A review by Jon Bekken of Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly, a book edited by Peter Cole.
Peter Cole, editor, Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly. Charles H. Kerr Publishers, 2007, 149 pages, $15, paper.
This long-awaited collection is the first book-length documentation of the life of African-American IWW organizer Benjamin Fletcher (1890-1949). Fletcher played a key role in organizing Philadelphia’s dockworkers into the IWW. He was sentenced to ten years in Leavenworth prison for his efforts. He died a Wobbly in good standing after nearly 40 years service to the cause.
Intertwined with Fletcher’s life is the story of the IWW’s Marine Transport Workers Local 8, which exercised job control on the Philadelphia waterfront for a decade and was the country’s first fully integrated longshore union.
Ben Fletcher opens with Cole’s 43-page biographical introduction pointing to Fletcher’s role in organizing a multi-racial waterfront union that boasted some 3,000 members at its peak, and won Philadelphia’s dockworkers job control and the best working conditions and pay in the country for a decade.
Local 8 was decimated by a combination of Communist disruption, employer-government collusion, ILA union scabbing, and a disastrous defeat in the 1922 lock-out. That dispute arose when Wobblies decided to impose the 8-hour work day through direct action. They were unable to maintain the necessary unity in the face of ILA union scabbing and the government’s U.S. Shipping Board, which guaranteed the employers’ profits during the dispute.
In the aftermath of that defeat, the employers succeeded in replacing the IWW with the AFL-affiliated ILA. Unlike in other ports where it relegated African-Americans to segregated locals, the Philadelphia ILA formed an integrated local with a black president.
The IWW continued to organize on the Philadelphia waterfront through the 1920s, offering an alternative to workers dissatisfied with the ILA’s harmonious relations with the employers, its undemocratic structures, and its acquiescence to the employers’ reintroduction of segregated work crews (something the IWW had refused to tolerate).
When the IWW was ultimately driven from the docks, Fletcher ceased working as a longshoreman, but he remained a Wobbly for the rest of his life.
The second half of the book consists of 51 brief documents (some extracts) including all of Fletcher’s known published articles, his remarks at the 1913 General Convention, articles from the IWW press and other publications (notably The Messenger) about FW Fletcher’s organizing efforts, obituaries and reports on Fletcher’s funeral, recollections of him by other radicals, and four letters and a short history (separated from the letters here and mislabeled as being from 1920) discussing IWW organizing efforts that FW Fletcher sent historian Abram Harris who was seeking material for his 1931 history, The Black Worker.
In addition to his organizing, Fletcher was well regarded as an orator; in 1931 an AFL official wrote of being captivated by his speech during a New York City street meeting.
“I have heard all the big shots of the labor movement... and it is no exaggeration when I state that this colored man, Ben Fletcher, is the only one I ever heard who cut right through to the bone of capitalist pretensions... with a concrete, constructive working class union argument.”
I would have preferred more extensive notes placing the documents in context, and source notes for the introduction. As welcome an addition to the literature on the IWW as it is, the book suffers from heavy-handed editing that appears to have introduced extraneous material into the text, inadequate proof-reading, and poor “printing”. I believe the book was actually photocopied as it does not bear a union label. There are a number of errors ranging from incorrect documentation in the texts (usually corrected in the separate bibliography) to the claim that only 101 IWWs were indicted in the Chicago espionage trial. Many of these problems might have been fixed had the publisher sent proofs to the author for review before publication.
Despite these shortcomings, Ben Fletcher does important work in gathering the surviving primary sources on FW Fletcher’s life and reminding us of the IWW’s pioneering work organizing workers across racial lines to build a stable industrial union that, through direct action and solidarity, dramatically improved their lives.
Unfortunately, as the IWW realized at the time and tried to address by sending Fletcher and others on organizing trips up and down the coast, one port, no matter how well organized, could never be strong enough to withstand the employers on its own.
Fletcher and Local 8’s story will continue to be told. I look forward to Cole’s history of Local 8 slated for publication next year.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (February 2007)