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Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia

Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia

by Peter Cole

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  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. For much of its time, Local 8's majority was African American and included immigrants from Eastern Europe as well as many Irish Americans. In this important


  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. For much of its time, Local 8's majority was African American and included immigrants from Eastern Europe as well as many Irish Americans. In this important study, Peter Cole examines how Local 8, affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), accomplished what no other did at the time. 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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Cole skillfully integrates material from IWW leaders, government documents, newspaper accounts, and oral histories with secondary literature to produce a superb case study, one that should appeal to anyone interested in the IWW, the intersection of work and race, waterfront work, or race relations in the United States during the World War I period."—H-Urban

"One of the best and most important histories of the Industrial Workers of the World."
American Historical Review

"Cole's richly detailed book provides a glimpse at a topic too often ignored, the local IWW. . . . Wobblies on the Waterfront deserves to be read seriously by labor historians and historians interested in race and social justice movements. . . . This remarkable book provides a sense of what the Wobblies might have become if given a chance."—Journal of American History

"An invaluable resource to those interested broadly in the historiography of race and industrial unionism and more specifically in Local 8 itself. . . . A worthwhile contribution to the literature and an inspiration to those of us who hold out hope for a unified labor movement."—Labor History

Product Details

University of Illinois Press
Publication date:
Working Class in American History
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Wobblies on the Waterfront



Copyright © 2007 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03186-1

Chapter One

Philadelphia: "The Workshop of the World"

In 1842 African Americans marching to celebrate Jamaican Independence crossed into the heavily Irish Southwark section of Philadelphia. Irish Catholics attacked the black revelers but, not coincidentally, fighting quickly moved westward to the Schuylkill River docks, where native-born blacks and immigrant whites competed for jobs. By 1850 the black-dominated docks had been taken forcibly by the Irish, who controlled waterfront work for fifty years. Yet by the late nineteenth century African Americans had returned to the riverfront and East European immigrants also had carved themselves a niche. By 1 00 Philadelphia had perhaps the most diverse longshore workforce in the nation, which meant, among other things, that it would be a real challenge to organize a union.

This chapter will tackle a number of important questions to set the stage for the rest of the book. What was it about longshoring that made the work so hard and the workers so weak? Why was the city's waterfront so diverse? Why were race relations in the so-called City of Brotherly Love so poor? How come a stable union did not emerge in Philadelphia, as it had in nearly every other port in the nation? To answer these questions, we must act like longshoremen prior to the days of containerization, namely, carry some very heavy and varied loads. First, the chapter will examine Philadelphia's vibrant industrial economy and its maritime sector, at both the macro level and from the perspective of longshoremen. Philadelphia was among the nation's leading manufacturing and transportation centers, which explains why so many European immigrants and African Americans moved there in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Then this chapter will explore the ethnic and racial identities of those who worked dockside prior to Local 8's emergence. Job competition, notably for river work, was central to but not the only reason for the racial and ethnic conflicts the city periodically suffered. Employers' hiring decisions and the failure to create a strong union also contributed to the dockers' diversity and their weakness. By this chapter's conclusion, a picture of Philadelphia's business, ethnic, labor, and racial history, and their intersections, should come into focus.

Philadelphia: The Port and "the World's Greatest Workshop"

Located where the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers converge, eighty-eight nautical miles from the Atlantic Ocean, Philadelphia was an important port since its founding in 1682. The harbor of Philadelphia includes more than twenty miles of shoreline along the Delaware River and eight miles along the Schuylkill and was the largest freshwater port on America's Atlantic seaboard. During the colonial era, Philadelphia was the second busiest port in the entire Atlantic world, London being the first. Until 1830 Philadelphia was the leading commercial and manufacturing city in the United States, as well as the easternmost link in the agricultural trade of the old Northwestern states-which depended on Philadelphia's maritime connections to the Atlantic. Through the mid-1900s Philadelphia served as a major port for anthracite coal, steel, and oil. Philadelphia also was a leading builder of ships, first wooden sailing vessels and later metal steamships, both merchant and naval.

The port has played a central role in the city's identity from its founding. In recognition, a three-masted vessel at full sail and an emblazoned anchor held prominent places in the city's official seal. Philadelphia's maritime significance is evident in how it entered into sailing culture. One windlass shanty, sung to raise sails, included the following stanza, apparently referring to the wave of Irish migration to Philadelphia in the 1840s:

Now I'm in Philadelphia an' workin' on the Canal, To go home in one of them packet-boats I'm sure I never shall.

A sailor who knew the Maritime Code, that is, the rights of seamen, extremely well was called a "Philadelphia Lawyer." The port also lent its name to the "Philadelphia Catechism," which referred to the hard lives of sailors: "Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thou art able, and on the seventh thou shalt holystone [clean] the decks and chip the rusty cable."

Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the port played an important part in the urban and regional economies. Although self-consciously in the shadow of New York City, in the early 1 00s Philadelphia still was the nation's second busiest port and housed the third largest population, with more than a million and a half residents. Philadelphia actively traded with many East and West Coast cities as well as numerous destinations in Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Emil P. Albrecht, president of the Philadelphia Bourse (a major local business association), wrote that "the Port is the city's biggest asset" and boasted, "As a base for export and import operations it is unexcelled elsewhere." In fact, the Bourse's slogan was "Buy, Sell and Ship via Philadelphia." The Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce had a column entitled "Business of the Port" in its monthly newsletter.

In contrast to ports like New Orleans that specialized in a few commodities, Philadelphia shipped a great variety of products. Grain from the Midwest along with coal and oil from western Pennsylvania joined textiles, locomotives, and other manufactured goods produced in the city. Ships brought in agricultural commodities, including unrefined sugar from Cuba and bananas from Central America along with cotton from the American South. While the Pennsylvania, the Baltimore & Ohio, and the Philadelphia & Reading Railroads all had large holdings, none of the railroads exerted much influence beyond their own piers, clustered mainly in North Philadelphia at Port Richmond. In 1 13 several dozen shipping firms and stevedoring agents, many of them locally owned, contributed to the port's decentralization of power.

Away from the waterfront, Philadelphia possessed a diverse manufacturing base, the local Chamber of Commerce boosting its city as "The World's Greatest Workshop." As American industrialization advanced, Philadelphia maintained its position, along with New York and Chicago, as one of the nation's three premier cities. Historian Howell Harris notes, "The value of the goods that Philadelphia produced exceeded that of forty-five states and territories." Philadelphia workers generally did not toil in mammoth factories mass-producing their wares. Instead, with the exceptions of the Baldwin Locomotive Works and the William Cramp Ship and Engine Building Company, Philadelphia's manufacturers maintained smaller workshops and factories where highly skilled workers produced specialty items. Along with the two largest industries-textile and garment manufacturing and metal production-marine transport, streetcar building, printing, tool and machine, furniture, railroad, oil and sugar refining, and chemical industries ranked among the city's most important. In short, well into the Cold War era Philadelphia possessed a thriving and varied industrial base, "everything from buttonhooks to battleships," as Harris quotes one booster.

Working along the Shore

Longshore work involved the heaviest of manual labor, for long hours under very difficult, often dangerous, conditions, with abusive bosses. A longshoreman never knew how long his job would last or if he would find another, fully aware that his employers controlled his fate, that labor surpluses made job competition fierce, and that no union protected his interests. Philadelphia's longshoremen and the other folks who inhabited this world struggled simply to stay out of poverty. But before further discussing this world, a quick note about terminology is in order. Some people use the words stevedore and longshoreman interchangeably. In this study, the term longshoreman is reserved exclusively for someone who actually loads and unloads vessels. The terms stevedore and employing stevedore will be used for those who hire longshoremen to perform manual labor.

Philadelphia's waterfront districts, like maritime areas across the seven seas, were places of commerce and chaos. The well-known Progressive Era writer Ernest Poole described this world in his 1 15 novel The Harbor, "There stretches a deafening reign of cobblestones and asphalt over which trucks by thousands go clattering each day. There are long lines of freight cars here and snorting locomotives. Along the shore side are many saloons, a few cheap decent little hotels and some that are far from decent. And along the water side is a solid line of docksheds." Though spread along many miles of shoreline and across the Delaware River around Camden, New Jersey, Philadelphia's maritime heart remained in the district first platted by William Penn, hard along the Delaware and on the south side of the city, still referred to as South Philadelphia.

The men who toiled on the piers, atop the decks, and deep inside the holds were casual laborers, meaning that they did not have a regular job with a salary or contract. On some days and at certain times of year, the port of Philadelphia boomed, while in other times, especially winters, little work occurred. Thus, the labor market fluctuated according to the number of ships in port, commodities, weather, and season. Typically, workers were hired for a shift, a day, or the duration of a job, lasting at most four or five days. If work was delayed for whatever reason (e.g., broken equipment or bad weather), the foreman could tell the men to "knock off" and later rehire them without paying for the time spent waiting. Generally, there was a core of experienced, regular longshoremen who worked at a certain pier or for a certain stevedore. Some longshoremen regularly rotated into other lines of work, black men often as hod carriers in construction, Poles to dockside sugar refineries. Despite the many challenges, most longshoremen remained committed to this line of work and, accordingly, passed the trade on to their sons, nephews, neighbors, countrymen, and fellow churchgoers; that is, ethnic, family, gender, neighborhood, and religious connections determined who entered this line of work. However, given the work's casual nature, there always were additional men with little or no experience hoping to get hired.

The combination of the casual, unskilled nature of the work, employers' fluctuating needs, and workers' movements into and out of the industry led to chronic and often huge labor surpluses. Most importantly, the nature of the work-loading, lifting, carrying, pulling, and unloading-ensured that any man could perform the tasks. This reality was most apparent during hard times, when the number of men looking for longshore work exploded. Philadelphia longshoreman Bob Callan explained, "Every time there would be a big lay-off in the city or anything, you would go down there." True, as Walter Licht writes, "Unemployment and irregular employment were constant features of working-class existence in Philadelphia in the Progressive era." Still, the working lives of longshoremen were more insecure than most.

The hiring method on the waterfront was called the shape-up, or "shape." In Philadelphia men shaped-up at 7 a.m. for the morning, 1 p.m. for the afternoon, and 7 p.m. for the night shift. Longshoreman Richard Neill described Philadelphia's shape-ups: "Each company had a specific spot on Delaware Avenue where they hired, some hiring bosses wanted you to form a big circle. They would then walk around the inside, eyeing each man up before giving him a [work] ticket." Many longshoremen shaped "at the corner," the intersection of Front and Christian Streets, the heart of the waterfront district. Alternately, men lined up in a semicircle around the head of the pier, additional men behind the first row, with the hiring boss in the middle. The foreman proceeded to pick out individuals for the shift. Writer Ernest Poole described a typical shape in which "the figures of dockers appear, more and more.... Soon there were crowds of thousands, and as stevedores there began bawling out names, gang after gang of men stepped forward, until at last the chosen throngs went marching in past the timekeepers."

Employers benefited the most from the shape-up. Employers ensured that there always were men available in case more workers were needed-without paying for these men's time while waiting at piers and waterfront bars. As Philadelphia dockworker John Quinn declared: "Even if they [employers] knew their ship wasn't coming in, they'd order you down there just so they'd have more manpower. Obviously if you went down there you couldn't go up there [to another shape] so you would be available whenever their ship came in." The combination of the method of hiring and labor surpluses resulted in bosses commanding near total control of the hiring process. It also contributed to many a longshoreman's alcoholism and saloon's prosperity, as men awaited the next shape.

Not surprisingly, longshoremen hated the shape-up. Henry Varlack, a second-generation Philadelphia longshoreman whose father had immigrated from St. Thomas, called the shape, "an evil form of hiring ... a slave market [where employers] play one guy against the other." Furthermore, this system of hiring was open to tremendous abuse. A boss often demanded a bribe in exchange for selecting a worker. Where the hiring boss had so much control and labor surpluses were so common, men could not refuse kickbacks. Thus, longshore unions often attempted to regulate the method and amount of hiring. Ironically, though, the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA), the IWW's rival, benefited from the shape; according to Bruce Nelson, the shape "swelled the number of union members, kept their dues flowing into the ILA treasury, and offered ILA officials numerous ways to pad their pockets via kickbacks and other forms of graft."

Stevedores sought even greater control over the labor supply by encouraging ethnic and racial divisions among workers. As noted by W. E. B. Du Bois and other scholars, workers labored in segregated groups in most, if not all, of the city's workplaces. They also toiled in racially segregated areas-on the docks that meant all-black or all-white gangs. Employers used ethnic and racial divisions to their workers' detriment. African American longshoreman Abe Moses understood that foremen (all of whom were white in this era) encouraged segregated gangs to compete with each other in unloading ships, simultaneously increasing company profits and fomenting animosity among the workers. Irish American John Quinn seconded Moses's claim, "It was not uncommon that the gangs would be pitted against each other, white against black, Irish against the Polish. It made no difference to the companies." Philadelphia's waterfront employers also used the timeworn tactic of hiring black strikebreakers. White strikers, native-born and immigrant, often transferred their hatred from white employers to all black workers, thereby allowing white employers to use white supremacy to deter white workers from forming interracial unions.

Philadelphia's waterfront workers, though, also had to contend with their own prejudices. A riot that erupted in June 18 8 between African American and Italian longshoremen was only one conflict in an ongoing struggle between whites and blacks to find jobs on the waterfront. A 1928 Urban League survey of the Philadelphia waterfront confirms the conclusion; when asked about the relations between black and white members, the ILA secretary (clearly, not a friendly source concerning IWW matters) referred to the "intense race hatred that existed between whites and blacks on the water front prior to 1913 [when Local 8 emerged], in the community and among longshoremen as a result of keen competition between the workers." As for unions, most excluded blacks entirely, while so-called progressive ones segregated them in black-only locals. For their part, black workers felt little loyalty to white co-workers and white unions that actively and often openly excluded blacks. Black leaders like Booker T. Washington insightfully noted that white racism caused black strikebreaking.


Excerpted from Wobblies on the Waterfront by PETER COLE Copyright © 2007 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Peter Cole is a professor of history at Western Illinois University.

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