short, Fletcher and a bunch of so-called
“unskilled” working-class Black and white folks, native-born and
immigrant, managed to do what most American institutions still have not achieved in 2021: equality and integration.

South Africans who know their history well or are involved in the
trade union movement should recognise the IWW slogan because it adorns
many a South African union’s banner including the Congress of South
African Trade Unions (Cosatu), founded in 1985. The motto has a much
longer history in southern Africa. Before World War I, the first Wobbly
members – almost certainly sailors from somewhere in the British empire –
arrived in Cape Town and started disseminating IWW literature including
its slogan. South African scholar Lucien van der Walt
has been researching the IWW and other such radical unions for decades.
No later than 1910, the IWW started organising in South Africa, an era
when most unions embraced a racist “White Labourism” ideology that
excluded Black workers. In the 21st century, the irony of so-called
socialists who refused to organise the vast majority of working people
is painfully obvious. Nevertheless, it was the norm.

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A handful of open-minded, socialist workers started to listen to IWW
notions that formed branches of the IWW in South Africa, leading strikes
of tram workers in Johannesburg in 1911, and forming locals in Durban
and Pretoria. While the IWW did not grow much, other unions soon
followed that adopted the IWW’s antiracist ideals including the
International Socialist League, Industrial Workers of Africa, Indian
Workers Industrial Union and sections of the early South African Native
National Congress. Most importantly, the Industrial and Commercial
Workers’ Union of Africa (ICU) emerged, in 1919, and led a strike of
2 000 dockers in Cape Town.

The ICU, which also could be read as “I see you”, was led by Clements
Kadalie, a migrant from British-controlled Nyasaland (now Malawi) who
became the first great Black unionist in southern Africa. While the
dockers’ strike had not succeeded, the ICU – which adopted the IWW motto
– grew and spread rapidly in the early 1920s. By 1925, the ICU
constitution had incorporated the IWW preamble, which began as follows:
“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There
can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of
the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have
all the good things of life.” By the mid 1920s, more than a hundred
thousand Black men and women had joined the ICU – not just in South
Africa but also in South West Africa (now Namibia), Southern Rhodesia
(now Zimbabwe) and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). No doubt, the ICU’s
embrace of IWW ideals, including its motto, helps explain why it is
emblazoned on the banners of many South African unions including the
South African Transport & Allied Workers Union and many others
including in Cosatu.

My new book, Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly, in a real sense helps South Africans understand the ICU’s ideology, even though my book primarily tellsthe story of one of the greatest heroes of the US working class and his revolutionary union.

For years, I have carefully researched his life, painstakingly
uncovering a stunning range of documents related to this extraordinary
man. Ben Fletcher is the most comprehensive look at one of the
greatest African American radicals that almost no one has heard of. The
revised and expanded second edition includes a detailed biographical
introduction of his life and history, reminiscences by fellow workers
who knew him, a chronicle of the IWW’s impressive decade-long run on the
Philadelphia waterfront in which Fletcher played a pivotal role, and
nearly all of his known writings and speeches.

Today, the United States remains hobbled by the era’s soaring
inequality and racism, which launched the largest wave of US protests in
favour of racial equality in half a century. My book gives Fletcher’s
timeless voice an opportunity to inspire a new generation of workers,
organisers and agitators. Below are excerpts from three documents
included in the book.

1921: A poster warning readers against the Ku Klux Klan. (Image
courtesy of the University of Michigan Library Digital Collections)

Soapbox speaker

This brief report is the first-ever mention of Fletcher in the
public record. It is not certain when he joined the IWW, probably in
1910 or 1911. In 1912, at 22 years of age, Fletcher already was an
important local organiser and speaker. The IWW had been operating in
Philadelphia for years, chartering its first local – of Hungarian
immigrant metal workers – in 1907. Like Philadelphia, Chester lies along
the banks of the Delaware River, about 15 miles south (downriver). The
Solidarity was one of the IWW’s two main
English-language publications in the US during this era. That the IWW
already sought to organise African American workers is noteworthy since
almost no other union in the United States then did so due to pervasive

In a time before radio, television, mobile phones or the
internet, literally the most efficient way to reach people was by
standing on a “soapbox” on a busy street corner and speaking to
Also of note, in early 20th century America, the term “coloured” was the polite term for Americans of African descent.

We are pushing the work of propaganda around the town. Held a meeting
at the corner of Third and Edgemont streets. Chester. On Saturday, July
20, with Benjamin H Fletcher as the main speaker. Fellow worker
Fletcher is the only coloured speaker we have here, and certainly knows
how to deliver the goods. The crowd was very attentive, taking to
everything the speaker had to say regarding the class struggle. We sold a
bunch of Solidarity and a lot of literature. The negro workers
are greatly interested in the IWW, and I believe we shall get a local
started in Chester in the near future, as there is a bunch of coloured
workers anxious for the One Big Union.

– Howard Marston, Solidarity, 22 July 1912

1912: A leaflet by the American writer and labour activist Ralph
Chaplin. Millions of similar “stickerettes” were printed on gummed paper
and distributed by members of the Industrial Workers of the World
union. (Image courtesy of the IWW)

Fletcher nearly lynched in Norfolk

This is the only known interview with Fletcher and is quite
extraordinary. It reveals much about Fletcher, including his unwavering
commitment to the IWW and, more broadly, ongoing commitment to
revolutionary industrial unionism – even in the face of a potential
lynch mob of white Southerners! While the interviewer is unknown, the
Amsterdam News is a weekly newspaper founded in 1909 and geared to the Black community of New York City.

Among the older, still-operating Black newspapers in the United States,
it is named for Amsterdam Avenue, a major street in Harlem. The paper
long has been a voice for equal rights and none other than Malcolm X
wrote a column in it. Its workforce unionised in 1936 and remains so.

“I was preparing the longshoremen of Baltimore for a strike in 1917
for higher wages, shorter hours and better working conditions when I
received instructions from headquarters to proceed to Norfolk where the
dock workers were becoming restless and asking that an organiser be sent
them,” Fletcher began.

“I found the men responsive and eager for a union. But I had not been
in town long before word was circulated that I represented a dangerous
element set on the destruction of property and the overthrow of the
government. Then I began receiving messages of a threatening character. I
would be lynched if I spread that doctrine around Norfolk, I was told.
One night friends, fearing that my life was in danger, smuggled me
aboard a northbound ship to Boston.

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“By this time the government spurred on by the lumber and copper
interests of the West had set about a deliberate plan to eradicate the
IWW, which was growing rapidly in numbers, gaining control of certain
important industries, and threatening the supremacy of the American
Federation of Labor, which the government consistently favoured
throughout the war period.

“It was while I was working in Boston that I received a tip that I
was in line for indictment by a Federal Grand Jury. Accepting this tip
as authentic I returned to my home in Philadelphia, where I preferred to
be placed under arrest. The next week I read in the paper that
indictments had been returned against 166 of us and that we were to be
arrested on sight.”

Ben Fletcher paused long enough to relight his cigar and to glance
reflectively about the room; to think again of the days when his
organisation was a rallying ground for the revolutionary workers of the
country; when it constituted enough of a threat to compel the attention
of the government; when it had cards issued to a million workers
including 100 000 Black men and women whose membership was discouraged
or barred by the American Federation of Labor unions. Times have changed
and now with its scant 3 000 dues paying members it is little more than
a proletarian sect.

1920: A pin issued to longshoremen who were members of the Industrial
Workers of the World in Philadelphia. The letters “OBU” stand for One
Big Union and “MTW” for the Marine Transport Workers’ Industrial Union.
(Image courtesy of the author)

“For more than months,” he said, taking up the thread of his
narrative, “I remained in Philadelphia, a fugitive from justice yet
going about my work with no effort to conceal my identity. During this
period I was working in a roundhouse [locomotive maintenance shed built
around a turntable] of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

“One day – it was 9 February 1918 – two strangers appeared at my
door. They were special agents of the government. They placed me under
arrest and I was held in $10 000 bail. After being imprisoned for two
weeks bail was reduced to $1 500 by the Federal district attorney. This
was secured by the IWW local and I was released.

“Summoned to appear in court in Chicago on 1 April, I arrived two
hours late due to a train wreck. Making my way through the Federal
agents and police who swarmed the corridors I was blocked at the
courtroom door by the chief bailiff, who inquired:
“‘What do you want in here’?”
“‘I belong in here.’”
“‘Oh, a wise boy from the South side want to see the show’?”
“‘No, I’m one of the actors’.”
“Take that stuff away. You can’t get in here’.”
that I belonged there I pulled out my card and told him to go in and
see if Ben Fletcher’s name wasn’t on the indictment. He left the door in
charge of assistants, went in and returning announced: ‘He’s Ben
Fletcher, all right. Let him in.’
“And then I walked into the courtroom and into the Federal penitentiary.’”

– “Some People Are Taken to Jail, But Ben Fletcher Just ‘Went In’,” Amsterdam News, 30 December 1931

To defeat racism, join the IWW

In 1929 Ben Fletcher engaged in extensive correspondence with
Abram Lincoln Harris, a radical Black historian and economist of Howard
University, the most prestigious “historically Black” university in the
country. Along with scholar Sterling Spero, Harris was writing what
remains one of the best histories of African American labour,
The Black Worker (1931).

Needless to state I am glad to note that you are developing that
theory of industrial unionism and negro workers’ fortunes are bound up
therein. I have been identified with the labour movement – 20 years, and
I am at a safe distance from 40 yet. Nineteen of those years have been
spent in the ranks of the IWW and this long ago I have come to know
that, the industrial unionism as proposed and practiced by the IWW is
all sufficient for the teeming millions who must labour for others in
order to stay on this planet, and more, it is the economic vehicle that
will enable the negro workers to burst every bond of racial prejudice,
industrial and political inequalities and social ostracism.

– Abram Lincoln Harris Papers, Moorland-Spingarn Archives, Howard University, Washington, DC.

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.

Back to Peter Cole’s Author Page

Source: Blog.pmpress.org