The latest effort by 6,000 predominantly Black employees to unionize an Amazon warehouse complicated in Bessemer, Ala., is barely the most recent chapter in a protracted historical past of Black labor organizing. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Publish.) Their efforts, like King’s within the Sixties, have been made potential by the work of Ben Fletcher. Fletcher was a Black labor organizer from Philadelphia who organized a union whose membership was roughly one-third African American, one-third Irish and Irish American, and one-third immigrants from different European nations. Regardless of main his period’s only interracial, multiethnic union — this historical past that has been largely neglected. Fletcher’s advocacy of radical unionism and socialism, like King’s after him, illuminates the intersectional struggles for financial and racial equality that also resonate in America in 2021.
Born in 1890, Fletcher was a working-class Black Philadelphian whose dad and mom have been most likely born enslaved in 1850s Virginia. They moved to Philadelphia within the late Eighteen Eighties, presumably to flee poverty and the rising discrimination and violence that Black Southerners skilled after Reconstruction’s demise.
On the time, Philadelphia possessed the most important Black inhabitants of any metropolis exterior the South, but racism outlined the Black expertise within the Metropolis of Brotherly Love. In his first guide, “The Philadelphia Negro,” Black mental W.E.B. Du Bois argued that racism outlined Black residents’ lives.
By no means graduating from highschool, Fletcher joined a whole bunch of 1000’s of rural Black and White Individuals and European immigrants who sought work in America’s third largest metropolis, an industrial behemoth that produced all the pieces from battleships to buttonhooks. Nonetheless, most employers refused to rent Black folks, thereby confining them to low-wage jobs, together with loading and unloading ships alongside the Delaware River. As a teen, Fletcher most likely walked the mile or so from his South Philly condominium to the riverfront to “form up,” the abusive hiring system that pitted employees towards one another and compelled them to bribe hiring bosses for a day of backbreaking, poorly paid work.
In 1910, Fletcher joined the Industrial Workers of the World, the nation’s most colourful and radical union due to its unapologetic embrace of socialism and internationalism and rejection of racism, xenophobia and sexism. 5 years earlier, the IWW was based by an assortment of leftists, together with Eugene Debs, much-loved chief of the Socialist Get together; Mary Harris “Mom” Jones, legendary organizer of coal miners and little one labor abolitionist; “Large Invoice” Haywood, chief of probably the most militant, socialist union of Western miners; and Lucy Parsons, the Black anarchist and widow of Albert Parsons, a Haymarket “martyr” from Chicago’s eight-hour motion. These radicals based a union whose function was a minimum of overthrowing capitalism worldwide. The IWW preamble boldly declared: “There will be no peace as long as starvation and wish are discovered amongst tens of millions of working folks and the few, who make up the using class, have all the great issues in life.”
Wobblies, an affectionate time period for members, additionally rejected the mainstream unions belonging to the American Federation of Labor which, due to prejudice, refused to prepare most Black, feminine and immigrant employees and possessed no agenda past short-term, incremental enhancements to members’ wages and situations.
Fletcher embraced the socialism and anti-racism of the IWW in addition to its resolution: militant unions deploying employees’ best tactic — the strike. Strikes may assist employees win short-term financial beneficial properties upfront of a common strike to attain the Wobblies’ revolutionary objective, “Abolition of the wage system.”
Fletcher appreciated that the IWW dedicated itself to preventing racism. As he wrote in 1929, “way back I’ve come to know that the Industrial Unionism as proposed and practiced by the IWW is all enough for the teeming tens of millions who should labor for others in an effort to keep on this planet, and extra, it’s the financial automobile that can allow the Negro Staff to burst each bond of Racial Prejudice, Industrial and political inequalities and social ostracism.”
He rapidly turned generally known as a humorous, clever and highly effective speaker. One other Wobbly wrote of Fletcher’s talking expertise in 1912: He “definitely is aware of methods to ship the products.”
The next yr, a two-week strike of 4,000 dockworkers shut down Philadelphia, one of many nation’s busiest ports. Throughout this strike, the IWW operationalized its egalitarian ideas because the strike committee included no less than one member of each ethnic group on strike. Equally essential, they gained raises and union recognition of their newly chartered department, Local 8.
Arguably, solely a union such because the IWW may succeed contemplating the Philadelphia waterfront’s employee demographics. For hundreds of years, U.S. employers repeatedly have used race and nationality (in addition to intercourse, ethnicity, and so on.) to divide and weaken employees. However Fletcher and different Wobblies noticed the facility of interracial solidarity.
As soon as gaining energy, Native 8 compelled racial integration on the bosses, who beforehand segregated work gangs. To weaken employees and enhance productiveness, bosses lengthy had performed Black gangs off towards Polish gangs off towards Irish gangs and so forth. As a substitute, Native 8 instituted racial equality in work gangs, in its management ranks and at social occasions.
Whereas Fletcher was extensively seen because the union’s key chief, he didn’t act alone. Different Black and White Wobblies, together with John McKelvey, Alonzo Richards, John Walsh, Glenn Perrymore and Polly Baker, additionally promoted these modifications. Fifty-one years earlier than the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which King famously championed, Native 8 achieved integration on the waterfront.
These successes didn’t final, nonetheless. When america declared conflict towards Germany, in 1917, the federal government created anti-free speech legal guidelines that criminalized all dissent — actual and perceived. Earlier than america entered the conflict, the IWW in addition to Debs’s Socialist Get together have been outspoken critics who seen the conflict as employees killing employees solely to learn financial and political elites. President Woodrow Wilson in addition to the Division of Justice, thus, hated radical unions such because the IWW but in addition feared their energy.
Simply months after declaring conflict, Fletcher and a whole bunch of different Wobblies have been arrested regardless that, shortly after the conflict’s finish, these legal guidelines have been discovered to violate the First Modification. In 1918, the arrested Wobblies have been discovered responsible in a mass trial. Fletcher was sentenced to 10 years for “espionage and sedition,” although the prosecution offered no proof towards him.
Earlier than his sentence was commuted in 1922, Fletcher served nearly three years in Leavenworth jail. After returning to Philadelphia, he resumed his actions as an organizer and speaker.
Native 8 collapsed by 1923 — a sufferer of an onslaught from highly effective transport companies, town and federal governments, and the rival AFL union in addition to rising racism and xenophobia. Equally, the IWW by no means recovered from large authorities repression and employer hostility.
Fletcher lived just a few extra many years, remaining dedicated to radical unionism, anti-racism and socialism. He died in 1949, buried in an unmarked grave in Brooklyn. By the point King began championing unions within the Sixties, Fletcher was forgotten by many.
Black activists in radical social actions of the ‘60s — together with Ella Baker, Fred Hampton and Angela Davis — stood on Fletcher’s shoulders even when they didn’t comprehend it. When civil rights activists sat down at a Greensboro lunch counter in 1960, they used a tactic first deployed by Wobblies who sat down inside a Basic Electrical manufacturing unit in 1906. When civil rights activists refused to pay bail (and crammed the jails), they echoed Wobbly free speech activists who did so in Spokane in 1909.
King, like different Black activists within the Sixties, properly understood that almost all Black folks have been poor and dealing class and will solely empower themselves by performing collectively. King went additional in assist of democratic socialism, writing: “The revenue motive, when it’s the sole foundation of an financial system, encourages a cutthroat competitors and egocentric ambition.”
That additionally was why King so loudly supported unions, a historical past too typically performed down. He declared, “As I’ve stated many occasions, and imagine with all my coronary heart, the coalition that may have the best influence within the battle for human dignity right here in America is that of the Negro and the forces of labor, as a result of their fortunes are so carefully intertwined.”
Right this moment, as we honor King, we should admire that the brilliant line from Memphis to Bessemer possesses an earlier inflection level: Fletcher’s Philadelphia.