In part six of our series on the Wobblies, John Newsinger tells how, at a time when lynchings were common, the IWW fought for unity between black and white workers.
One of the great weaknesses of the US labour movement was the way that many white workers fell for the race card and played into the hands of their employers, both North and South.
The concern of many white workers was to keep black workers off the job rather than to build a united movement to fight the bosses and their political representatives.
They stood by while black workers were oppressed, denied the vote, discriminated against and brutalised on a daily basis. The public torture and lynching of black men and women was almost an everyday affair.
The Industrial Workers of the World took a determined stand against this “divide and rule”. While many AFL unions either denied black workers membership altogether or ran segregated locals, the IWW preached class unity.
The IWW’s New Orleans newspaper, the Voice of the People, edited by Covington Hall, made the position clear: “The workers when they organise must be colour blind…we must aim for solidarity first and revolutionary action afterwards.”
The IWW recognised that there was a great deal of distrust to be overcome. For many black workers, the trade union movement behaved like an enemy, trying to deny them work or keep them in the worst paid and most dangerous jobs.
The Wobblies distributed thousands of leaflets and pamphlets urging black workers to join: “There is only one labour organisation in the United States that admits the coloured worker on a footing of absolute equality with the white — the Industrial Workers of the World.”
This view was endorsed by Mary Ovington White, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), when she wrote, “The IWW has stood with the Negro.”
The IWW condemned lynching. It published a pamphlet, Justice for the Negro, pointing out that “two lynchings a week” was the rate at which black men and women had been killed “for the past 30 years…put to death with every kind of torture that human fiends can invent”.
It graphically detailed the scale of the oppression and discrimination that black workers suffered. And it went on to proclaim that the IWW was not “a white man’s union, not a black man’s union…but a working man’s union. All the working class in one big union”.
The IWW was successful at building a powerful union on the docks in Philadelphia, uniting black and white dockers. It led militant strikes in 1913, 1914, 1915 and 1916 that gave it effective control of the docks. Wages were driven up from $1.25 a day to $4 — the wages of unity.
IWW members were also involved in establishing the Brotherhood of Timber Workers (BTW), organising black and white lumber workers in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas.
In the summer of 1911 the employers attempted to crush the union in a general lockout that closed 350 mills. The employers admitted defeat in February 1912.
By May 1912 the BTW had some 25,000 members, half black and half white. The union applied to join the IWW and Bill Haywood was sent to make the arrangements.
He found the workers meeting in segregated halls as they had to under Louisiana law. “This”, Haywood told them, “is one time when the law should be broken.” Covington Hall supported him: “If any arrests are made, all of us will go to jail, white and coloured together.” The affiliation went ahead.
The employers went on the attack with another general lockout that began that same May. On 7 July, at Grabow, company gunmen opened fire on a union demonstration.
Three union men and one company guard were killed, but the union leader, Arthur Emerson, and 64 rank and file members were arrested and brought to trial for murder.
They were inevitably held in the most appalling conditions for four months but were finally acquitted on 2 November 1913. Nevertheless, the union had suffered a serious blow.
Only a few days later, on 11 November 1913, 1,300 workers walked out of the American Lumber Company’s mills in Merryville, Louisiana, in protest against the sacking of 15 men.
All the victimised men were white, in a clear attempt to split the workers, but the black workers joined the walkout.
Scabs were brought in, but they were often persuaded to join the strike.
The company decided to break the strike with brute force. Over four days vigilante gunmen seized strikers, inflicted terrible beatings and deported them from the town under penalty of death.
The strike continued for another four months before going down to defeat.
By now the Brotherhood of Timber Workers had been smashed right across the South.