Ben Fletcher IWW

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Born in Philadelphia in
1890, Ben Fletcher was
the most important
African American labor
leader in the most influential
union of the early
20th century, the Industrial
Workers of the World (IWW). This
was no small accomplishment considering
that this was a time of wide-spread racism,
Jim Crow laws, lynch mobs, and the exclusion
of African Americans from the American
Federation of Labor (AFL). However
the IWW was unique in that it was ideologically
committed to racial, ethnic and
gender equality. More than any other IWW
affiliate, Ben Fletcher’s Local 8 of the
Marine, Longshoremen and Transport
Union in Philadelphia worked hard to be a
progressive interracial Union.
Ben Fletcher became active in the IWW
in 1912 working as a longshoreman loading
and unloading cargo ships. The dock
and ship owners were able to prevent
dockworkers in Philadelphia from being
unionized for decades by a divide and conquer
tactic by pitting the three major ethnic
groups of the time in Philadelphia;
African Americans, Irish and Eastern European
immigrants against each other. They
achieved this primarily by using racial and
ethnically segregated work crews to compete
against each other. Soon after joining
the IWW, Ben Fletcher became a popular
speaker and leader, winning interest and
influence amongst dockworkers because of
his oratory style and arguments against
racism and capitalism as well as his advocacy
of worker solidarity and direct action
against the employers.
By 1916, under the leadership of Ben
Fletcher, all of the Philadelphia docks and
transport ships were unionized by IWW
Local 8 with a membership of nearly 5,000
workers. By 1917, IWW Local 8 had nearly
tripled their wage rates from 25 cents to
65 cents per hour and won favorable
working conditions that no other dockworkers
in the country had. This was
accomplished by the integration of work
crews, membership social gatherings and
leadership positions within the IWW. Last
but not least, Local 8’s success was also due
to its steadfast on the job-site direct action.
That is, the willingness of ALL the members
to walk off the job and shut down the
ports if its demands were not met or if any
single member was abused by the bosses.
For more in depth information about
Ben Fletcher and IWW Local 8, read Peter
Cole’s book Wobblies on the Waterfront. If
you’d like more information about the IWW
or are interested in organizing your workplace,
contact the IWW Central Illinois General
Membership Branch at 217-356-8247.

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