Wobblies on the Waterfront
The rise and fall of America’s first truly interracial labor union
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Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia
By Peter Cole
University of Illinois Press
For almost a decade during the 1910s and 1920s, the Philadelphia waterfront was home to the most durable interracial, multiethnic union seen in the United States prior to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) era. In a period when most unions, like many institutions, excluded blacks or segregated them, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was ideologically committed to racial equality. More than any other IWW affiliate, however, Local 8 worked to become a progressive, interracial union. For much of its time, the union majority was African American, always with a cadre of black leaders, which included Ben Fletcher. Local 8 also claimed immigrants from Eastern Europe, as well as many Irish Americans, who had a notorious reputation for racism.
In Wobblies on the Waterfront, Peter Cole outlines the factors that were instrumental in Local 8’s success, both ideological (the IWW’s commitment to working-class solidarity) and pragmatic (racial divisions helped solidify employer dominance). He also shows how race was central not only to the rise but also to the decline of Local 8, as increasing racial tensions were manipulated by employers and federal agents bent on the union’s destruction.
“One of the best and most important histories of the Industrial Workers of the World.”—American Historical Review
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