Fletcher, Bill Jr. 1954–
Bill Fletcher, Jr. 1954–
Political and labor movement activist
Bill Fletcher Jr. is a prominent labor movement activist and self-described socialist and black radical. He is an historian of the American labor movement, particularly the role of blacks in the movement. In 2002 he became president of the TransAfrica Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit center that educates and organizes around issues confronting Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Fletcher also is a director of the Monthly Review Foundation, an organizer of the Black Radical Congress, and co-chair of United for Peace and Justice.
Fletcher was born on June 21, 1954, in New York City. He and his sister grew up in a home filled with political discussion. As labor movement supporters, his parents, William G. Fletcher, Sr. and Joan Carter Fletcher, emphasized black liberation and the fight for desegregation within organized labor. His great-grandparents lived in a famous Harlem building that had been home to W.E.B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, and the leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Walter White. In an interview with the Progressive, Fletcher recounted an incident that took place shortly before the start of the Vietnam War, when he was six or seven: “My great-grandfather [William Stanley Braithwaite] turned to me and asked me if I thought we should be interfering in the political life of another country. I had, of course, no idea of where or even what Laos was. But my father turned to my great-grandfather. ‘Just give him time,’ he said. ‘He’ll have an answer.”’
Fletcher grew up in the midst of the antiwar and civil rights movements. He read Muhammad Speaks, the newspaper of the Nation of Islam, and was profoundly influenced by the Autobiography of Malcolm X. At his high school in Mount Vernon, New York, Fletcher was a student activist. Although at his father’s request, he refrained from joining the Mount Vernon chapter of the Black Panthers, he did help found a black student organization that was very close politically to the Panthers and the Young Lords (a Chicago-based organization of young Puerto Ricans). His group shut down their high school in May of 1970, to protest the war in Vietnam and the killing of students at Kent State by the National Guard, and again in October in support of Black Solidarity
At a Glance…
Born William C. Fletcher, Jr. on June 21, 1954, in New York, NY; son of William G. Fletcher, Sr. and Joan Carter Fletcher; married Candice S. Cason; daughter; Yasmin Jwahir Fletcher. Education: Harvard University, AB, 1976. Politics: Socialist, black radical.
Career: General Dynamics shipyard, Quincy, MA, welder, 1977–80; Boston Jobs Coalition, organizer, 1960–81; Greater Boston Legal Services, paralegal, 1982–66; UMass-Boston, adjunct faculty, 1982–90; District 65, UAW, Boston, organizer, 1986–90; National Postal Mail Handlers’ Union, organizational secretary, administrative director, 1990–91; East and South, SEIU, assistant education director, education director, field services director, public sector division director, assistant to the president, 1991–96; AFL-CIO, education director, 1996–99, assistant to the president, 1999–2001; George Meany Center for Labor Studies, vice president for international trade union development programs, 2001–02; TransAfrica Forum, president, 20O2–.
Memberships: Marine and Shipbuilding Workers Union, 1977–80; Boston Black United Front, 1980–81; Black Radical Congress, national coordinating committee member, 1998–, national co-chair, 2001–; Monthly Review Foundation, director, 2001–; United for Peace and justice, co-chair, 2002–, national steering committee, 2003–; Popular Economics, advisory board, 2000–.
Awards: University of Massachusetts Labor Studies Program, 1990; Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, 1998.
Addresses: Office —TransAfrica Forum, 1426 21st Street, NW, Second Floor, Washington, DC 20036.
Day. By the end of high school, Fletcher considered himself a socialist.
At Harvard University, Fletcher came under the influence of Dr. Ewart Guinier, the chair of the African-American studies department that was a focal point of student activism. Guinier had been secretary-treasurer of the United Public Workers, a union that was expelled from the CIO during the late 1940s amid allegations that it was Communist-led. Guinier taught black studies from a class perspective, emphasizing the crucial role of black workers in the labor movement. Fletcher graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1976, with a bachelor’s degree in government. He began organizing unemployed workers in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Fletcher’s career began in the rank-and-file of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America, when he took a job as a welder at the Quincy Shipyards, a division of General Dynamics, in Quincy, Massachusetts. In his three and a half years there, he found himself battling not only the bosses, but also the conservative white union leadership. After leaving the shipyards in 1980, Fletcher went to work as an organizer with the Boston Jobs Coalition. In 1982 he joined Greater Boston Legal Services as a paralegal. There he served as vice president of the staff union. In 1986 he became a staff organizer with District 65 of the United Auto Workers in Boston.
During his years in Boston, Fletcher continued his community involvement. In 1980 and 1981 he was active with the Boston chapter of the Black United Front. He did community and labor organizing in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. He was involved in efforts to desegregate the building trades in Boston and he served on a community task force to promote affirmative action in the Massachusetts building trades. In addition, between 1982 and 1990, Fletcher was an adjunct faculty member in the Labor Studies program at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, where he taught the history of black workers and labor studies.
In 1990 Fletcher went to work as organizational secretary and administrative director of the National Postal Mail Handlers’ Union in Washington, D.C. He was fired a year later, following a disagreement with the union president over contract negotiations. Fletcher immediately took a position as assistant education director for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), headed by John Sweeney. He was rapidly promoted, first to education director, then field services director, public sector division director, and finally to assistant to the president for the East and South.
When Sweeney was elected head of the AFL-CIO, Fletcher became the organization’s education director. He was the most overtly leftist national staff member that the AFL-CIO had had in many years. In a 1998 interview with Dollars &Sense magazine, Fletcher summed up his union philosophy: “unions, at different times in history, become instruments for much more than narrow collective bargaining purposes. Unions can be instruments for social change and transformation. We should concern ourselves less with what unions are supposed to be by law, and more with what they need to be.” Fletcher argued that organized labor was out-of-touch with the youth of America. In 1995 he called upon the AFL-CIO to provide outreach and sports activities to young people, including those in street gangs and other groups.
As the AFL-CIO education director, Fletcher was determined to bring issues of class, race, and gender to the forefront of the labor movement. He oversaw the development of an educational program—Common Sense Economics for Working Families—to facilitate worker-based discussions about economic issues and capitalism. He promoted labor movement discussions of race and racism, ethnicity, gender, and sexism and homophobia. Just as he chastised the labor movement for avoiding issues of race, he criticized black studies departments for ignoring the history of the black workers’ movement.
Beginning in June of 1999, Fletcher served as assistant to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. In that position he was in charge of the departments of education, civil and human rights, field mobilization, safety and health, and working women. In 2000 Fletcher told the Progressive, “we’re still attempting to transform this union movement from one that was very complacent into a movement that has vision and hope. We also have to change the consciousness of workers at the base, to reconstruct a vision of unionism relevant to the twenty-first century.” In May of 2001 Fletcher was named vice president for international trade development programs at the George Meany Center for Labor Studies and its National Labor College. In this position he worked with foreign labor centers on issues of education, organizational change, and building stronger ties among their educational institutions.
Fletcher was also instrumental in the founding of the Black Radical Congress (BRC). The result of a series of meetings begun in 1996 by Fletcher and other progressive academicians, the BRC was an attempt to build a national coalition among various factions of the black left. The congress of some 2000 workers, trade unionists, activists, and scholars met in Chicago in June of 1998, hoping to unite blacks around issues of economic justice. Fletcher announced that the BRC would concentrate on the living wage initiative, organizing former welfare recipients, and trade-union organizing. The BRC also has focused on more immediate problems facing black communities, including police brutality, prisons, and poverty and homelessness.
Fletcher’s interests in education and internationalism came to the fore when he was named president of the TransAfrica Forum in December of 2001. TransAfrica Forum is an educational and lobbying organization that works for justice for people of color throughout the world. It attempts to influence U.S. foreign policy for the benefit of the people of Africa and the Caribbean and uses its educational tools to increase American awareness about conditions in those nations. TransAfrica Forum was a leader in the movement to overthrow apartheid in South Africa during the 1980s. It also helped to restore to power the democratically-elected Haitian president. Fletcher replaced Randall Robinson, who had been the president of TransAfrica since its founding in 1976. Fletcher was joined by actor Danny Glover who became chairman of the board.
On assuming the presidency Fletcher announced that he would extend the organization’s reach beyond Africa and the Caribbean, to include Latin America. He pointed out that Brazil has the largest black population outside of Africa, and that Guyana, Surinam, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba all have very large black populations. In addition Fletcher hopes to broaden TransAf-rica’s focus to include globalization and global justice, labor, and women.
Fletcher told Betsy Peoples of the New Crisis, “Huge sections of Africa are simply disregarded by the international financial institutions and multinational corporations. The Caribbean—now that the Cold War is over—is frankly irrelevant as far as the United States is concerned, except in regard to Cuba, which the U.S. continues to harass. The core of TransAfrica’s mission is to improve American understanding, attitudes and policies toward people of African descent globally. The Black world has been treated with contempt by the United States and most of the Western world, and that must change.”
Fletcher coined the term DARAS, an acronym for TransAfrica’s twenty-first-century agenda: debt relief, AIDS, reparations, agricultural subsidies, and sovereignty. TransAfrica Forum supports reparations, not only for American descendents of African slaves, but also for 500 years of colonialism on the African continent and elsewhere. However, Fletcher has not abandoned his focus on labor. He has made sweatshop labor and support for sweatshop workers in Lesotho in Southern Africa an urgent priority for TransAfrica. Fletcher told the All Africa website that one of the Forum’s tasks “is to challenge this path of economic development. There needs to be an approach toward Africa which encourages respect for worker rights, which encourages respect for the environment and which really does elevate the continent.”
Faced with a severe budget deficit, much of Fletcher’s initial work at TransAfrica Forum was devoted to fundraising. Nevertheless in the fall of 2002, Fletcher and Glover undertook a nationwide speaking tour of college campuses. They promoted issues facing Africa and encouraged the involvement of students of color in movements for global justice.
Fletcher is a charter member and co-chair of the anti-war coalition United for Peace and Justice. He announced on the organization’s website: “The formation of United for Peace & Justice will mark a breakthrough for the peace movement—the diversity and breadth of groups involved is astounding.” Fletcher told the Nation, “it will be a challenge for the antiwar movement to talk about the role of empire and the dangers of domestic repression, and a challenge for organizers in communities of color, who have focused on domestic issues to the exclusion of foreign policy.” At the coalition’s national strategy conference in June of 2003, Fletcher was elected to serve on the national steering committee.
Writing in the Nation in April of 2003, Fletcher called for the cessation of hostilities in Iraq and the reintroduction of the United Nations as peacemakers. He further called for opposition to empire-building by the United States and for a more democratic U.S. foreign policy; the elimination of weapons of mass destruction throughout all of the Middle East, including Israel; support for self-determination by the Palestinian people; and a broadening of the American antiwar movement to encompass various progressive social movements, particularly those among people of color, and to address issues of economic priorities and domestic repression.
Fletcher is the author of numerous articles and a sought-after speaker. He is a regular contributor to the Monthly Review and other progressive publications, and the recipient of numerous awards. He and his wife, Candice S. Cason, have one daughter.
(With Peter Agard) The Indispensable Ally: Black Workers and the Formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, 1934–1941, William Monroe Trotter Institute, University of Massachusetts, 1987.
(With Richard W. Hurd) “Beyond the Organizing Model: The Transformation Process in Local Unions,” in Organizing to Win: New Research on Union Strategies, ILR Press, 1998.
(With Richard W. Hurd) “Political Will, Local Union Transformation, and the Organizing Imperative,” Which Direction for Organized Labor?: Essays on Organizing, Outreach, and Internal Transformations, Wayne State University Press, 1999.
“Black Studies and the Question of Class,” Dispatches from the Ebony Tower: Intellectuals Confront the African American Experience, Columbia University Press, 2000.
(With Richard W. Hurd) “Overcoming Obstacles to Transformation: Challenges on the Way to a New Unionism,” Rekindling the Movement: Labor’s Quest for Relevance in the Twenty-first Century, IRL Press, 2001.
(With Adolph Reed, Jr.) Reparations? Yes/No, New Press, 2003.
“Interview with Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams,” Monthly Review, 1989.
“The Crisis of American Labor: Operation Dixie and the Defeat of the CIO,” Monthly Review, 1990.
“From Gang Members to Union Members?,” Dollars & Sense, 1995.
“Can Black Radicalism Speak the Voice of Black Workers?” Race and Class, 1999.
“Race, Gender, and Class: The Challenges Facing Labor Educators,” Labor Studies Journal, 2000.
“A Tribute to The Life of Nadra Floyd,” Social Policy, 2000/2001.
“A Tale of Two Conference,” Monthly Review, 2001.
(With Art McGee) “Black America is all too Familiar with the Suffering Caused by Terrorism and Racial Hatred,” Peacework, 2001.
“Sweatshop Labor, Sweatshop Movement,” Monthly Review, 2002.
(With David Cortright, Phyllis Bennis, John Cavanagh, and Medea Benjamin) “What We Do Now: A Peace Agenda/Responses,” The Nation, 2003.
“Bush’s War Plans Part of Dangerous Bid for Empire, TransAfrica Forum Head Warns,” UCLA Interna tional Institute, http://isopweb.sscnet.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=3378 (June 24, 2003).
“Everything Has Not Changed Since 9/11,” Freedom Road Socialist Organization, www.freedomroad.org/antiwar_fletcher.html (July 6, 2003).
“Extracting the Life from Africa,” The Progressive Media Project, www.progressive.org/mediaproject03/mpffll03.html (July 6, 2003).
“Into the Valley of Death,” TransAfrica Forum, www.transafricaforum.org/newsletter/bfletcher120502.shtml (July 6, 2003).
“Is Syria Next?,” Sacramento Observer, www.sacob-server.com/news/commentary/042203/syria_next.shtml (June 24, 2003).
“Keynote Address to the TransAfrica Metropolitan DC Chapter Annual Luncheon March 23,2002,” TransAfrica Forum, www.transafricaforum.org/newsletter/bfletcher032302.shtml (July 6, 2003).
“Making Sense of the Bono/O’Neill Tour,” The Progressive Media Project, www.progressive.org/Media%20Project%202/mpfj402.html (July 6, 2003).
“Sadly, Africa’s Not a ‘Priority’ for U.S.,” Newsday, www.newsday.com/news/opinion/ny-vpqflel42822848augl4.story (July 6, 2203).
“U.S. Plan to Attack Iraq Unwise,” The Progressive Media Project, www.progressive.org/Media%20Project%202/mpfal302.html (July 6, 2003).
Boyd, Herb, Race and Resistance: Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, South End Press, 2002.
Dollars & Sense, May-June 1995, pp. 26, 28–29; September/October 1998, pp. 6, 26–27.
Jet, December 24, 2001, pp. 22–23.
Nation, January 3, 2003.
New Crisis, January/February 2002, p. 11.
Progressive, March 2000, pp. 31–35.
“Fight for Global Justice is TransAfrica’s Immense Task, Says Danny Glover,” All Africa, www.transafricaforum.org/newletter/taf_allafricall502.shtml (July 6, 2003).
“Human Rights Day to Feature Anti-War Protests,” United for Peace and Justice, www.unitedforpeace.org/article.php?id=301 (July 6, 2003).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through personal communications between Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Contemporary Black Biography in July, 2003.
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