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Fletcher, Benjamin(1890–1949) - Labor activist, From Laborer to Longshoreman to Activist, Helps to Found Multiracial Labor Group, Chronology

iww local philadelphia african

Benjamin Harrison Fletcher rose from obscure beginnings to become a key organizer of workers across racial and cultural lines in the early decades of the twentieth century. He was able to achieve these accomplishments at great personal sacrifice despite limited formal education, by applying socialist philosophies to address labor issues in the U.S. system of industrial capitalism. His views and approach were radical and progressive for any worker, but especially so for an African American who championed worker solidarity even above racial solidarity as a response to discrimination and other unfair practices in the workplace and the society at large.

Very little information is known about Fletcher’s early life beyond the facts that he was born in Philadelphia in 1890, one of four children born to parents who migrated north from Virginia, where his father, Dennis Fletcher, was born. His mother was born in Maryland. Some biographical accounts suggest that his family may have had Native American as well as African heritage. Fletcher grew up in the African American community in Philadelphia, which was the largest outside the South during the period. He came into contact with various racial and ethnic groups that migrated to the area during his formative years.

In a practice common in many cultures, Fletcher apparently received his first and middle names after an important person in society: Benjamin Harrison was president of the United States when Fletcher was born. Fletcher’s later writings and speeches indicate that he may have been educated as far as high school and that he read extensively on his own and engaged in other forms of self-education.

From Laborer to Longshoreman to Activist

At the age of twenty in 1910, Fletcher had left his parents’ home to live on his own, boarding with other young black men, and had begun working on the Philadelphia docks. Records in the 1910 U.S. census identify Fletcher’s occupation as “laborer,” one of the few job categories open to most African Americans at the time, along with domestic service. At this time he worked in the port and shipping areas and became known as a stevedore or longshoreman.

Fletcher may have met such socialists as John Reed and Joe Hill during this period, along with other radical thinkers and activists. By 1912 he had become an active member of the International Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the Wobblies, and reportedly was also involved with the Socialist Party (SP). Very few blacks were a part of these organizations, yet Fletcher identified with their philosophy in support of working-class men and women.

The presence of Fletcher and D. B. Gordon from the Louisiana-based Brotherhood of Timber Workers at the 1912 national IWW convention in Chicago was highlighted in Solidarity , the IWW weekly newspaper, “as proof that we have surmounted all barriers of race and color.” This claim was questionable at that point, since African Americans were not involved in the IWW in significant numbers nationally and had little impact on the organization as a whole.

Fletcher began to be recognized for his skills in local organizing and his speeches at worker rallies in the Philadelphia area. He became secretary of IWW Local 57 and wrote articles about labor issues which also appeared in Solidarity during 1912 and 1913. Other observers and commentators were impressed by Fletcher’s intellect and speaking and writing skills, which along with his activism, brought him to prominence in the national labor movement.

Helps to Found Multiracial Labor Group

In May 1913 longshoremen in Philadelphia on strike in protest of intolerable working conditions and low wages were approached by both the Marine Transport Workers Union (MTWU) of the IWW and the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to consider formal affiliation in support of their cause. At a mass meeting during the same month, the Philadelphia group chose the IWW over the AFL, influenced in part by Fletcher’s connection to the IWW and the perception of racism with the AFL.

The new Philadelphia organization, which became known as Local 8, was diverse, including African Americans; West Indian, Polish, Italian, Spanish, Belgian, and Lithuanian immigrants; and Irish Americans among others. The group numbered in the thousands during its prime years. The integrated group of workers prevented employers from using racism to play different ethnic groups against each other, and from successfully using segregated groups of strikebreakers to undermine the union.

Although Fletcher was instrumental in founding Local 8, he made certain that he was not perceived as being its only leader. Its meetings were chaired by persons of different ethnic groups on a rotating basis, and its committees and representatives in labor negotiations always reflected the diversity of the organization. The solidarity of workers across racial, ethnic, and cultural categories was essential to the success of Local 8 in its efforts to improve the status, pay, and working conditions of the longshoremen.

Chronology

1890

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

1910

Listed in U.S. census with occupation of laborer

1912

Attends Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) conference in Chicago

1913

Becomes labor activist; helps to found Local 8 in Philadelphia

1917

Arrested with other IWW leaders for alleged violation of federal laws

1918

Convicted and sentenced to federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas

1920

Released on bail from prison; continues labor activism

1923

Receives commutation of prison sentence from President Warren G. Harding

1933

Receives full pardon from President Franklin D. Roosevelt

1949

Dies in Brooklyn, New York on July 10

Protests to End Prison Term

African American leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois and A. Phillip Randolph protested Fletcher’s imprisonment, and Randolph launched a campaign to bring about his release through The Messenger , the African American socialist publication he edited along with Chandler Owen. They recognized him as making a genuine contribution to the uplift of blacks and other disadvantaged persons through his labor activism, and in the next few years many persons from various racial groups urged President Warren G. Harding to pardon Fletcher.

While Fletcher was in prison, Local 8 managed to maintain control of the Philadelphia waterfront despite ongoing surveillance of IWW members by the government. In keeping with Fletcher’s philosophy of shared leadership, other persons came forward to keep the union strong and effective in its dealings with employers and in its competition with the ILA and AFL. These leaders included Lithuanian immigrant Paul “Polly” Baker and African Americans Joseph Whitzen, William “Dan” Jones, Charles Carter, Amos White, and Alonzo Richards.

Due to direct support from Local 8, as well as the GDC, the national IWW headquarters, and other supporters from around the country, Fletcher was released after making bail during an appeal of his conviction on February 7, 1920. He went on a speaking tour to promote the IWW then returned to Philadelphia where he lived with his father and a sister, Helen Brazton, instead of with his wife and stepfamily. It is unclear why Fletcher did not resume living with his wife, but the stress of his notoriety could have contributed to his decision. Despite his personal challenges and difficulties, Fletcher remained committed to the IWW and to worker solidarity.

At great personal risk, Fletcher helped to raise money to get other convicted IWW persons out of Leavenworth on bail, and he provided leadership to Local 8 when it went on a major strike during the summer of 1920. His activities could have resulted in losing his own freedom again, as well as forfeiting the bail money already raised on his behalf. After a month on strike, Local 8 did not win any additional concessions from employers, but still managed to stand firm as the dominant labor organization representing Philadelphia waterfront workers.

Fletcher was perceived as having black power and green power years before these terms came into vogue, due to the racial and worker unity of his organization. The strength of Local 8 and the IWW was translated into economic clout, due to its influence on the shipping industry and the war effort. Persons in government and industry were threatened by the socialist leanings of the IWW and sought to weaken, then destroy the organization by prosecuting Fletcher and its other leaders and organizers.

More Controversy Leads to Demise of Local 8

The power and influence of Local 8 became a challenge to other constituents within the IWW, particularly those with communist sympathies as opposed to the socialist philosophy of Fletcher and others on issues of racial, labor, and class struggle. Fletcher refused to let Local 8 become a pawn of the Communist Party, which wanted to use its success to support the party’s various agendas, and the internal struggle within the IWW led to what Fletcher and others called the Philadelphia Controversy.

Local 8 continued to operate in its own fashion, and when it did not change policies and procedures that conflicted with IWW directives, the IWW suspended the local on December 4, 1920. This action prevented Fletcher from taking his position as secretary-treasurer of the MTWU and created openings for communist sympathizers to assume leadership. Even though the factions opposed to Local 8 were gaining strength, in December 1921 the U.S. Department of Justice advised the attorney general against recommending executive clemency for Fletcher.

Another beneficiary of Local 8 problems was the rival ILA, which gained members after Local 8 went on strike for an eight-hour work day in October 1922. The employers locked them out of the workplace with the cooperation of federal authorities and brought in replacement workers. As a result, the employers were finally able to break down the local’s interracial solidarity and weaken their bargaining position.

Receives Clemency and Presidential Pardon

On October 31, 1922, the prison sentences of Ben Fletcher and two other IWW leaders, Walter Nef and Jack Walsh, were commuted, with official documentation coming from President Warren G. Harding in 1923. Fletcher had served four years at Leavenworth, and ten years later Fletcher received a full pardon from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

After his release, Fletcher began to curtail much of his Local 8 and IWW activities, although he remained committed to his principles. In January 1923 he and another African American, William “Dan” Jones, started a new organization, the Philadelphia Longshoremen’s Union (PLU), in hopes of recapturing the success of Local 8 during its glory years. This effort was unsuccessful, as the continued presence of the IWW and the ILA made it impossible to unify a sufficient number of longshoremen, and the PLU disbanded in 1924. Fletcher then returned to the IWW despite his continued disagreement with the direction of the organization.

Ben Fletcher continued to speak on occasion in support of interracial unionism and worker solidarity well into the early 1930s. He no longer functioned in an official leadership role within the IWW, though, and the organization had lost nearly all of its support and effectiveness. Reports indicate that after he stopped working as a longshoreman and union official, Fletcher relocated to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, in New York City. Several of his former colleagues from the IWW and Local 8 days had also moved to the same area, and they provided assistance and support to Fletcher during his final years.

On July 10, 1949, Benjamin Fletcher died at his home in Brooklyn at the age of 59. Although he never received the fame of other African American labor leaders, such as A. Phillip Randolph, the end of his life and work did not go unnoticed. Fletcher’s obituary appeared in the New York Times , as well as in Solidarity, Industrial Worker , and other labor-related publications. Many IWW Wobblies attended his funeral and offered tributes to Fletcher’s unwavering commitment to industrial unionism.

Fletcher’s work with the IWW and Local 8 was recognized in subsequent years as one of the earliest examples of successful interracial cooperation in the workplace and remained a fitting legacy to his life, philosophy, and efforts to create the “One Big Union” for the benefit of all persons involved in organized labor occupations.

Fletcher, Giles, The Elder (1546–1611) - BIOGRAPHY, MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES, CRITICAL RECEPTION [next] [back] Fletcher, Arthur A.(1924–2005) - Chronology, Begins Political Career, Heads Civil Rights Commission

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