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Ben Fletcher & the Legendary IWW Local 8 w/ Peter Cole



Peter Cole joins the show to discuss the second edition of his book Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly published by PM Press.


The range and scope of this episode expands over the backdrop of early 20th century Philadelphia and recounts the biographical details of Wobbly organizer Ben Fletcher and the tale of IWW Local 8, a powerful dock workers union that practiced anti-racist unionism which Ben Fletcher helped to create. We also discuss the demise of Local 8, brought down by a multitude of historical forces such as WWI and employer counter-offensives as well as fraught internal divisions between the IWW and Communist Party and competition from business unions such as the International Longshoremen's Association.


Get a copy of the book at https://www.pmpress.org/index.php?l=product_detail&p=1144


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https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/laborwave-radio/id1536697871


Music:

Thee Oh Sees- Adult Acid

Dead Milkmen- Big Lizard


Transcript:

I've really been enjoying your book a lot, particularly because I have recently relocated to the city of Philadelphia. Some, I think I'd enjoy the story of Ben Fletcher, no matter what and the history, but it becomes more alive because I happen to live in point breeze. And there's all these great accounts of like marches and point breeze, some of the radicalism in the streets. So I'd love to talk about that, but before getting there, I was very interested in your preface to the new edition, talking about why a second edition of this book on Ben Fletcher. So can you just share for our listeners why it's appropriate to re excavate the history of this great one time wobbly organizer?


0 (2m 44s):

Of course. So I had started working on this as a dissertation project in the nineties and then was working on the book that became Wobblies on the waterfront. And then as a, sort of a second parallel project to this book called Ben Fletcher that published by Charles curve press and, you know, in the mid two thousands, the first decade when it was released, the world in the country were a very different places. There are so many more people now who are thinking about the sorts of issues that Ben Fletcher's life and the union that he was a part of really sort of represent and embody for people in our time. And so just as one example, the term racial capitalism existed in 2005 and six, but I didn't use it very much.


0 (3m 29s):

And very, very few people did. It had sort of been sort of originated maybe by scholars in South Africa to sort of think about apartheid and capitalism sort of then brought to the UK by exiles and then sort of introduced according to Robin Kelly through Cedric Robinson who wrote his classic back Marxism in part on sabbatical while in the UK where he met some of these South Africans. And so he is really sort of the intellectual father of that term in the U S but in the 20 teens. And really the, the second half of the 20 teens, we see a, an enormous crowing sort of interest in awareness of the interconnections between white supremacy and capitalism in particular.


0 (4m 14s):

And I'd say imperialism. And so when I had the opportunity, which is incredibly rare to sort of actually do a new edition, I, I jumped at the chance and I should just say that the second edition is twice as long because in the interim of 15 years, approximately I found a lot more things about Ben Fletcher and the union that he was a part of and people found me who, or who knew me, who found items. And even since the book has been published less than two months ago, I am embarrassed, but sort of in a way, happy to say that I've learned more about them, that'll continue. Of course.


1 (4m 48s):

So the third edition is soon to come out. There


0 (4m 50s):

Will probably will not be at their tradition. Nevertheless, 2021 is a of different time than 20 2005 and six. And we always look to the past, through the eyes of the present. We always reinterpret the past through the present. That's not a bad, that's only under natural. And so cause we ask different things of the past based on where we are. And so I think that Ben Fletcher in 2021 is different than Ben Fletcher in 2006.


1 (5m 18s):

Yeah. So I want to learn a little bit more about Ben Fletcher, like who he was, where he was and what time and period and how he was an organizer. But I just wanted to share with you as I was reading this, one of the things that struck me as I was reminded of Howard Zinn, how he talked about how history is propelled by the countless acts of unknown people. And it just seems very appropriate to think of that quote in relation to Ben Fletcher, even though he was not unknown in his time, he's become so thoroughly erased from the histories. So can we re excavate him? Can you please share for our listeners, this person that we all should know about?


0 (5m 52s):

Yeah, of course I, I claim repeatedly that he is entirely unknown and, and that's a huge mistake. I definitely know he's entirely unknown, right? Even among historians like myself professionals who are paid to sort of study the past, even among the labor historians and the historians of African America, he's really, really sort of not known and it's not some conspiracy, but it is the truth. So Fletcher was born and raised in Philadelphia. He was born in 1890. At that time, almost all African-Americans were Republicans because it was the party of Lincoln. And so he was actually named Benjamin Harrison Fetcher after the sitting president at the time, although he always went by Ben, his parents had moved to Philadelphia, probably not long before from Virginia and his parents.


0 (6m 42s):

I believe I'm pretty sure were born in the 1850s, which means they probably were born in slavery. Although that's not clear either in veteran, never commented upon that, or maybe it was just so typical that it wasn't even worthy of mentioning, but it is where the, you mentioned for us in the 21st century further removed, you know, and he was the first child and his family had another four or five kids. One died a young age and working class parents. They moved around Philadelphia and over the river into Camden on occasion. So Fletcher would have in, in the 19 teens, right, was around 20 years old working class, multiple occupations web to boys. His first book is on Philadelphia and called the Philadelphia Negro published in 1899, I think.


0 (7m 27s):

And he basically said that racism is the defining experience of black Philadelphians and the largest neighborhood was in what now is called South Philadelphia. What then was the seventh ward, although I'm sure they've redrawn the lines on the map. It wasn't the black neighborhood. It was a multi-ethnic multi-racial neighborhood segregation in many American cities outside of the South emerged in the 20th century, as opposed to in the late 19th. And so, although racism was pervasive, there was no sort of black ghetto per se. Fetcher's family lived. As we know from the census records on the same streets is Italian immigrants and Eastern European Jewish immigrants and Irish immigrants, as well as native born people of European ancestry, but working class.


0 (8m 8s):

Although there would have been rich folks in there too. And just walking around the Philadelphia, you can see some very nice houses still across center city, as it sometimes is now called. And so Fetcher was a typical actually young black man working class in multiple jobs. But one of those jobs he would have gotten was walking just a half mile or mile East to the Delaware river to get a ship right to load and unload cargo from because Philadelphia was the third biggest city in the country. And maybe the fifth day of the S port instead, there would have been thousands of men. And at that time, all men who would have loaded and unloaded ships by the job, meaning casual labor or day labor.


1 (8m 49s):

And so he would have been born in 1890. He would have been around 15 years old when the IWW was founded in 1905. So when did Ben Fletcher start becoming involved in IWW organizing? And like, how did he even gravitate towards it? Do we know that about it


0 (9m 6s):

Sadly? And there's so many other aspects of his life. The knowledge that I have is limited. So he probably joined the IWW around 1910, the IWW, as you know, it was founded in Chicago in 1905, but I believe the first IWW locals are chartered in Philadelphia in 1907, pretty quick because Philadelphia is just bustling industrial city with tons of European immigrants. Textile is actually was the largest industry in the city, but also had a metal work. So Hungarians Italians, those sorts of folks, Jewish needle trades, et cetera, Fletcher, I surmise probably learned about the IWW from walking down the street, because at that time street box soap box orders were the way that in working class communities, that all sorts of people would reach crowds.


0 (9m 55s):

This is before radio TV, the internet, right mass communication is print only. And they would have probably also had pamphlets and newspapers to hand out or to sell. And so it's very likely if not certain that Fletcher would have been walking down the street, maybe actually towards the river to get a job and heard someone speak and maybe he didn't stop the first time, but maybe the second or the third time he did and then started to listen to, and as an African-American, he didn't have to be told that the system wasn't very fair as a working class or poor person, so same thing. And so it's very reasonable to conclude that he would have been open to radical ideas because the system simply failed, right. African-Americans and most working class, urban residents.


0 (10m 37s):

But we do know that he became a soapbox speaker himself, right. And so 1911, 1912, he probably also joined the socialist party of America in that time. And very, probably dropped out soon thereafter, although he stuck with the Wobblies, you know, but in IWW newspapers, he's already sort of being praised in 1912 in about speaking in Philadelphia, but also down river, just a few miles in Chester, Pennsylvania. That was the one to note that he most likely was when he's being praised for his street, speaking in Philadelphia, and then Chester he's most likely speaking to predominantly white audiences because that was the city, but also at the Y we just didn't have a lot of African-American members yet.


0 (11m 18s):

It was only because of Fletcher and then organizing the dock workers that thousands of African-Americans joined. Right. And so he already had experienced speaking to black audiences, which would be useful because ultimately he helped form a union on the waterfront that was majority white at first. And so that also suggests he probably was a great speaker. All accounts suggest that because he would have maybe had a harder time convincing native born white or European immigrants, then he might with African-Americans because race was pervasive in Philadelphia and the American 1912 as it is in 2020.


1 (11m 59s):

It's really interesting. So the union that you're mentioning there, that he would go on to help found was local eight famous local in the IWW extremely powerful union. I didn't realize until you just said it, that it was majority white to start with, but that was not the case over the history of local aid. It was a market example of an interracial union. Can you talk a little bit about local eight, but also as you're talking about Ben Fletcher and his ability to talk to white audiences to white workers, I wonder if you could describe a little bit about his politics on this subject as well, because he seemed to really have like a class struggle politics, and believe that unions were a vehicle for accomplishing in a racial equality and racial uplift in general.


1 (12m 44s):

So I hand it off to you.


0 (12m 46s):

Of course. So Fletcher was, was it loudly before he was a leader of this union that came to be known as local eight. And so he already was a believer in the cause. And so we have to understand the IWW, right? So anticapitalist from its birth founded in Chicago by socialists and other radicals who rejected the American Federation of labor, which was the mainstream labor movement in, in the early 20th century, which predominantly was white man of native born birth. And in the so-called skilled trades and the FL intentionally didn't organize women. African-Americans many European immigrants, no Asian immigrants, almost no sort of Mexican and other Latino immigrants and so-called unskilled workers.


0 (13m 31s):

So the infidel intentionally chose not to organize most workers and was basically, you know, except to capitalism. So they want to raise, they want safer conditions. Those are all important, but like there was no politics really deeper. The IWW was founded by people like mother Jones by Lucy Parsons by big bill Haywood by Eugene Debs has really being a socialist labor Federation intentionally internationalists from its inception. Because in fact, there was a discussion about what the name of the union and industrial workers of America was proposed. And that was rejected in favor of industrial workers of the world. There were non-Americans present in 1905 in Chicago, some Canadians, maybe a Spanish person or two, a German.


0 (14m 16s):

And it's noteworthy that in 1905, they said, no capitalism is global. Therefore the fight against it is global. We are still going to represent workers in sort of unions in order to say, fight for higher wages, better conditions, et cetera. We're not going to sign any contracts because the greatest power of workers is to strike or to threaten, to strike and most contracts having a strike clause. And so class struggle as at the heart and workplace centered, as opposed to electoral politics was one reason that the socialist party and the IWW sort of parted ways within a decade is that the socialist party was what now we would call social democracy or democratic socialism really sort of promoted an electoral approach, whereas the IWW and other more energistic sorts of unions, or sometimes called an Arco cinder Quist were rejected.


0 (15m 13s):

Electoral approaches, believing that that would was a path towards failure and reform only. So Fletcher very much embraced all of that, right? He was not a theoretician and he didn't write long treatises on IWW views, but based on his speeches, as well as based on his private correspondence and what we know he accepted and embraced all of that, the last point I'll make about Fletcher is as, I mean, he was African-American is that the IWW from its inception was anti-racist antisense phobic, anti-sexist it actively sought to organize workers of, of so-called marginalized groups that had been ignored by the labor movement, but also ignored by most American institutions.


0 (15m 57s):

And so that might be why Fetcher found the IWW attractive, of course, but he, wasn't only thinking about organizing black workers, but he very much wanted to organize in an interracial multi-ethnic setting and local aid. The union that he helped lead from its birth was in 1913 when it was born out of a two week successful strike was approximately one-third African-American and probably approximately one third Irish and Irish American, and approximately one third European immigrants during what were one, it became, it transitioned to becoming maybe a little over a majority African-American as the great migration picked up as war war changed conditions. And so essentially by the late 19 teens locally, it was majority black, but it always from its birth was heavily black.


0 (16m 45s):

If not majority black and the city never has been majority black to my knowledge, although I, I could be, I could have spoken about maybe 1960 or 1970 Philadelphia, but it definitely was not in the era of local eight, you know, but Philadelphia did have the largest black population outside of the South in 1900. Right. And so it was a place with a significant and old black community.


1 (17m 9s):

I love one of the stories that you retell in the book about Philadelphia and local aid and how, like you said, they were founded on a two-week strike on their fourth year anniversary, celebrating the strike. They didn't go to work and instead organize this massive rally and March through the streets of point breeze, which is where I currently live. And just, just reading it and reading how they're chanting for the streets. An injury to one is an injury to all thousands of people. Like if you've been to point breeze, the streets are tiny, they're tight. Like if there's a thousand people walking down my street, there's way I wouldn't see it.


1 (17m 50s):

And it's just very powerful and moving. So I just want to kind of remark on how much that really resonated with me and how moving it was to read it, but also ask you to kind of provide a little bit more of the details of the backdrop of the city at that time and how local eight was able to gain so much power as a union based on their location in Philadelphia and the great organizing skills of people like Ben Fletcher.


0 (18m 15s):

Yeah, well, so Philadelphia is an old city for the U S and so it's, you know, plotted out in the 16, late 16 hundreds and grows in the 17 hundreds, but it's pretty small between the Delaware river to the East and the school to the West, other than West Philly, sort of onto the West side of the school river, a Dutch word that, you know, it's two miles, right? Like, so it's a pretty small city, right? And then it grows North South, but most of the work is on the Delaware, which is the bigger river, but there's plenty of work to the Western part of the old city, which is toward point breeze area and towards the school river. Right. And there's also all these huge railroad yards cuts this big industrial city, lots of factories, some of which still stand, even though few of which produce the goods that they used to whole areas were basically centered around right.


0 (19m 2s):

In industry, right? Like, and working class people living in tight quarters and again, an old city, these sort of two story or row houses in New York and Boston, we often think of three story, but actually all of the Southern half of Philadelphia, tons of it are these two story row houses, right? Like narrow streets, like you said, you know, and this has been this way. And so these are working class communities, multiethnic. I like to think about also Williams. He foster, who was a wobbly and then became a leader in the communist party. He also grew up in Philadelphia and this a little earlier, but he writes about in his memoir about witnessing as a child, a strike in 1895, a streetcar strike in his place and how that was very sort of instrumental in the, so the same way you talk about local eight, doing these marches, they would take, they would basically take the day off to celebrate their annual birthday, which was a birth out of a strike day, right?


0 (19m 53s):

Like a, and of course they didn't ask employers for this. They actually told him players, we would not go to work. And then Porter said, well, we'll fire you. And, but if no one shows up for work, well, of course what happened by the afternoon, employers are saying, well, will you work this afternoon because we have some work. And so, you know, local eight sort of that's all very direct action, right. Is another term, right. That they would enforce their power through work. Now they would negotiate, but only oral contracts with sort of the union. I'd also mentioned as far as sort of this community. So during strikes, there was no strike funds. The Wobblies ha have very little dues. The members themselves are not wealthy leaders in the union bike rule.


0 (20m 35s):

Can't be paid any more than people who work in that occupations. Right? Like, and so, you know, during strikes, everyone's basically in debt. And so it would be small businesses who are often members of the same ethnic racial and neighborhood communities would extend credit. That would have been the norm at Fletcher, actually in one of his correspondence, sort of recalling a, a bigger strike in 1920 talks about how throughout the neighborhoods there would have been support for the strikers. Of course, if you've got three, four or 5,000 men, again, all men working in this union and you think about that, every one of these people might support four or five, six people with their wages you've then you've got 20,000 people.


0 (21m 16s):

Right. And then you've got their families, you've got their friends. Right. And so they would have sort of impacted in a direct ways, like huge swaths, right? Like, and so when they do their marches, when they have public events, these would have been not some small affairs, right? Like they often would have been actually quite mighty and, and, and themselves sort of serve as educational, right. To nun Bobby's who is this group of people and she's here, they are marching. And even if maybe a Marsh is not uncommon, it is noteworthy that this would have been a various sort of ethnically and racially diverse, a lot of people. And many of the Europeans wouldn't have known English well. And so at their big parades, but also even at their meetings, there would often be sort of people who would speak in multiple languages.


0 (22m 2s):

So an English speaker, and then it might be translated or just a separate speech given in Italian, then another one in Polish. Right? Like, and so when you see sometimes the descriptions of events, it would, it would not be uncommon for them to name the different people who spoke in different languages. Right? Like that of course slows things down. But you know, it's also part of the atmosphere and everyone would have come to appreciate over time. We think that these people have different sort of cultures right. To offer. But I'm not saying that all these people were sort of perfect loving people for everyone far from it. We can determine through their actions, how they acted, what people were thinking. We can only guess, right?


0 (22m 42s):

Like, I mean, I can tell you what Ben Fletcher was thinking. Cause he sometimes written stuff down, but, and some of these people were later interviewed or whatnot, but I hesitate to sort of speak on behalf of 5,000 men, but we do know what they did. We know that they abolished the casual labor system called the shape up. That was the suppressive hiring system that also divided workers based on race. We know they integrated the gangs because workers worked in groups of 20 say often five or six gangs on a ship. And we know that employers would play Polish, Italian, Irish, Jewish, black gangs off each other in order to increase productivity, but also to weekend workers. Right. We know they abolished sort of segregated gangs.


0 (23m 24s):

Right? We know they did this without asking. We know they did this without a legal contract. They essentially imposed integration from below. I say in ways that are indicative of the politics, right. Lowercase P of the IWW, not just a local aid, but it is. And it's not the only place where in fact, the IWW instantly did things were against the norm in terms of ethnicity and race and separation of those groups. Right. And so, and we also know that federal wasn't alone, there are other important leaders, but that Fletcher was at the time in the local and national press praised as being essentially the most important leader of this union.


1 (24m 4s):

So one thing that comes up is that the contemporary labor movement, I, I usually refer to as organized labor because I think that, but people talk about the labor movement. They usually are just talking about business unions, mainstream unionism. They're not super good at these multi-racial multi-ethnic organizations. Like there's still a lot, there's still things to be said that are noteworthy, but also there's a lot to be learned I think, from these histories. And it reminds me of a recent article that Micah, you wrote about Mike Davis, where there's one quote that's pulled out of it. That seems very pertinent to this conversation was Mike Davis described early 20th century labor organizers as more like gardeners.


1 (24m 44s):

Not that they didn't get on soapboxes and like speak to people and kind of rally the troops so to speak, but that they were more capable at being like a gardener D weeding the soil of like petty disputes and antagonisms between workers and trying to D-Wave that, you know, those divisions, those social divisions in the workplace, so that a greater organization could bloom. It sounds like this is what the IWW, the local eight in practice was doing. So can you, can you talk more about that? Like what did the local look like? Like what did their governance structure look like? What are their leadership look like? How involved was Ben Fletcher in that? How much did he help mentor other leaders?


0 (25m 25s):

Yeah, well, I mean, I also should say I'm a member of a union, the American Federation of teachers, and I'm happy to criticize my and other unions in our time. They are in terms of ethnicity, race, and nationality, much better than they were in the early 20th century and much better than they were in the seventies. I mean, and so like even after the civil rights act of 1964, the dock workers, union representing people on the East and Gulf coast had to be forced to integrate by basically Progressive's and blacks who were suing sometimes, right. To sort of basically get them to comply with the law and that local aid to this sort of 50 years before the civil rights act and 50 years before most unions sort of had to be sort of pushed and pulled some more than others.


0 (26m 10s):

Right? Like there were some progressive unions, but there was definitely some resisting. So how did local aid did it do it differently? So again, they're born in 1913, we know that they quickly ended the shape up the system of hiring that instead workers would be go to the hall on one 21 Catherine street in South Philadelphia, close to the river though, we're rivers, then there's Delaware Avenue, then there's first street, then there's second street. So it's between first and second, right? Like, and so close to the river, right. Where it used to be that you'd have to go to different tiers. And if you're lucky to get picked, or if you're willing to pay a bribe, get picked, now the bosses would have to call the union and the union itself would dispatch, right.


0 (26m 51s):

And it's not going to dispatch and all black gang, and then all the Italian gang instead, it's actually dispatching sort of multi-ethnic multi-racial groups. We don't know, and we don't have photographs and we don't have details about these things. So, you know, some of this is all anecdotal. Unfortunately we know that they intentionally and sort of by maybe local bylaws required sort of elected leaders and leaders who were selected to run meetings would have been sometimes nickname, checkerboard, meaning black and white. And so they, they didn't assume that numbers would result in maybe a certain group of people having someone to elect right. And said they mandated.


0 (27m 32s):

Right. We know that as was the case in IWW locals around the country. And beyond that, they were highly suspicious of union leaders who were distinct from and separate from, and often over time sort of better than in their view than the rank and file. So they basically prevented that by requiring annual elections. And so venture sometimes was in elected office, but actually sometimes he wasn't because by law, he wouldn't have been allowed to serve in leadership ranks. Of course the effect of that is that it might weaken. But another way to think about it is that it actually builds more leaders. And, and during 19 in world war one, 1917, 18 for the U S when the leaders, including Fetcher are imprisoned, right?


0 (28m 12s):

Like this actually fortunate, right. That accolade has developed cadres of second and third tier leaders, including other African-Americans. So, you know, we know that they also would have hold held across, and this again is not unique to escalate. You know, union halls were places of sociability, right? There were, there were vibrators, there were places that the union would have newspaper, magazines and books. A lot of workers had downtime when they didn't have ships. And so, you know, you'd get together to see friends, you'd get together to find a job you'd get together to organize you get together to, to borrow a book, right. You'd get together. Maybe if you didn't have something else to do. And that these were sort of would have been very interesting places, as opposed to nowadays where there are union halls that are essentially very, very quiet except for meetings.


0 (28m 59s):

And maybe it depends on the union and how they operate. Right? Like, but for certain moments, whereas union hall is not just the IWW right. Union halls generally would have been actually more vibrant places there probably also would have been drinking happening there. And often alcohol wouldn't be served, right? Like, there'd be a bar. I can't say that for local eight, but I've been in other union places where there's a bar on site, like, like a VFW or an American Legion hall. And these also would have been sort of, again, sort of ethnic groups, political groups would have peppered right. South Philly. And you can still see when you walk the streets of cities out of us like to do, and you can see the old sort of names on buildings sometimes and other languages, you know, so in Philadelphia was like the Lithuanian socialist Federation, right?


0 (29m 44s):

Like other, such groups locally that of course being anti-capitalist didn't own its property. So it rented. Right. And so it sort of had the second floor of a hall above a garage. I think we also know that they held educational forums. Right. And so one of the most interesting ones is from 1921, after the Tulsa race massacre, when 300 black men and women were killed in Oklahoma, they held a forum. Right. And they talked about it. And luckily this was reported on by a Phillip Randolph, from Chandler Owens magazine, the messenger where it talks about how white and black members of local aid rejected the idea of white supremacy, the sort of seeing basically the, sort of the clan and sort of race sort of riots, which are really sort of massacre as, as being ways to divide white workers from others workers.


0 (30m 31s):

And they also rejected Garveyism Marcus Garvey's universal Negro improvement association, which was really sort of a incredibly strong and impressive black nationalists organization, but also advocated for separatism, right? Separate black businesses, basically that white people would never be able to sort of overcome their racism. And so we have to just get out of here, it's understanding the appeal of that by African-Americans, but Fletcher and Wobblies like Fletcher would have rejected that too, because they didn't see sort of black, only places as being viable in the U S where 12% of the people are African-American or for that matter, their vision of, you know, a socialist world was very different than, than sort of simply Africa for Africans, which is what Garvey was calling for as, as appropriate as that might be a sort of a claim to get rid of European empire.


0 (31m 22s):

And so, you know, the politics of this era is sort of fascinating to sort of inject to local aid into, again, remembering also that the KU Klux Klan has several million members in the late 19 teens and early 1920s and so vicious racism and that there was huge amounts of immigration, right? Although that had slowed during world war one, and then afterward one, Congress will basically prevent return to pre-war levels of immigration. So there's also sort of growings in a phobia. And so you've got all these cross-currents in addition of cusp, the more normal ones you might say of employers, simply seeking to sort of extract maximum profit by working people as fast as they could and paying them as little as they could.


0 (32m 5s):

Right. And so you've got this teaming city, right. With a lot of different groups of people, Philadelphia being not so different than Cleveland, right. We're in Milwaukee, right. Or Baltimore, other industrial cities of this era, even though every place is different. And one could argue that Philadelphia is actually more racist than most, you know, although that's a sort of a losing battle, right? Like, but there's plenty of things to point to the sort of the hard times that black Philadelphia has experienced, but several thousand African-Americans were members of local eight and they presumably were among the best played working class, black men in their city. Right. Like, which is why so many wanted to join. And we could imagine started to get educated within it because most of those black men probably had come from the South and probably had no industrial or union experience before entering right.


0 (32m 53s):

This occupation and this union, they suddenly learned, however, that for the first time, maybe in their lives, if there were some white people who weren't so hateful. Right. And so it's also hard to imagine yet possible going, African-Americans coming up from Maryland originally and going well, who are these white guys who actually are treating me and calling me fellow worker. Right. And then working with me and actually fighting alongside me and how powerful that might've been for both sides. Right. And so these, again, are things we can only imagine actually were happening. Right. Which is so exciting to think about. And locally, this essentially controlled this industry for a decade almost right, which is relatively durable and long standing.


1 (33m 33s):

So there's a lot of things I want to follow up on there, but maybe we come back to some of them in particular, I'm just so struck by the differences of how local eight did internal unionizing and democracy, that would be total anathema to today's mainstream labor movement. So we can talk about that a little bit, but what you just said about local aid being durable for about 10 years, a powerful union high membership, probably one of the highest memberships in the entire IWW. If I'm not incorrect there, I want to talk about that. How was local eight able to be so durable in contrast to other IWW branches? Because as you mentioned in your book itself, membership in the IWW was very transient.


1 (34m 17s):

People constantly were coming and going and other chapters, and there wasn't much of a foothold for particular IWW branches that local eight was able to accomplish. So what may have a local eight, the kind of beacon of hope and the, the best player in terms of the IWW at large.


0 (34m 34s):

Yeah. Well, that's really important stuff. You know, we have to keep in mind that millions of men and to a lesser extent, working class, women were migratory. Lots of occupations were sort of seasonal and it was common for working class men to sort of move around the country or the regions based on the time of year and the work that you could find that makes it hard to establish sort of durable locals, right. Like, because okay, you work in agriculture, but you're only there for a month or two, and then you move on to some other place, right? Like how do you from the institutional side make that work? That's not easy also because the union always envisioned itself as revolutionary. They wanted maximum membership, which meant they kept their dues very well.


0 (35m 15s):

But that also meant that, well, if you didn't pay your dues for a couple of months, well, who cares, right? You don't have to pay them up again. Right. Or you found the move and you could sort of just rejoin some other place. And so the IWW by wanting to be revolutionary in some ways, made it harder to sort of organize, you know, for the bread and butter stuff. And there's also sort of the sort of reality that, you know, a lot of people just didn't have the money to necessarily sort of maintain their sort of memberships if you're out of work or if you don't have enough money. Right. And so, you know, it's, it's, it's frustrating. Cause it was like how many people were in the IWW and the truth is no one knows in their heyday compounded by the fact that the federal government confiscated records from around offices around the country and its central headquarters in Chicago and very likely destroyed a lot of them in the twenties.


0 (36m 2s):

And so unfortunately, even a lot of this is guesswork. We know that for instance, the IWW was very sort of famous for sort of glorious strikes, but then sort of what happens afterwards, right? Like, so in 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the famous bread and roses strike twenty-five thousand people, thousands joined the IWW. So maybe it was larger right. For a few months and then say Philadelphia later became on the waterfront, but we know that most of those people drained away. And so the IWW for all the credit it may deserve in sort of forwarding provocative and sort of valuable ideas often was unable to sort of maintain the sorts of longer term durable organizations that really working people need.


0 (36m 48s):

I mean, because before the revolution, while I need a raise before the revolution, I need steady work, I want a shorter Workday. So luckily it was simultaneously sometimes praised in my opinion, deservedly. So for being radical in its anti-racism, but sometimes it was criticized for being too conservative within the IWW for focusing on those short-term gains. And the answer is, well, it depends on who's correcting the example cause cause local eight was also for instance, loaded goods for the war, right? Like, I mean, well that's which dock workers do they load ships when they're told to load ships and two 19, 17 and 18, a lot of those ships were leaving Philadelphia for France, right? Like where the U S was joined the British and the French and fighting against the Germans.


0 (37m 32s):

So are they bad socialists for delivering goods that are going to kill German workers? Well, French and British socialists also had abandoned internationalism famously in 1914 and supported their national efforts, not to say that's acceptable, but just sort of mindful that what we're one was incredibly hard on the international socialist movement and most failed to sort of live up to this internationalist. There were no strikes in America against the war. There were actually in a few other countries, Australia, there was this massive effort against conscription, right. For example, that the IWW was a leader. Right. And so in another country where the IWW was influential, they were very involved in the anti-war movement.


0 (38m 14s):

But in Philadelphia specifically, they didn't write like a, they actually registered for the army because that was the law. They worked ships, no doubt. Many of which were building a weapons. Well, so are they radical? Yes. They were sort of doing what few other workers are doing in terms of organizing across race and national, where they conservative. They were sort of typical, right? Like they just did their jobs. I always say that what Fred Thompson, a famous wildly historian would write about as like, well you need short and longterm right games here. And that, you know, the long-term game for the IWW be socialism, but the short term it's how do we get more members? And well, we need to sort of explain to them why they should join a union.


0 (38m 56s):

And it's like, well, we can sort of push the bus and we can make more money and have a safer workplace. Right. And so like the radicalism of the IWW and local aid is one thing the conservatism actually also is perhaps necessary. Conservative might not be the right word, but the sort of more practical short-term material issues. Right. That we all sort of need to think about. Right. So during COVID, well, I want to work at home. Right. I'm glad my union fought for that benefit from a university in the longterm. I want more. Right. Like, but in the short term, those are the sort of the pragmatic games local eight was able to do that. What many other IWW locals were unable to do in those regards is that to its creditor sort of, is that actually part of the reason that IWW wasn't more successful at revolution, it's a debate.


0 (39m 48s):

Right, right. So like we all, that's the exciting thing about history is that we all can interpret for ourselves the evidence that we have. And so my book actually is predominantly first person, primary sources from the era so that readers could in fact decide. And there's a number of situations where the local eight is at odds with the S the national in which it's considered to be too conservative, for instance, in trying to protect the existing labor service members from a labor surplus. And that's understandable, you could actually understand both sides right. Of that debate and well, modern organizers, I think, should be considering these historical examples. Right. That's actually a big thing when you quoted Howard Zinn earlier, I've appreciated that because that's the way I sort of see this history is useful, is for us to think about how in the 2020s, is there something that we can take from, from this, this history?


1 (40m 41s):

Yeah. I want to talk about that too. And like, what you're saying is these, these arguments, these debates are very ripe today, too. Like Kim moody talks about modern business unions as basically being interested in the self-preservation of their private welfare system for members. Right. Cause there's not a social welfare system that the government's providing. So the best that unions can do is preserve a private social welfare system that their employers provide. And Moody's very critical of this. And I think there's a lot of reasons to be critical, but if you're organizing in the labor movement today, kind of like, what the hell are you supposed to do? You know, these are tough questions. I don't think that there's easy answers to them. And it seems like they're all, they're very Clive in this history you're talking about too.


1 (41m 22s):

And also what you're kind of getting to gets us to some of the decline of local aid. And I figure about to start talking about what's called the Philadelphia controversy. So can we start talking about that? Like, what was the Philadelphia controversy? How did local aid start declining in power as a labor organization? And we would be remiss not to mention that they had rivals, right? Like they had beef with the communist party and the ILA. So there's a lot there. Take it as you can,


0 (41m 50s):

The sort of decline of local aid, happiness, not overnight, but happens actually over a series of years. And there's a number of forces, which you've named in addition to some others. And I'll just name those two others, which maybe we'll come back to one, of course it's unclear has never liked local aid and employers over time shipping companies, which are global increasingly became more powerful. So instead of local employers sort of national or international employers who very much couldn't wait to sort of use the war and then the post-war sort of campaigns to sort of beat down the union, the federal government, and also local and state governments also were enormously important in the demise of local age, as well as the IWW in the U S and other countries Fletcher in five other Philadelphia leaders were arrested in 1917, 18, and then were part of this mass trial in Chicago in 1918 that sent six of them and a hundred other wild.


0 (42m 49s):

We used to federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, right? And hundreds of other wineries in prison and other state and federal and local cases. Thousands of Wobblies actually, instead of the red scare, first target was the IWW, right? Literally Congress passes the espionage act in the spring of 1917 by late may Fletcher. And I assume many other while we was already under surveillance, less than two months after the war against, before they could have possibly done anything to undermine the war effort, right. They're out there essentially. As soon as the tools are given to the Bureau of investigation, they started to use them to attack. And so Fletcher's in prison right in 1918, 19, 19 into 1920, when other forces also add themselves to the list, rising racism and xenophobia, which even though those are outside forces, can't help, but sort of pull apart members, right, who are pulled by various other communities, maybe neighbors and friends and family who knows, but the clan was big in Eastern Pennsylvania.


0 (43m 53s):

We know that where their local eight members as well, maybe not, but it was around right. And the birth of a nation, this racist film that was launched relaunched. The KKK was the most popular film of that era. And we know the local NAACP in Philadelphia picketed or outside of movie theaters in Philadelphia to pro test the showing of this film as they did in other cities. And so we're also mindful that racism's in a phobia out there, right? We've got sort of this post-war ones sort of open shop campaign that really employers form these powerful organizations to sort of basically go after unions that have been somewhat empowered by the war, which resulted in labor shortages, but also workers were necessary for the war effort, just like in world war two.


0 (44m 38s):

And we've got the eighth of L's union, the rival international lungs Germans association that you named earlier that controlled some parts of the workforce in most other American port cities, but not Philadelphia because the IWW had essentially been able to sort of organize their right. And the ILA generally included blacks, but generally segregated them into so-called Jim Crow vocals. So relatively better than some other unions, but far worse than the IWW in terms of its race politics and the birth of the Soviet union, which the IWW at first was thrilled at as were leftist around the world in 1917 and 18, right? The birth of the first socialist country as communist party started to form in various countries outside of the Soviet union after well, we're one, you know, these are small organizations often really sort of Russian immigrants and some others.


0 (45m 29s):

And then they want to start to recruit in their new countries. And the IWW was very clearly the most important largest, most radical anticapitalist institution in the U S and the war one era. Right? And so naturally the communists wanted to basically bring the IWW into its fold and in other countries too, right. And this similar things were happening in other countries. What did the IWW do? Well at first I said there was praise for the Soviet union, but by 19, 19, 1920, there's actually a lot of uncertainty about the Soviet project that Lennon was leading, right? Including repression against anti-Soviet were anticommunist Baptists, particularly anarchists, really thinking about the Soviet union in Europe, but like the similar things are happening in the U S and the story is sort of comes out in August of 1920 that members of local eight were loading weapons for anti-Soviet forces.


0 (46m 27s):

We know the United States was actually actively supporting with military supplies, anti-communist forces that wanted to overthrow the new Soviet nation. We also know other European powers were doing the same thing, right? The British, the French, et cetera, where they loading weapons for the Soviet union in Philadelphia, that actually is unknown. But when the charge was leveled, right within days, the union, the local eight was suspended from the IWW because they had betrayed the class, right? The trade, the working class, and the socialist revolutionary, because to my knowledge, there is no evidence that they actually did. So, and members of local eight, including Ben Fletcher repeatedly denied the charge, but the charge was leveled. The national organization quickly, basically without waiting, even for sort of a response suspended local aid later, a few months later essentially lifted the suspension only to suspend them again for a second reason, separate from Soviet issues, but like Fletcher maintained.


0 (47m 22s):

And he was there. And I wasn't that this was a communist plot that the communist already by the summer of 1920 were unable to sort of convince most Wobblies to join and most wildly affiliates to join the communist international, which was called the common turn, the communist international, right. Which the Soviet union was trying to create a global communist movement with it at the center, you know, but there was suspicion, many joined individual auditors did join, right? Big bill Haywood of course, jumped bail, right. And sort of moved to the Soviet union around this time. But most 12 will use kept the Soviet union and communist at arms length and believed that that sort of party approach, this top-down approach, this sort of non workplace approach, this less anarchistic approach, the status approach was the wrong approach.


0 (48m 11s):

And so even though the flirtation began very favorably, even by 1920, we see the IWW refusing to affiliate with the communist international. When the Soviet create the red international labor unions, the profit turn of years later to try to appeal these sort of leftist unions. They also refuse to join Lennon. We know, wrote a book called an infantile disorder of left wing communism, right? Basically criticizing European lefties who refuse to join the Soviet movement. That's summer of 20 is exactly when this charge is leveled against Philadelphia's dock workers. Is this part of essentially an, an effort on the part of New York communists to sort of, if you can't get the IWW to sort of disrupt them, maybe it's definitely possible, but even that evidence is not certain, but we know that this weekend local aid already weakened by sort of repression of the government employer, counter offensive ILA rivalries racism's and a phobia that they'll actually hold on to the waterfront really for another few years, but we can sort of see, in retrospect, we can trace this decline and its power.


0 (49m 20s):

And so I, this is already sort of in the weeds for maybe some people, I read a chapter in my book lobbies on the waterfront on this, and I've written a few other things since, because it's interesting, it's important, but for some people, this is not really what they're interested in men Fletcher about. They want to talk about the anti-racist black led unionism and I do too, but I also want to sort of put into the conversation like, well, there's, you know, divisions on the left. There's a long history of this in the U S and across the world, sectarianism that has often hurt the left and the so-called popular front era in the mid thirties through the end of world war two, when the communists basically played nice with other lefties was a rare time.


0 (50m 1s):

But essentially by the, already by the mid twenties, the IWW had declined and the communist party was still small, but it was growing. And we know in retrospect will become the dominant trend on the left worldwide for the rest of the 20th century. And so, as we also know in the U S the comments were very good on race issues also. And in the thirties in particular were organizing many black workers, as well as defending black victims of Jim Crow in the South, like in the Scottsboro case, et cetera. Right. And so I'm not meaning to be anti-communist per se. Sometimes people jump on me for not being pro-communist enough, but, you know, like the Wobblies and the communists had falling out.


0 (50m 41s):

And, and that sort of the same sorts of things later happened in Spain famously in the thirties, right. That George Orwell and many others write about. And so we see the beginnings of that actually in the Philadelphia controversy in the summer of 1920, it's actually one of the first instances in the U S of this sort of left sectarianism that really hurts the movement broader speaking.


1 (51m 4s):

I totally hear what you're saying too, that we don't want to focus and magnify too much this particular part of the history, but I do think it's important to know, like what led to the decline of vocal aid and how it manifested internal divisions of the IWW itself. Because as we were talking about the Philadelphia controversy, one aspect of that was the charge that locally, it was delivering munitions war materials to anti Bolshevik forces to the whites in the Soviet union. But the other part of it was local eights, high initiation fees to try to preserve like a smaller labor pool and focus on bread and butter unionism that well, that's what the critics called it bread and butter unionism. And you could see that the IWW itself internal was starting to really split apart.


1 (51m 48s):

So it's just good to know.


0 (51m 50s):

And really in the early twenties, these sorts of battles in the IWW continued right in, in over what was referred to internally as centralization, how much control does the local have, or a local have versus the national. And, you know, there's regional divisions. There's a, this ultimately sort of comes to a head in 1924 in the U S but these are similar debates happening in other countries and still today, right? Like in terms of organizational tactics, Philadelphia, local, eight members like Fletcher and others leaders said that, you know, maintaining a higher labor, excuse me, dues, which they raised during the war. And actually shortly after the war was because labor surplus was the first way to sort of basically destroy the union.


0 (52m 33s):

Right. If people can flood the union, people can't get enough work, right? So if 10,000 people, instead of 4,000 people are sort of in a union, then no one can get by. Right. And that sort of closing the labor surplus was a key, especially in certain industries like this, where it's basically unskilled labor that most people could do, even if those with experience can do it better. And so, you know, you can understand the need for, you know, holding onto sort of local power on over waterfront workers. You can also understand the critique that 12, what's our purpose here. Are we just trying to sort of make more money today or tomorrow, or are we also actually have much larger vision?


0 (53m 13s):

And the answer is both, they didn't resolve this problem. Right? Local eight though, was brought back into the union after they agreed to lower their dues and was able to survive a bit longer. But that's sort of in retrospect is sort of a clear example of the sorts of divisions that continue to undermine the IWW nationally on top of the fact that really it's several hundred of his best leaders were still dealing with prison. And so if your best leaders or at least your leaders are out of the game, are others able to step into those voids? Sometimes? Yes. And sometimes no,


1 (53m 47s):

Ben Fletcher he's in


0 (53m 48s):

11 words, right? Like he's, and, and even when he gets out on bond and then sort of later his sentence sort of reduced to time served, he can go back to prison if he commit, if he's charged with another crime, he's pardoned outright in, in, in, in 1933 by FDR as were other wildly as a decade later. Right? Like a, but, so you've got that hanging over you. He and other, we, as many of them continued when they got back to their home places to organizing some capacities, not as much. Right. And we don't know why necessarily, right. Although we could surmise the thing, like being concerned about being arrested again and throwing back into federal prison, again, that would have been no pleasure for sure.


1 (54m 28s):

That's what I wanted to bring us to also was the later years of Ben Fletcher, it's weird to say the later years, because Ben Fletcher died very young. He was 59 when he died and actually reading this account of his life and the organizing. And we should say too, he wasn't just organizing in Philadelphia. That was his primary home. But he was often asked to go to other cities, other places to help get like new unions going and had successes there too. But he puts me to shame like this guy was doing this on his twenties. What the hell was I doing in my twenties? But let's talk about his later years. So, you know, the decline of local eight, Ben Fletcher began trying to form a different independent union at one point, he still maintained IWW membership, but it seems like his activity in his later years, his so-called later years was a little less.


1 (55m 13s):

So can you talk more about that? Like what happened to him after local AIDS demise?


0 (55m 17s):

I'm happy to, you know, by the mid twenties, the documentary evidence reduces in amount, right? Like, and so we have to sort of piece together with gaps, bigger gaps, unfortunately. Right. He's still living in Philadelphia through the twenties. He had gotten married actually during the war and divorced somewhere along the way. Right? Like he often was his family still lived in Philadelphia. It's not clear if he was working on the waterfront or some other occupation. We do know that he continued to sort of be a, a popular speaker and occasionally would travel. He traveled during the 19 teens to Boston, Providence, New York, Baltimore, and Norfolk, where he was almost lynched for his organizing. But after the war, while he shows up, occasionally he gives a, you know, he shows up in Michigan and Canada in 1927 as part of a speaking tour.


0 (56m 1s):

Did he do more of those probably for every one we've had evidence for it's reasonable to conclude there's at least one or several that don't right. As far as I know, it's the only time he left the country though, when he was in Canada, where there's evidence of him speaking on a number of places that were especially Finnish Canadian strongholds, because Finnish immigrants to the U S and Canada were particularly likely to be LFTs. And so that's sort of interesting. We know we moved to New York in the early thirties. He gives us most, really the, the sort of the most extensive interview in the book is from the Amsterdam news, a black newspaper in Harlem, right. In 1931, we know he continues to give speeches because people come in about his brilliant speeches, right in the early and mid thirties, in New York, on behalf of the Harlan County, coal miners in Kentucky and other places, right in New York city, right.


0 (56m 53s):

He probably lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, which became more black than it was in the thirties. He actually lived in the same neighborhood with some other former local eight members who are white, who are European immigrants who lived in his neighborhood. And he married again, a black woman named Clara, right. Who was a nurse. Maybe we also know that Fetcher had a bad stroke in the mid thirties. And he complained about other health issues and some of his letters to friends. And so I presume that actually the last 15 years of, yeah, a quarter of his life, he probably was in poor health. He probably only occasionally had work. And he probably was supported materially by his wife.


0 (57m 32s):

And we also know he had friends. He, that he hung out with Wobblies, right. That many of them showed up at his funeral in Brooklyn in 1949. Right. Some of his best friends included salmon, Esther Gauld doggone famous Jewish anarchist who are also wobbilies in New York city. And some of their reflections about Fletcher are make up the last part of the book, which I love and their child Anatole. Who's now around 80 knew Ben Fletcher in the 1940s because his father would often take him and his brother to go to events. Right. And some of the other really, I think lovely memories of Fetcher are from Anatole, who I called the last living link to Ben Fletcher, at least the last I know of, if there are others, I'd love to know of them.


0 (58m 19s):

Right. But who has a child, right? He's not yet 10 has direct memories of hanging out with Fletcher and his father in Brooklyn and at the old wildly sailor hall in lower Manhattan in a place that no doubt is entirely different than it was in the late forties. And he dies in 1949. He's buried in an unmarked grave. Right. Which tells us about his family's financial situation. He, the, the funeral was attended by about a hundred people. That's a lot, right? Like there's betrays in the New York times as well as a number of black newspapers, as well as the wildly press. So, you know, we also know that he continued to believe in the same ideals until his final days, probably till his death based on again, correspondence that he had and memories of friends of his.


0 (59m 6s):

So even though a lot of other people had sort of joined the communist movement in the thirties and forties Fletcher continued to believe in the IWW specifically. And I always think also about how in the thirties, if he had not been ill, what he would have done as a crackerjack speaker and organizer when unions are born in the mid thirties, would he have been a part of that? Right? Like these are hypotheticals, but they're tantalizing to imagine. And quite like you said, he was only in his mid forties. Right. So he still had many years ahead of him or not for health troubles. And so I can see that even if I don't, I mean, who knows what would have been, but yeah, so, so, so Fletcher will be loved, right?


0 (59m 51s):

Everyone who read, speaks about him, speaks about him very lovingly, right? That he was a good person, that he was a funny person, that he was not a mean spirited, angry person, but those sorts of personal sort of vignettes are few and far between sadly,


1 (1h 0m 7s):

There's a lot of what ifs with Ben Fletcher. What if he hadn't gotten arrested so young and hadn't had those tethers to, you know, like inhibit his organizing. What if his health had been better in the thirties? It's fascinating. But before I let you go, I do want to bring us to a conclusion here and come back around to what we were saying earlier about how does this history help provide instruction for today. And specifically, I'm thinking about the model of unionism embraced by local eight and the practices of it to organize labor today, for instance, like term limits. Could you imagine in most AFL CIO unions, what would happen if you want to be able to be president of a local for 20 years?


1 (1h 0m 49s):

Like what that would require in terms of changing the internal organizing model? So those are the things I want to hear about is like, the things that are anathema today are things like oral contracts, term limits for local officers, the paid organizer that kind of parachutes around the entire country that was also not embraced by local aid. So what is local aid offer for today lessons to improve our organizing and any other comments to that effect that you'd like to share?


0 (1h 1m 20s):

We might sort of put these in two buckets. One are the sort of issues or tactics and sort of policies that, that unions organize around, which isn't just local aid, but IWW, right? Like, so, you know, the one is that, you know, if you were a wobbly, you were a true believer in this cause not just in, I'm in a union, right? But also I'm in a union that actually very clearly says at the start of their preamble, you know, workers and employers share nothing in common. And so class struggle, I always say also that dock workers and other maritime workers get that too, because the divide between employers, employees was quite stark and Nolan was elevating into the ranks of ship captain or ship owner.


0 (1h 2m 3s):

And so these, this particular industry, it's not the only one it's very easy for the work itself and the industry itself to sort of educate workers that there's us and there's them. Right. And so, you know, I think one most basic lesson in terms of that regard is that we don't just depend upon our leaders or paid staff to sort of do work. Everyone's an organizer, even when Fetcher wasn't a paid leader, he was organizing. Right. And I can't speak for everyone in the union. I'm sure not everyone was right, like, but who are committed to the cause as Fletcher was, well, that means you're always organizing you as workers can have power, even without neural contract, excuse me, even without a written contract.


0 (1h 2m 45s):

But also even if you don't represent the majority of the workers, you can basically a well-organized minority of people within a group lead a workforce or some other institution, in fact, exert power, if they're well-organized and committed. And so I actually think that for the 95% of private sector workers were not in unions in the U S in 2021, that doesn't mean that a force, you might want a union. Right. But even if you don't have a formal bargaining organizing together can get the goods is the IWW likes to say, right? Like in terms of term limits, I do think that actually is sort of very obvious and important that too many unions, I mean, some unions are not corrupt, but there's too many examples of union corruption and other we're having to bash employers for being corrupt.


0 (1h 3m 32s):

It really hurts the movement, right. Are examples too many, most obviously recently in the UAW leadership where they really don't have direct democracy. And they really have leaders who are taking money from employers, right. For their own personal gain and against the benefits of their members, if you're part of a movement, those things kill, right? Like, because workers who work considering on the fence, they just see that hypocrisy, the IWW can be accused of many mistakes and sort of wrong turns, but, but not about believing and sort of committing to these sorts of core ideals, which includes both anti-capitalism socialism, but also sort of anti-racism.