Workers Vanguard No. 1049

11 July 2014


Ida B. Wells and 1905 Teamsters Strike


5 July 2014

Dear Comrades,

In her forum on Ida B. Wells printed in WV No. 1048 (13 June), comrade Lisa Martin documents Wells’ lifelong crusade against lynch-rope terror. But the forum fails to mention that Wells was on the wrong side of the class line during an important strike battle in Chicago, where she resided in the latter part of her life. At the outbreak of the 1905 Teamsters strike in the city, the bosses had recruited thousands of scabs, many black men from the rural South, in order to foment racial hatred and smash the union. Wells actively supported the black strikebreakers, falling right into the bosses’ divide-and-rule trap.

That strike was fought by the overwhelmingly white Teamsters to defend union jobs and the basic principle of working-class solidarity. It began when Teamsters refused to make deliveries to Montgomery Ward, which was being struck by garment workers. In response, the Chicago Employers’ Association (CEA) ordered workers from all of the city’s other department stores to deliver to the struck retailer, prompting a citywide strike of some 5,000 Teamsters.

Determined to defeat the Teamsters and their tradition of honoring other unions’ job actions, the CEA organized scabs to make deliveries. Militant strikers bravely fought pitched battles with battalions of armed strikebreakers. But the hostility of the strikers toward the scabs in some cases spilled over into random anti-black violence. All together including strikers, anti-union forces and bystanders, 21 people were killed during the strike, over 400 were seriously injured and more than 1,100 were arrested. In the end, the CEA defeated the Teamsters after 105 days.

Chicago was far from unique. Across the country, many industries at the time would not hire black people—except during strikes, as scabs. The job-trusting trade-union leadership refused to recruit and organize black workers, and many unions supported the racist color bar, which obscures the fundamental class divide between labor and capital. The president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), Samuel Gompers, wrote shortly after the Chicago Teamsters strike ended: “If the colored man continues to lend himself to the work of tearing down what the white man has built up, a race hatred far worse than any ever known will result. Caucasian civilization will serve notice that its uplifting process is not to be interfered with in any way.”

Against this backdrop, many black leaders saw strikebreaking as a method of racial uplift. During the 1905 strike, a 1,000-person meeting was organized at a black church in Chicago to protest attacks on black scabs and denounce “Race Prejudice in the Strike.” The meeting approved a resolution that Wells had proposed that praised black strikebreakers as “men who proved their value by risking their lives to obtain work” (quoted in Stephen Norwood, Strikebreaking & Intimidation [2002]).

When much of basic industry in the United States was finally organized by industrial unions in the 1930s, these were forged in interracial struggle, much of it led by reds. As the Spartacist League has long insisted, black rights and union rights either go forward together or fall back separately.

Jacob Zorn