The January 2007 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
Industrial Worker #1691 (January 2007)
- Restaurant workers' justice ride
- Global actions target Starbucks union-busters
- 'Socialist' bosses attack Scottish Wobblies
- Readers' soapbox
- A letter from the incoming editors
- Upstate New York Wobs on picket line, promoting IWW culture at year's end by Sourdough Slim
- NY foodstuffs workers win contract at EZ Supply
- IWW truckers picket West Coast intermodal hub
- Wobs serenade Starbucks union-busters in Pitsburgh by Kevin Farkas
- Starving amidst plenty
- Adjuncts now 2/3 of college faculty
- Protests in 90 cities target Israeli human rights abuses by Sophie Yon-Gharbi
- Workers in Minnesota, reviews by Jon Bekken
- France: CNT fights post office union-busting
- Poland: 3 workers fired for testifying against boss
Industrial Worker #1692 (February 2007)
The February 2007 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
- Mass firings in NYC: NYC's food warehouse workers unionize, bosses retaliate by Diane Krauthamer
- 1 in 5 fired for organizing unions
- Readers' soapbox
- 2006 year of victory, courage for SBU by Daniel Gross
- Fifth firing sparks creative protests by Justin Kelley
- Workers call for Hornblower boycott
- UFCW sues La Migra
- Book review: Ben Fletcher: the life and times of a black Wobbly edited by Peter Cole
- IWW fired up in Florida by James Schmidt
- Berkeley recyclers stand and win
- Industry issue: privatization by Ian Johnston
- Privatization eats extra money, dogs UK's health workers by Richard Griffin
- Iraqi labor unions attack US plans for oil privatization by John Kalwaic
- US minimum wage hike passes House of Representatives
- New IWW Organizing Department reaches out to organizers by Dan Elgin
For paper subscription info, please visit the IW page at iww.org
Review: Ben Fletcher of Local 8 Docks
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)
Industrial Worker #1693 (March 2007)
The March 2007 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
- US workers and communities reject 'surge'
- Starbucks union expands to Maryland
- Scotland IWWs fight to save campus
- Readers' soapbox
- Anti-sweatshop activists crash PiratesFest 2007 by x361200
- Union officer salaries compete for organizing funds
- IWW publishes Spanish newspaper
- A new online battleground for union campaigns by Eric Lee
- March to the left by Dorice Mcdaniels
- Leicestershire IWW joins protest against deporting 50 Kurds to Iraq by x352032
- NYC warehouse workers need solidarity
- Smithfield meatpackers walk out for MLK day
- SEIU Stern wants Wal-Mart as partner
- Harley-Davidson workers locked out by x355028
- Volkswagen to close factories in Brussells by Workers Initiative (Poland)
- Scottish workers occupy Simclar
- Raising a working-class culture by Erik Davis
- Palestinian union fed faces attacks
- Employee Free Choice Act introduced in US Congress
- Solidarity with Iranian workers by John Kalwaic
- Oaxaca on the barricades by "Jaime"
- Canada's new ministers of class war by Eugene Plawiuk
- US Senate kills minimum wage bill
- Ontario labor federation camapigns for $10 minimum wage by Marc. B. Young
- Tightline Johnson returns and is ready to organizer at Starbucks by Joseph Lapp II
- World labor solidarity
Industrial Worker #1694 (April 2007)
The April 2007 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
- Amersino reinstates two in NYC warehouse by Diane Krauthammer
- International Women's Day attacks inequality
- Australians need direct action, not elections
- CUPE vs CUPE: who's the boss of this union?
- Rail strike exposes Teamster raid
- The railroad industry needs One Big Union by Rail Falcom
- Day laborers fight for their rights, and win by Brad Thompson
- Palestinian unions want boycott of Israel -
Industrial Worker #1695 (May 2007)
The May 2007 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
LA 'troqueros' mobilize for May Day shutdown by Gideon Dev
- Starbucks violated workers' rights, says NLRB
- Detroit's traveling Wobbly kitchen
- Zimbabwe workers win court case, face violence
- U Michigan temps organize with IWW
- Shattuck Cinema workers rally for contract
- FAU calls for solidarity with German carers
- Serb workers, students occupy University of Belgrade
- The revolution will not be amplified: an interview with Tom Morello
- Review: Songs of the workers to fan the flames of discontent
- IWW in Scotland presses Save Crichton campaign
- Struggling AFSCME local in Amherst gets a taste of IWW
- IWW pickets Starbucks shareholders meeting
- Polish workers from anarchist union fired
Industrial Worker #1696 (June 2007)
The June 2007 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
- Chicago Couriers pickets unfair security delays
- Baltimore nike shop goes union
- May Day on the job - Solidarity Never? BC teachers' fed locks out staff
- Troqueros shut down LA port on May Day
- Mexican unions move toward independence
- Argentine teachers fight for rights on May Day
- LAPD suspends 60 police rioters
- Australian Labor Party no working class saviour
- i07: international syndicalist conference in Paris
Industrial Worker #1697 (July 2007)
The July 2007 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
- IWW UK fights centralized blood service
- Starbucks backs off pregnant barista
- IWW expands to two new Starbucks in Chicago and Grand Rapids
- Wobblies in Canada starting newsletter
- Working without bosses in Argentina
- Training IWW organizers in the US Midwest
- IWW UK defends train driver -
Industrial Worker #1698 (August 2007)
The August 2007 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
- Unions talk tough at US Social Forum
- New York City IWW launches '9 in 90' organizing drive
- Save Crichton campus campaign needs support
- NLRB charges Starbucks for fiting IWW, again
- Chicago Couriers Union: a lesson for IWW solidarity union organizers
- Review: The people decide: Oaxaca's population assembly by Nancy Davies
- Boycott Molson beer during strike
- IWW meets with Bangladesh garment workers' fed
- UK radical ed workers analyze industry
For paper subscription info, please visit the IW page at iww.org
Chicago Couriers Union: a lesson for IWW solidarity union organizers
An in-depth article by Colin Bossen, about the IWW affiliated Chicago Couriers Union, which modeled itself off of a conception of 'solidarity unionism'.
IWW member Colin Bossen delivered a talk on the IWW’s Chicago Couriers Union at the Provisions Library in Washington, DC on June 8. The Institute for Anarchist Studies and Provisions Library supported his work along with the CCU organizers interviewed. This article is an edited version of his presentation.
What is solidarity unionism?
Solidarity unionism is a term and an organizing strategy coined by the labor historian and activist Staughton Lynd in his book of the same name. He defines solidarity unionism as “relying, not on technical expertise, or the numbers of signed-up members, nor on bureaucratic chain-of-command, but the spark that leaps from person to person, especially in times of common crisis.”
Lynd’s solidarity unionism has six basic characteristics: voluntary membership, no dues check-off, no paid officers or staff, democratic decision-making with everyone empowered to “criticize frankly and fully”, a focus on direct action rather than collective bargaining agreements, and internationalism that seeks to build networks of workers “across boundaries of nation, gender, and religious faith.” Lynd contrasts solidarity unionism with the business unionism of the large AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions.
Lynd identified three characteristics inherent to business unions: being government- sponsored monopolies that [try] to force all persons working in a particular shop to join the union and deducts dues directly from a workers’ paycheck; agreeing to collective bargaining agreements that grant management exclusive power to make the crucial on-the-job and investment decisions alongside a no-strike clause prohibiting direct action of all forms during the contract; and, undermining and preventing the formation of independent labor parties, locally and nationally. Business unions are “organized from [the] top down,” devoted to keeping the labor peace and relying on paid staff who don’t include workers in processing grievances or making decisions.
While past IWWs may have practiced something like solidarity unionism, this organizing theory was introduced to the IWW in 2000 by the IWW’s then- General Secretary-Treasurer Alexis Buss.
“We must stop making gaining legal recognition the point of our organizing. We have to bring about a situation where the bosses, not the union, want the contract. We need to create situations where bosses will offer us concessions to get our cooperation,” said Buss in her Industrial Worker column.
A union is not a union because it gets legal sanction from the government or a contract from the boss, said Buss in another column. Rather, a union is simply any “organized group of workers” that comes together to have “more potential power than unorganized individual workers.” This redefinition of the union shifted the power back to workers. In the United States, any group of workers engaged in concerted activity has legal protections under the National Labor Relations Act. These rights include presenting grievances, working together, making demands on the boss, seeking meetings, and even striking.
Buss also encouraged wobblies to look at the work of two of Lynd’s mentors, Stan Weir and Martin Glaberman. Weir and Glaberman were both working class intellectuals who wrote about the structural problems of the American labor movement. Weir spent much of his life working as a sailor, a longshoreman or an autoworker in California. Glaberman was a Detroit autoworker.
Glaberman’s work focused on the problems inherent in union contractualism specifically how labor contracts could turn the union into a cop for the boss, enforcing discipline among the union’s members. Glaberman had a second key insight that “activity precedes consciousness.” This meant that people respond to workplace situations emotionally before they respond rationally and often take actions in a way that contradicts their presupposed beliefs, and in the case of unions, contractual agreements. Glaberman’s favorite example of this was during World War II when workers at the autoplants would sign no-strike agreements with management and then would spontaneously go on strike over safety issues.
Weir, in his essay “The Informal Work Group,” reinforced this idea that consciousness comes from activity and the experience of working and socializing together. These informal work groups, the social groups that people form at work, were for Weir the heart of the union, with each having its own culture, “informal leadership, discipline, and activity.”
First steps to organize
The campaign to organize what is now the Chicago Couriers Union began among young members of the Chicago General Membership Branch of the IWW who decided that they wanted try to organize a solidarity union. In Fall 2003, several members of the Chicago IWW met and decided to organize the courier industry in Chicago.
The couriers had no union or prospect of a business union interested in organizing them. The industry’s high turnover and unique subculture seemed to be well suited for a solidarity unionism campaign. At the same time, these traits made winning a National Labor Relations Board-sponsored election at a single company unlikely. Chicago has dozens of messenger companies.
Messengers also potentially have an enormous amount of power on the job. Packages must be delivered in a set amount of time; it was possible for a courier to use direct action to delay and disrupt a company’s business. In theory, couriers could be organized around specific grievances rather than the idea of a union contract.
The IWW also had a recent history of organizing in the courier industry. From 2000-2002, Wobblies in Portland had built a union of bike messengers that succeeded in winning a number of substantive demands, including a pay raise, at Transerv, one of the larger messenger companies. Only the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in San Francisco, had created a similar organization. The Chicago IWWs felt this experience would give the IWW legitimacy among messengers and that they could draw directly on the wisdom gained by other IWW organizers through their own struggles. IWW members had begun already to develop a few relationships with messengers. This meant that getting a foothold in the industry would be easier.
Bike messengers at a 2004 union picnic. (Source: CCU file photo/Industrial Worker)
Although no one in the IWW knew it at the time, members of the bike messenger community had been shopping around for a union for several months before conversations between messengers and IWW members even began.
In June 2003, there had been an effort to create a Windy City Bike Messengers Association (WCBMA). The effort was led, in part, by Andrea Murphy and was the third attempt at creating a bike messenger association in the city. Murphy had participated in the WCBMA with the clear intent that it would become a union and had even gone so far as to attend a weekend training put on by the AFL-CIO.
Under Murphy’s guidance, the first act of the WCBMA had been to invite a trainer from the AFL-CIO Organizing Insitute to meet with messengers. While about 40 people attended the meeting nothing substantive came of it because the AFLCIO trainer told the messengers they needed to organize before even approaching a union for help.
The initial purpose of the WCBMA had been “to tackle on-the-job issues” but after the AFL-CIO meeting this focus was eventually lost. As the WCBMA unravelled, the IWW stepped into the vacuum. Conversations between the remnants of the WCBMA and the IWW’s organizing committee resulted in the decision to bring IWW organizer and former bike messenger ‘Lil Pete out from Portland for a week. During Pete’s time in Chicago, he spoke with Chicago messengers about organizing with the IWW and the union held a public forum to discuss the idea.
After flyering and word of mouth, a publicity a forum was held in mid-December 2003. At least 40 people came, many were veterans of the industry. There was both excitement and fear about the possibility of forming a union. Grievances began to emerge, in particular, several people were upset about being independent contractors rather than employees. There was also talk about next steps and a general sense that security was important. Messengers feared losing their jobs. At the meeting, Pete outlined a basic strategy for building the union. He argued that the first two tasks of organizing a union were to develop a social map of the industry and gather a contact list for as many workers as possible, so it was best to keep the organizing quiet. The meeting ended with plans to hold another information meeting and proceed from there. A questionnaire was circulated, but few people filled it out in time for the next meeting. The information asked for was the number of people in the company, their names, contact information, demographics and social groupings, and the owner of the company.
The second information meeting was held in a messenger’s home. More than 20 people came. Few people had filled out the survey, so discussion turned to their working conditions and what could be done about them immediately. Arrow Messenger Service had recently instituted a policy that called for messengers to cover their tattoos and remove piercings. Chicago bike messengers, particularly white messengers, tended to have a lot of piercings and tattoos. People were pissed off. The IWW organizers at that meeting wanted to build infrastructure and lay campaign groundwork, rather than do a strike or job action so the meeting ended without a clear plan of action.
The IWW organizers decided to build the courier union’s infrastructure, map the industry and gather contacts. The organizers also recognized they lacked the experience, so petitioned the General Executive Board for funds to bring in Pete to kick start the campaign. With the funds approved, Pete planned to come to Chicago from late March to mid-June to teach workers how to organize, handle grievances and devise strategy.
‘Hot Shop’ at Arrow
Before Pete arrived, things began to get hot at Arrow. A few of the messengers had reached a breaking point and wanted to strike over the new tattoo and piercing policy. They invited two of the IWW organizers to attend a meeting where they discussed what to do. The organizers talked them out of striking, reasoning that they did not have the support or organization to win. In retrospect I cannot help but wonder to what extent we performed the function described by Glaberman of keeping workers in check in that case. On the other hand, the messengers in question probably would have never thought of striking without having talked to the IWW in the first place. In her final report as a CCU organizer Andrea Murphy is critical of the IWW organizers.
“A couple of messengers at Arrow were feeling exploited enough to want to do the most daring thing they could do in their position. In the end, the outcome was no different than it would have been had they been fired [most of the messengers in question quit Arrow]. Because of the desire to keep the campaign undercover and the (imagined) responsibility they assumed for the results of the campaign, a genuine passion to do something was stifled.
“I challenge every organizer...to think about how best to direct energy rather than subduing or controlling it. Consider what it might look like to lead from behind. I caution against talking anyone out of doing anything, as this requires too much influence over the passions of peoples,” said Murphy.
Problems with top-down organizing
In this instance, the IWW organizers had begun to make decisions about the direction of the campaign without real input from workers in the industry. We wanted people to think and act strategically while they often wanted to solve their problems immediately. As organizers from outside the industry, we were not initially accountable to the messengers. They had not elected us and the power that they had over us essentially amounted to whether they participated in the activities that we organized or not. It took several years to break this pattern.
Our strategies would prove later on to have limited, if any, success. With organizing at Arrow stifled, we began the task of building an Industrial Organizing Committee. We selected a group of four workers to be its first members. They were chosen because we thought them to be leaders within the messenger community. All four of them were white and all former WCBMA members. One of the first tasks we set for the group was to recruit members who more accurately represented the demographics of the messenger industry. About half of the couriers in Chicago are black and we realized that we would never be able to organize the industry without a union that reflected the people in the industry.
We also developed a larger strategy for the campaign based on Pete’s experiences in Portland, the theory of solidarity unionism and studying the industrial union structures of the IWW in the twenties and thirties. Our idea was that we would organize two types of committees. The first would be shop committees composed of members of the union who worked at a particular company. They would handle the grievances that arose at that workplace. Each shop committee would elect a member to serve on an industry wide organizing committee that, in turn, would handle the grievances that could not be dealt with on a company by company basis.
Once the union got strong enough the industrial organizing committee, we would issue a set of demands for industry- wide standards and then go about trying to enforce these through direct action. The members of the industrial organizing committee selected the other members of the committee, often with heavy input from Pete, MK and I.
Chicago Couriers Union pickets the Lasalle building in 2007. Photo by X353650.
The goal was to develop the shop committees to the point where they would elect their own representatives to the IOC. This never happened, probably because the structure we wanted was imposed upon the workers and did not arise naturally out of their day-to-day work experiences. To put it bluntly, we had miscalculated their informal work groups.
Changing organizing strategies
Pete returned to Chicago in late March and we began to implement our strategy. Through a lot of diligent work in Pete’s absence, we had managed to create an almost complete map of the industry and collect the contact information for close to 650 messengers, roughly 45 per cent of the people working in the industry. The near-heroic efforts of messengers made this possible.
Pete’s arrival in Chicago kicked the campaign into high gear. With Pete in town, we organized several shop committees. Our plan was to build the union slowly by winning small grievances at individual work places. However, no committee was capable of functioning without an IWW organizer present. Two organizer trainings were held, but they failed to empower couriers to be independent organizers. Despite these weaknesses, the shop committees achieved limited success.
Our first victory came when Scott Gibson, one of the members of the IOC, was fined illegally “when he was caught not wearing a company-required uniform” by Standard Courier. Scott only learned about the fine when he saw a $50 deduction from his paycheck. Such deductions are illegal under Illinois law.
Scott and the Standard Courier shop committee confronted management, demanded Scott be reimbursed and an end to the uniform policy. Management insisted that the messengers at Standard were independent contractors. The shop committee reasoned that independent contractors could not be required to wear uniforms. Over the course of a week and a half, Scott and six of his coworkers marched on their boss to issue their demands. After the third march, management rescinded the uniform policy, refunded Scott $50 and fired him.
Scott’s firing turned out to have a silver lining. The same day he was fired, he filed an Unfair Labor Practice with the NLRB charging Standard Courier with punishing him for union activity. Several months later Standard settled the charge and offered Scott $3,000. In the meantime, Scott had also filed a claim with the Illinois Department of Employment Securities. The claim resulted in a decision “that Standard’s workers are employees and not independent contractors as the company has claimed.”
During that time the couriers won a small victory at the Comet messenger company. Comet employed primarily black workers. A couple of bike messengers from Comet joined the union and told the IOC that “workers paychecks did not amount to minimum wage.” The messengers began to organize. The threat of organizing pushed management to enforce minimum wage laws.
Pete left in June and his absence was immediately felt. MK and I lacked his experience at group facilitation. The organizing faltered and changed direction.
We decided to aggressively reach out to driver messengers. Up until this point, participation in the union had consisted almost entirely of bike messengers. We knew we had to bring driver messengers into the campaign if it was to succeed.
This effort failed due to different work cultures. Driver messengers are an atomized workforce isolated in their vehicles at work and during breaks. Bike messengers congregate together during their downtime. The bike messenger subculture also can be elitist and alienating to non-members.
It was around this time that MK took a job with Arrow as a bike messenger and focussed on building a shop committee at Arrow. His work led to a major campaign to change working conditions and pay. This switch of focus by a key organizer prompted the end of the IOC.
The union then decided to concentrate efforts on fighting independent contractor status. In Chicago, and across the country, many messengers are considered independent contractors by their employers. The reasoning of the employers is that messengers are able to decide whether or not they will accept a particular package from a dispatcher and, therefore, are independent. As independent contractors, couriers are responsible for their own taxes, denied workman’s compensation, unemployment insurance and even a right to a minimum wage or overtime pay.
Government agencies have mostly rejected the employers’ claim. But most messengers do not know this and so the companies get away with it. The North American Independent Contractor Association (NICA) helps them do it. When a messenger gets a job with a company that uses NICA she or he is told they are contracted through NICA and merely assigned to work for the courier company’s dispatchers. NICA messengers are charged a weekly fee and must pay for using the radio equipment. These fees can be quite high, up to $100 per month.
We formed the Stop NICA! committee with the goal to drive NICA out of the industry. The committee would fight NICA on both a legal level, by filing claims for unemployment and workmen’s compensation with the various government agencies as if the workers in question were employees, and through direct action. The Stop NICA! committee hoped to convince companies that they should switch their workers back to employee status and prevent NICA’s spread elsewhere.
The committee lasted the summer and had moderate successes, winning five workman’s compensation cases and holding a series of pickets that delayed, but did not stop, NICA from spreading to two companies.
Andrea Murphy came onto the campaign as a full-time paid organizer to speed up and focus the work. She decided that it was time “to end the secrecy” that had surrounded the campaign since the beginning. Murphy threw CCU meetings open to all couriers who came.
“Every working messenger would have a voice and a vote at meetings, with the exception that only members of the CCU in good standing could vote on money matters,” said Murphy.
The CCU elected a secretary, Marshall Arnold, a former Arrow dispatcher who worked at Dynamex. The group held workshops, advocated for messengers to city hall, and organized around grievances and industry issues. Arnold believes that in some ways the union’s biggest accomplishment is that it continues to exist.
In Fall 2006, the CCU began a campaign to the get one of the buildings in downtown Chicago, 135 S. Lasalle, to install a messenger center that would allow couriers to easily drop off their packages as reported in the June 2007 Industrial Worker. What is exciting is that this campaign is that is the first major effort spearheaded by the couriers themselves. Nearly four years later, the dream of a solidarity union for the courier industry may be happening.
Learning five lessons on the job
Looking back, we learned five lessons. First is that a campaign initiated by outsiders cannot follow the pure model of solidarity unionism advocated by Lynd. IWW organizers often found their ideas in conflict with the couriers working in the industry. This conflict stifled these workers and slowed the campaign.
Second, building a union takes a long time and organizing requires dedication and patience. The CCU is only a success because organizers stuck with it for several years. The industry’s high turnover raises the question of how to create stability for a successful union.
Third, informal work groups matters a lot. The union failed to bring in drivers because they belonged to a different set of informal work groups.
Fourth, structures must evolve organically. Efforts to create the IOC, the Stop NICA! committee, and the shop committees failed because organizers imposed them artificially onto the industry. The structure of the CCU ultimately succeeded because it reflected the social dynamics of bike messenger culture, which is part of a community. Organizers should pay careful attention to the indigenous forms of organizing that exist and seek to capitalize on them.
Fifth, organizers need clear goals. Organizing at Arrow and now around 135 S. Lasalle, has been successful because the organizers had and have both clear goals and a plan of action. This clarity makes it much easier to get people to join in the organizing and understand why it might benefit them.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (August 2007)
Industrial Worker #1699 (September 2007)
The September 2007 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
- Police attack warehouse solidarity march
- UK posties fight privatization of Royal Mail
- The basic rules of capitalism by F.N. Brill
- Starbucks froths at Europe union organizing
- Iraqi labor has fought century-long battle (Part 1)
- Palestine unions support Israel boycott
- Palestinian labor under fire from all sides
- Ottawa non-picket wins back wages
- Detroit organizer training heartens Wobblies
- New York HWH boss changes name to Dragonland, but can't escape IWW
- Centralized UK blood service being reviewed
- Argentina workers' self-managment conference a success
Industrial Worker #1700 (October 2007)
The October 2007 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
9 Handyfat workers win reinstatement
- Crichton campus in Scotland saved
- Chicago Couriers Union member killed
- Starbucks on trial: 'Does being bad make us bad?'
- Assembly Delegates boost General Defense Committee
- A life of struggle, organizing the One Big Union
- Chicago General Assembly 2007 shows growth
- Women's caucus says the IWW must change
- German-language IWW growing quickly with eye on metal workers
- Two years of organizing NYC food industry
- Rumbling Rumba for back pay
Industrial Worker #1701 (November 2007)
The November 2007 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
- IWW women's caucus calls for project volunteers
- Ottawa IWW wins Rumba backpay
- Rebuilding the IWW at Streetlight Shelter
- Ben Fletcher, Local 8 and me
- IW editor panders to Zionist Histradut
- NYC campaigns winning, but face stiff resistance
- 2007: the IWW in the history books -
For paper subscription info, please visit the IW page at iww.org
Ben Fletcher, Local 8, and Me - Peter Cole
An article by author Peter Cole about his fascination with the historical IWW's storied 'Local 8'.
I wanted Local 8 to exist before I knew it did.
When I was an undergraduate, I knew I wanted to be a historian before I knew what aspect of United States history interested me. I was inspired by the example of the modern civil rights movement, as well as from the myths and pop culture creations of that time. It was the first social movement that I seriously thought about. I came to appreciate that race matters and racism were perhaps the central paradox of US history. Fortunately, while still in college, I also was introduced to labor history—so few are, a real bias in education—and started to read about the American labor movement.
Predictably, when I entered graduate school, I learned how little I knew. The only certainty was that I wanted to write about social movements. Though from a privileged background (upper-middle class, white, suburban—well, that last one is a questionable privilege), I already appreciated that the world was seriously messed up and that the only way it was going to get better was if people organized and fought to make it better. Unless you’re rich, individuals don’t stand much of a chance to change things. Ordinary folks need numbers to make things happen. History told me as much.
I also was starting to understand that economic inequality, increasing exponentially under capitalism, was the main culprit, though studying the black freedom struggle made me realize that reducing any important problem to a single cause is problematic. I also saw that race (ethnicity and nationality) was a real blind spot for many on the Left; somehow, a class-based revolution was going to solve the reality that white folks had risen up on the backs of non-white ones. I didn’t buy that; it was too simplistic. Hence, I was thinking about how issues of class and race fit together, how solving one of these matters would not necessarily solve the other, how social movements had to figure into the solution. But only some very special group of humans, who would be willing to fight the good fight on multiple fronts simultaneously, could do the job.
Then I read Mel Dubofsky’s We Shall Be All, still considered by academics if not Wobblies, as the standard history of the Industrial Workers of the World. Though there are plenty of problems with Dubofsky’s book, I still credit it for opening my eyes up to the IWW. Like many folks, even those who claim to seriously study US history, I knew absolutely nothing about the Wobs. This book was an eye-opener.
One line in We Shall Be All, just one line, aroused my curiosity and eventually turned into the numerous articles and the two books I have written on Local 8 in Philadelphia. In a section on governmental repression of the IWW during World War I, Dubofsky made a brief reference to Ben Fletcher, the only African American arrested during the 1917 federal raids. Who was Ben Fletcher?!? How in the world did a black man get involved with the Wobblies? Sure, the IWW had a lot to offer African Americans and other oppressed groups but—let’s face it—precious few blacks were in the IWW, right?
Over the next few years, I wrote a dissertation on Local 8, which organized thousands of Philadelphia longshoremen into the most radically inclusive labor union of the early twentieth century. The union dominated waterfront labor relations through its militant, direct action tactics, willingness to organize all workers in marine transport, and openness to blacks and immigrants—something that the American Federation of Labor and most white organizations (working class or other) were unwilling to do. Local 8 lined up African Americans, Irish Americans, Poles, Lithuanians, West Indians, and other native-born and immigrant white workers, put them into a single unit, integrated work gangs, and fought to treat all workers as equal, regardless of their race, ethnicity, nationality or job skills. The Delaware riverfront never had seen such a militant, successful union but, the truth is, no American port of call ever had.
Of course, the combination of being so inclusive and radical (the two go together, don’t they?) meant that Local 8 was a threat to local business interests and even the US federal government. Hence, the wartime repression that Wobblies know so well along with, ironically, many of the records that I would use to write their story. For instance, federal spies infiltrated Local 8 and gave regular reports to employers after World War I. Without these records, my job as a historian of Local 8 would have been much harder.
To many people, Local 8 equals Ben Fletcher, for good reason. Fletcher, a black man born and raised in Philadelphia, was not only Local 8’s best known black member, but also the IWW’s best known black member. He joined the IWW and became a local leader prior to the formation of Local 8, though to this day how and why he first joined the IWW remains a mystery.
Fletcher traveled up and down the Atlantic coast to organize waterfront workers, especially black ones, in Norfolk, Baltimore, Providence, and Boston. He attended national conventions. He gave brilliant lecture tours and soapbox oratories. He was loved by his fellow workers in Philadelphia, especially the black ones. He scared the hell out of “the Man.”
As I slowly and quietly toiled to produce a publishable history of Local 8, I also managed to connect with Franklin and Penelope Rosemont, the publishers of the legendary Charles H. Kerr Press. Together, we came up with a thin volume that was my honor to work on: a short biography of Fletcher (though, really, since we know so little about his personal life, it is mostly about Fletcher in Local 8) with a collection of most every item ever written by or about Ben. As it turned out, that book came out a bit before the general history of Local 8.
Finally, this summer, the University of Illinois Press published my book Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia. Although a few other historians have written some good pieces about Local 8 and Ben Fletcher, I do think that my books and articles set the standard. I am not suggesting that all the work on Local 8 or Fletcher is complete, not by a long shot, because many questions still remain unanswered. To me, the most important unanswered question is what the rank-and-file members of Local 8 were thinking; I cannot say with confidence that I know. Sure, thousands of black and white Americans and thousands of immigrants proudly belonged to Local 8. But what did they think of their interracial, multiethnic union that belonged to the most radical outfit in the nation?
In a way, I wish I could not write that last sentence but there it is. And, who knows what other materials might be uncovered in future years. If there are people out there who are as fascinated by this Philadelphia story as I am, I encourage you to keep digging! We all would benefit from the effort.
I am so happy that I “found” Local 8, as it opened my eyes and gave me hope. When I think about how the world could be made better—and we all should be doing that—I think about Fletcher and the thousands of other proud, militant, egalitarian members of Local 8.
Today, nearly a hundred years after the founding of Local 8, America and the world still are divided economically, racially, and ethnically. Today, American workers and workers the world over are divided, placing their national identities above their class ones.
I recently spent five months in Tanzania and they are as hung up on their differences with Kenyans and Ugandans as Americans are about Mexicans and Chinese people. Who benefits? Well, most of all, global corporations that play workers in different countries off of each other every single day; just consider the recent UAW strike against General Motors.
Truly, the IWW is needed as much today as it was when a group of bold men and women got together to form the union. I sincerely believe that one of the keys to our future success at making the world a better, fairer, healthier, happier place is not just forming powerful unions. No, Local 8 shows us what must be done: we must organize people of all ethnic, national, and racial backgrounds, no questions asked. They are workers, enough said. The genius of Ben Fletcher and Local 8 was to wed these issues together so that they were inseparable. They rose, and fell, upon solidarity. We are their heirs.
Let us get to it.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2007)
Industrial Worker #1702 (December 2007/January 2008)
The December 2007/January 2008 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
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Review: Local 8 shows interracial unionism key to victory
A review by Matt White of Peter Cole's book, Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive- Era Philadelphia.
Peter Cole, Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive- Era Philadelphia, University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago:July 2007, 227 pages, , hardbound, cost $40.
Peter Cole’s Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive- Era Philadelphia challenges the idea that the IWW’s vision of interracial unionism was little more than revolutionary slogan and tokenism. Instead, Cole describes how the IWW overcame the barriers of racism on the waterfront in Philadelphia, United States.
As Peter Cole —tells, Philadelphia area longshoremen and sailors known as Local 8 were the only major example of successful interracial unionism until the Thirties and arguably until later. Cole describes Philadelphia’s long history of ethnic barriers and racism, particularly the bitter street fights between Irish immigrant longshoreman and African- American longshoremen. He describes in detail as well the constant corruption of Philadelphia’s government. Cole also presents how previous Philadelphia longshoremen’s organizations failed because of racism.
The context Cole provides makes the story of the success of Local 8 that much more improbable and satisfying.
In 1913, 3500 longshoremen of various backgrounds including African- Americans, Irish-Americans, and recent Lithuanian and Polish immigrants went out on strike together and formed Local 8. As Cole points out, the strikers sought out the IWW, not vice versa. The predominantly African-American longshoremen (more than 50 per cent) chose the IWW over the more prominent and established International Longshoremen’s Association because of the IWW’s egalitarianism and the fact that one of the Philadelphia IWW’s leaders was himself an African-American, that leader being Benjamin Fletcher. (Fletcher, incidentally, was the recent subject of another Peter Cole book put out by C.H. Kerr this year.) That the ILA was segregated and undemocratic did not help it gain favor amongst Philadelphia longshoremen.
The IWW and Local 8 grew in Philadelphia because of its success with on the job actions and its bold antiracist stance. It was normal practice for instance to get a job with scabs or non-union longshoremen, then refuse to work until the scabs had joined or been fired. That in a nutshell shows how much power Local 8 had.
Local 8 maintained racial harmony in numerous ways. One was through a rotating leadership system, which specified that the top two leadership positions of the union were filled by one African- American and one white and that those positions were rotated year to year. Another way to make sure that every group was empowered was to make sure that each group was represented in every committee and amongst the delegates. The ethnic groups that made up Local 8 understood that their livelihoods depended on interracial solidarity.
While economics bound them together, shortly after the founding of Local 8 members became bound to each other socially and interacted with and formed strong relationships with each other outside of their work.
What all of this added up to was that very simply, at the apex of their power, Local 8 controlled the Delaware River. That Local 8 did this without ever signing a contract still would shock any modern union person.
Wobbly waterfront during WWI
Local 8 was even stable and powerful enough to ride out the famous government repression of the IWW that began in 1917 with the United States’ entry into the First World War.
Cole argues that the US government’s repression of the IWW in Philadelphia was not because the government actually believed that the IWW was aiding the Germans but because the government wanted an excuse to destroy the IWW. It is almost funny how disingenuous the government was being at this time while many Philadelphia-based Wobbly seamen were being killed by German U-Boats and many Philadelphia Wobblies were either not against the war or even for it, such as jailed leader Walter Nef. Even as most of Local 8’s leaders, including Ben Fletcher went to jail for several years, Local 8 still held its own, showing that the IWW in Philadelphia was deeper than just their wellknown leaders sitting in jail.
Under Communist attack
Cole explains in detail the effect that the rise of the Communists had on Local 8 and on the IWW as a whole. Cole explains that at the worst possible moment in Local 8’s history, the Communists probably did the most to destroy Local 8 when they accused Local 8 of loading supplies that would be used against the Red Army fighting the Russian Civil War. It was a bogus charge and one that Cole shows to be improbable at best, but one that got Local 8 de-chartered the moment it could least afford it, as it was being attacked by the AFL’s powerful International Longshoremen’s Association, the government and local capitalists.
By the early Twenties, several members of the GEB were Communists and were following the dictates of the Moscow and American Communists. The Communists believed that the proper way to bring about a revolutionary labor movement was to bore from within, not by creating a separate radical labor organization, thus the Communists believed in crushing the IWW. That the Communist influenced- GEB pulled the charter of the Local 8 and thus prevented Benjamin Fletcher (an anti-Communist) from being elected to the GEB, does not speak well of Communist foresight. At this moment the government and Communist-supported ILA managed to finally regain a foothold in Philadelphia thus destroying the longshoremen’s democratic unionism and later their interracial unionism.
One of Cole’s regrets is that he never got to speak with a member of Local 8. However, Cole uncovered an impressive range of sources from interviews with Philadelphia longshoremen who were members of the IWW and later the ILA, military intelligence files and the like. By using the writings of A. Phillip Randolph and W.E.B. DuBois on the subject of Local 8, Cole puts into context how extraordinary Local 8 was and how nationally prominent they were. If and when Benjamin Fletcher becomes a figure seen in school text books (as he has become in several African-American history textbooks), it will probably be in large part thanks to Cole’s scholarship.
Using Philadelphia as an example, Cole argues very convincingly that the government repression argument for the decline of the IWW is not exactly true, but instead it was a combination, at least in Philadelphia, of government repression, the government, and Communist- backed International Longshoremen’s Association, and increased racial tension, all coming together during the birth of the Communist movement in the United States. If that sounds complex, that is because it is complex, at least a lot more complex and credible than some other major historians’ arguments on the IWW.
Because of the book’s focus on race, Wobblies on the Waterfront will be relevant in the US for many years to come, as race and racism remain prominent problems. Because it is well written, because it argues an alternative view of the IWW and because it revolves around many still pertinent issues, Cole’s books is one of the few “must-read” books on the IWW and labor history in general to come out recently.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2007/January 2008)