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.
Peter Cole is a professor of history at Western Illinois University in Macomb and a research associate in the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Cole is the author of the award-winning Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area and Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia. He coedited Wobblies of the World: A Global History of the IWW. He is the founder and codirector of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project.