The Industrial Workers of the World is one of the few unions that has always understood the importance of organizing Black workers to prevent capitalist abuse of all workers, vowing in its earliest days to never charter a segregated Branch or Local. The IWW has long fought to organize Black labor against being used as expendable and underpaid scabs, as well as for the abolition of all impediments to Black liberation.
Black liberation is the struggle for freedom and equality for Black people; a continuous fight against the attitudes and institutions that dehumanize Black people in order to propagate and maintain white supremacy. The Black Liberation Movement is most often associated with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, but has actually existed for hundreds of years. Its history spans from the slave revolts on the shores of West Africa from where we were stolen to the protests still taking place today. A key focus of this current phase of the movement is the need to liberate Black people from the dual oppression of police and of capitalism, just as the IWW seeks to liberate the entire working class from those very same clutches.
Whenever I am asked about the history of unions and the labor movement and how they intersect with Black history, I’m always sure to talk about the Industrial Workers of the World. From Lucy Parsons, a Black woman and founding member of the Union, to Maritime Worker Ben Fletcher’s efforts to establish one of the most diverse institutions of its time, Black Wobblies shaped the IWW and its commitment to the struggle for Black liberation from the very beginning. Additionally, I emphasize this Union’s dedication to organizing workers of color over 100 years ago when Samuel Gompers’ American Federation of Labor would, at best, organize segregated unions if they engaged with Black labor at all.
One event I typically recount occurred in May 1912 in Alexandria, Louisiana, as William D. “Big Bill” Haywood stood before the Brotherhood of Timber Workers. The Brotherhood was a national union of lumberjacks and millworkers with members in Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana, which had a large population of both Black and white workers. The organization had been ignored by other unions and chose to affiliate with the IWW instead. Haywood was puzzled as he looked out at the entirely white audience of timber workers, and he inquired why there were no Black workers at the meeting. In 1912, racially desegregated meetings were illegal everywhere in the state of Louisiana, and Haywood was informed that the rest of the workers were meeting elsewhere.
“You work in the same mills together. Sometimes a Black man and a white man may chop down the same tree together […] This can’t be done intelligently by passing resolutions here and then sending them out to another room for the Black men to act upon. Why not be sensible about this and call the Negroes into this convention?” Haywood continued: “If it is against the law, this is one time when the law should be broken.” Following this, the Black timbermen joined the suddenly desegregated meeting and, in the election of delegates, both Black and white members were elected to represent the Brotherhood of Timber Workers at their 1912 convention.
The IWW’s present-day commitment to Black liberation is perhaps best evidenced by the recent work of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC). This rank-and-file union of the IWW seeks to abolish prison slavery and improve conditions within prisons, jails, and detention centers through direct action. Prison slavery is one of the most perverse systems of worker exploitation and white supremacy in this nation today. Many incarcerated workers find themselves working on plantations and roadcrews, and engaging in all manner of work tasks necessary for the prison to operate. These workers also manufacture products and provide services for private corporations, thereby generating their captor’s wealth while receiving mere pennies per hour for their labor if they are even compensated at all.
Furthermore, these incarcerated comrades are subjected to unsafe and inhumane living conditions. The prison-industrial complex is a system that affects all working class people but disproportionately targets and exploits Black people. In order to fight this system, IWOC has participated in organizing several actions including the 2016 and 2018 U.S. prison strikes. These demonstrations, such as work stoppages and hunger strikes organized in solidarity with incarcerated workers at many prisons across the United States in an attempt to win specific demands and recognitions that included improvements to prison conditions, paying incarcerated workers prevailing wage for their labor, and bring an immediate end to racially biased judicial overreach, such as overcharging, over-sentencing, and baseless denials of parole for Black and Brown people.
The IWW has several chartered IWOC branches and continues to provide support through initiatives such as the case reader program where IWW members assist in getting cases overturned and prisoners released. Building committees among the currently and formerly incarcerated workers in the struggle brings awareness to the public about conditions these workers face and provides resources for them to advocate for themselves through direct action within the system that enslaves them. The IWW’s fight for prison abolition is just one example of our One Big Union’s continued commitment to the liberation of Black people in North America and around the world.
The Industrial Workers of the World has always been and continues to be the most important union when it comes to the struggle for Black liberation in the workplace. I encourage every Wobbly to learn and understand what is meant by –and necessary for– true Black liberation, for without this understanding, it will be impossible to liberate all working people from the repression and subjugation of race and class. And to all Black workers who are not yet Wobblies, I call on you to join the One Big Union. It is the only union that has been consistently fighting alongside Black labor for the liberation of our people since the beginning of the 20th century.
Fellow Worker Alki, an at-large member affiliated with IU660, describes himself as a Black Anarchist Wobbly, as well as an essayist, historian, and media creator focused on organized labor and other radical movements from an historical perspective.