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Never Forget the Class—or the Racial—Struggle

Peter Cole, Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 256 pages, hardcover, $40.00.

Bill Fletcher Jr. is a labor and international activist and writer. He is a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, an editorial board member of the Black Commentator, and the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum. He can be reached at papaq54@hotmail.com.

Peter Cole has offered an excellent historical examination of a poorly explored moment in labor history. His book, Wobblies on the Waterfront, explores the period (1913–22) when Local 8 of the National Industrial Union of Marine Transport Workers (of the Industrial Workers of the World [IWW]) was the preeminent force on the Philadelphia waterfronts.

Although Local 8 has been mentioned in various labor histories, such as in Philip S. Foner’s Organized Labor and the Black Worker, Cole offers an in-depth examination of the growth and demise of this critical force in the Philadelphia labor movement. What made Local 8 so unusual, from the standpoint of U.S. labor history, was the passionate radical egalitarianism (a term used by Cole) of the Wobblies when it came to matters of race. Not only did Local 8 have a racially mixed membership, but it had a racially diverse leadership, including Ben Fletcher (note: no relationship, as far as I can tell, to this writer) who, prior to A. Philip Randolph, was one of the most important black labor figures of the early part of the twentieth century.

What is intriguing about the tale woven by Cole is that it is truly about class struggle and the relationship that race plays in that struggle. Among other things, the contrast between the unionism represented by the Wobblies and that represented by unions such as the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) is remarkable. The racism and opportunism of the ILA was directly related to the class collaborationism that it practiced on the waterfronts. Whereas the Wobblies were committed to interracial unionism and rank-and-file democracy, the ILA had little democracy, and related to African-American workers on, essentially, an as-needed basis. Insofar as African-American workers were needed, the ILA was prepared to organize them, but in organizing them they tended to do so on a segregated basis. The Wobblies refused to accept segregation and second-class status for the black worker.

The story of Local 8, as told by Cole, is a story of incredible successes against terrifying odds, but it is also a story of an ultimate defeat. At a moment when the employers were divided, Local 8 was able to utilize its radical egalitarianism in order to build a common front among workers on the docks. At the end of the First World War, however, a combination of factors conspired to undermine the ability of Local 8 to succeed. First, governmental repression of the IWW due to its generally antiwar stance resulted in the removal of key leaders. Second, the Russian Revolution introduced new political players—the Communist Party—both within the IWW as well as in the larger labor movement. This factor was critical in that the IWW was dominated by an anarcho-syndicalist view which, while initially supportive of the October Revolution, came to regard it with suspicion if not outright hostility. This suspicion/hostility inevitably led to major tensions with the Communists. Third, changing demographics in Philadelphia, including the massive migration of African Americans from the South along with the introduction of European immigrants made for great instability. Fourth, the ability of the employers, along with their allies in government, ultimately to forge an alliance against Local 8 changed the power equation on the waterfront. This alliance, it should be noted, was replicated nationally in what came to be known as the “Open Shop Offensive” by employers against unions during the 1920s. All of these factors weakened the ability of Local 8 to succeed over the long run.

Cole’s book is an important intervention in discussions regarding the state of organized labor today. His theme of “radical egalitarianism” gives one great pause because he demonstrates that there were forces on the ground that were prepared to do battle with white supremacy at one of the most difficult periods in U.S. history. While organized labor in the United States is regularly treated as thoroughly racist, Cole offers the reader a picture and analysis of a dramatically different experience and practice.

Cole also offers the reader insight into the question of the relationship of a radical ideology to the day-to-day struggle. Whereas “American pragmatism,” particularly as interpreted in a labor context by Samuel Gompers, dismissed questions of ideology—although this was itself very ideological—the Wobblies were unapologetic radicals who envisioned a postcapitalist, revolutionary society. Yet this vision did not inhibit them from actively engaging in the reform struggle. In fact, the antiracist component of their radical vision was central to the day-to-day unionism that they advanced.

Wobblies on the Waterfront is the sort of text that leaves the reader pondering strategic and tactical decisions and their implications. It leaves the reader imagining what might have been had the Wobblies been able to survive as a real alternative to the unionism practiced by the American Federation of Labor. Yet it also leaves one questioning the relationship of workplace struggle to the larger political struggle, a point around which the Wobblies, due mainly to their anarcho-syndicalism, were very weak. In some respects Local 8, and other Wobbly “outposts,” were surrounded by the capitalists and their allies in government, small business, and organized labor. The IWW, in ignoring the need for larger political movements, paid scant attention to the building of broader alliances that would not only challenge capitalist rule over the long run, but would, more immediately, join with the wider movements in their reform battles with employers. In that sense the capitalists were able to shift the climate in such a way that worker resistance was weakened to the point of collapse.

While a left-influenced unionism did emerge with the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) more than a decade after the collapse of Local 8, its antiracism was inconsistent, and largely restricted to those sections of the CIO that were explicitly led by the left. In that sense the heritage of Local 8 and the IWW hold important lessons for those activists and scholars attempting to reconstruct a true labor movement in the United States. In that task, Peter Cole’s book is a valuable and fascinating instrument.