In the early twentieth century, when many US unions disgracefully excluded black and Asian workers, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) warmly welcomed people of color, in keeping with their emphasis on class solidarity and their bold motto: “An Injury to One Is an Injury to All!” Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly tells the story of one of the greatest heroes of the American working class.
A brilliant union organizer and a humorous orator, Benjamin Fletcher (1890–1949) was a tremendously important and well-loved African American member of the IWW during its heyday. Fletcher helped found and lead Local 8 of the IWW’s Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union, unquestionably the most powerful interracial union of its era, taking a principled stand against all forms of xenophobia and exclusion.
For years, acclaimed historian Peter Cole has carefully researched the life of Ben Fletcher, painstakingly uncovering a stunning range of documents related to this extraordinary man. Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly is the most comprehensive look at Fletcher ever to be published. It includes a detailed biographical sketch of his life and history, reminiscences by fellow workers who knew him, a chronicle of the IWW’s impressive decade-long run on the Philadelphia waterfront in which Fletcher played a pivotal role, and nearly all of his known writings and speeches, thus giving Fletcher’s timeless voice another opportunity to inspire a new generation of workers, organizers, and agitators. This revised and expanded second edition includes new materials such as facsimile reprints of two extremely rare pamphlets on racism from the early twentieth century, more information on his prison years and personal life, additional recollections from friends, greater consideration of Fletcher from a global perspective, and much more.
- “This stirring collection gives us the drama, largely in his own exciting words, of the life and work of black radical labor leader Ben Fletcher. It is a story of suffering, fighting, and organizing but also of thinking deeply and writing clearly about the social power of labor, and particularly of maritime workers, and the possibility of a world beyond racial division and class exploitation.”
—David Roediger, University of Kansas, author of Class, Race, and Marxism
- “This book tells the unusual story of an African American who became a leader of racially integrated dockworkers in Philadelphia before, during, and after World War I. It poses two questions. First, can a black worker become a spokesperson for a workforce made up of blacks from the American South, whites born in the United States, and immigrants from Europe? The inspiring answer is yes. The second is, to what extent can Wobbly ideas be made part of a local union with a collective bargaining agreement so that what results is ‘a radical yet stable union.’ Here the evidence is more mixed, but the question is an essential one and every reader should feel challenged to find their own answer.”
—Staughton Lynd, author of Wobblies and Zapatistas and Labor Law for the Rank and Filer
- “Prior to A. Philip Randolph, Ben Fletcher was one of the most important black labor figures of the twentieth century. He led an interracial, multiethnic union with a racially diverse leadership. Fletcher was a Wobbly through and through, an unapologetic radical who envisioned a postcapitalist, revolutionary society. Yet his vision did not inhibit him from actively engaging in the reform struggle. In fact, the antiracist component of their radical vision was central to the day-to-day unionism he advanced. Cole’s book is an important intervention in discussions regarding the state of organized labor today.”
—Bill Fletcher Jr., racial justice, labor, and international activist, and author of “They’re Bankrupting Us!” and 20 Other Myths about Unions
- “In a unionism noted for great organizers, Fellow Worker Fletcher was one of the greatest. Nearly a hundred years later, Local 8’s great achievements are still a model for us all.”
—Carlos Cortez, poet, artist, social activist, member of the IWW for more than six decades
- “Ben Fletcher’s all-out, front-door-to-back revolutionary industrial unionism exemplifies Wobbly-style working-class solidarity at its creative best. This is the kind of no-compromise, multi-racial, direct-action organizing that labor needs today.”
—Franklin Rosemont, author of The Big Red Songbook and Joe Hill
Editor: Peter Cole • Foreword: Robin D.G. Kelley
Series: PM Press
Published: February 2021
Subjects: History / Labor
About the Contributors:
- 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.
- Robin D.G. Kelley is an American historian and academic and is the Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA. During the academic year 2009–10, Kelley held the Harmsworth Chair of American History at Oxford University, the first African-American historian to do so since the chair was established in 1922. He was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014. Author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination; Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression; Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class; Imagining Home: Class, Culture, and Nationalism in the African Diaspora; Into the Fire: African Americans Since 1970; Yo’ Mama’s DisFunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America; Three Strikes: The Fighting Spirit of Labor’s Last Century; and Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original.
See and hear interviews, book reviews, and other news on Peter Cole’s page HERE.