Sunday, September 1, 2019

Fannie Sellins—The Union Maid as Labor Martyr

A baseball style trading card commemorating Fannie Sellins
There once was a union maid, she never was afraid
Of goons and ginks and company finks and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid.
She went to the union hall when a meeting it was called,
And when the Legion boys come ‘round
She always stood her ground.

Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union.
Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
I’m sticking to the union ‘til the day I die

—Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie penned the catchy and classic labor song Union Maid for the Almanac Singers twenty-one years after Fannie Sellins was murdered on a Pennsylvania picket line on August 26, 1919 but it may as well have been written with her in mind.
Sellins is far less well known than some of her female labor contemporaries—the Rebel Girl of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the United Mine Workers of America’s Mother Jones spring easily to mine.  In fact Sellins was hired by the UMWA to work in the Pennsylvania coal fields as a kind of stand-in or replacement for Mother Jones who was then well into her eighties semi-retired.  But neither of those staunch union women paid the ultimate blood sacrifice.  In that way she deserves a place among the great labor dead—the Haymarket Martyrs, Joe Hill, and Frank Little for instance.
She was born in 1872 as Frances Mooney in Ohio in 1867 or in 1872 in New Orleans—accounts vary.  In likelihood her family moved from Ohio to Louisiana when she was a young child.  Next to nothing is known about her life before she showed up in St. Louis, Missouri as a young woman where she married Charles Sellins, a garment worker.  The couple had four children before her husband died plunging the family into poverty.
Opportunities for a widow were slender—taking in laundry, domestic service, drudge work or prostitution.   Fannie followed her husband into the needle trades where she found herself on piece work in sweat shops for a fraction of the money Charles had made.  She helped organize the shops and rose to public prominence when she became the chief negotiator for 400 mostly women workers locked out by their employers.

United Garment Workers women on strike.
By 1910 she moved to Chicago probably because she found herself black listed in St. Louis.   She was a key organizer of Local 67 of the United Garment Workers of America during the strike sparked by a spontaneous walk out at Hart, Shaftner & Marx that eventually spread to 40,000 workers across the city.  The strike was long and bitter.  Sellins’ work came to the attention of organizer Sydney Hillman.  She shared his disgust and disappointment that the UGWA, a traditional American Federation of Labor, catered to the mostly male skilled workers with little regard and no interest in unskilled women who made up most of the workforce.
Her work attracted the attention of the Van Bittner, President of District 5 of the UMWA who hired her explicitly to take up the king of agitating and organizing pioneered by Mother Jones.  In 1913 she began her work in West Virginia.   Her work, she wrote, was to distribute “clothing and food to starving women and babies, to assist poverty stricken mothers and bring children into the world, and to minister to the sick and close the eyes of the dying.”  That was crucial to keeping desperate wives from urging that their striking husbands return for work.  More than just ministering to the women, like Mother Jones, she organized them into strong and militant strike supporters.
The coal bosses and local authorities took note of her effectiveness and targeted her.  Sellins earned national notice for defying a court injunction against speaking in support of striking miners in Colliers, West Virginia where Sellins, addressed 6,000 miners in February 1914, saying that “a jail sentence holds no terror for me.”
Federal judge Alston G, Dayton wanted "no more Mother Joneses."
Federal District Court Judge Alston G. Dayton tested that bold defiance by sentencing Sellins to jail for inciting to riot.  The UMWA organized a national campaign to petition President Woodrow Wilson to pardon her or commute her sentence.  The White House was flooded with postcard depicting Sellins in her jail cell.  Ultimately Wilson freed her after she served six months in prison.

Fannie Sellins in her jail cell.  UMWA postcards with this image flooded Woodrow Wilson's office demanding her release.
Judge Dayton’s outrageous and biased conduct of Sellins’ trial caused the House Judicial Committee to consider bringing impeachment proceedings against him.  In testimony to an investigative sub-committee Sellins recalled some of the judge’s comments in open court
I know that one remark he said was there would be no more Mother Joneses springing up in West Virginia, no more women of her character; and he said no self-respecting American woman would be affiliated with such an association.
Ultimately a split Judicial Committee chastised Dayton but failed to recommend impeachment:
The evidence shows many matters of individual bad taste on the part of Judge Dayton—some not of that high standard of judicial ethics which should crown the federal judiciary—but a careful consideration of all the evidence and the attending circumstances convinces us that there is little possibility of maintaining to a conclusion of guilt the charges made, and impels us, therefore, to recommend that there be no further proceedings herein.
The case made Sellins a labor heroine and national celebrity.  It also made her a marked woman.

Philip Murray hired Sellins to join the union staff in Pittsburgh in 1917.  That year she gained notoriety.  She was with a group of strikers who stopped a train carrying Black miners and their families who had been hired from the South as scabs.  Most of the Black workers were unaware that they were being used to break a strike.  Sellins boarded the train explained the struggle of union workers to improve their work and living conditions and offered friendship and train fare home for those who would quit. Most accepted. This effective action once again put Sellins in the crosshairs of angry coal barons.

In 1919, she was assigned to the Allegheny River Valley district to direct picketing by striking miners at Allegheny Coal and Coke Company.  The Western Pennsylvania coal field operators had a history of fiercely and violently opposing all union organizing attempts.  The matter was complicated because Welsh, Irish, Cornish, and American born skilled miners had refused in the past to be associated with the largely Slavic workers in the pits.  The UMWA was organized as an industrial rather than a craft union to overcome just such divisions.  But it wasn’t easy.  Sellins proved to be an effective bridge to both communities and was skilled at building solidarity.

The bitter strike against Allegheny Coal and Coke, a major supplier to the blast furnaces of Pittsburgh, was both a prelude and a preview of the great 1919 Steel Strike which broke out in September.  It was a drive of the old Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers (AA) to organize the steel industry nationally which had the strong support of the UMWA.  The AA, an AFL craft union of skilled workers, had been on the decline since the Homestead Strike in 1892.  Despite the opposition of many in the AFL, Philip Murray was eager to encourage the union to adopt the industrial union approach of the Mine Workers to overcome that fatal weakness.  Former IWW organizer William Z. Foster, who led the Steel Strike, shared that view.  

William Z, Foster led the 1919 Steel Strike and wrote extensively about Fannie Sellins.
Murray would go on to lead the United Steel Workers of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) which finally organized the steel industry in the Depression and World War II era.  Foster would go on to a long labor career and leadership of the Communist Party.  In his influential book The Great Steel Strike and Its Lessons published in 1920 Foster would place Allegheny Coal and Coke strike in the context of the steel organizing drive and write at length about Sellins who’s martyr’s death became a rallying cry in the effort.  He described Sellins as:

an able speaker…possessed of boundless courage, energy, enthusiasm and idealism…She was the very heart of the local labor movement…[and] earned the undying hatred of the…employers in the benighted Black Valley district.
The exact details of Sellins’ death are muddy.  Contemporary press and union accounts are at odds over details and eye witness recollections collected and published decades later are fuzzy.  What is known for sure is that there was a violent picket line confrontation between strikers and company guards who had been sworn in as sheriff’s deputies on August 26 that left a striker and Sellins dead.  The autopsy performed on Sellins and a grizzly photograph of her crushed skull was undeniable testimonies to the savagery of the attack she suffered.

Foster wrote that.

A dozen drunken deputy sheriffs on strike duty, led by a mine official, suddenly rushed the pickets, shooting as they came. Joseph Starzeleski fell, mortally wounded. Mrs. Sellins, standing close by, rushed to get some children out of danger. Then she came back to plead with the deputies, who were still clubbing the prostrate Starzeleski, not to kill him.
Some accounts place Sellins on the picket line herself—the company claimed she was actively inciting a riot.  But most sources place her in the fenced yard of a steel worker family home near the mine gate with a number of children and their mothers when the charge came.  After Starzeleski fell wounded, he was beaten as he lay.  Sellins tried to intervene when she was clubbed in the head by a mine official.  

An account in the September 20, 1919, New Majority described the scene:

The mine official snatched a club and felled the woman to the ground. This was not on company ground, but just outside the fence of a friend of Mrs. Sellins. She rose and tried to drag herself toward the gate [The official] shouted: “Kill that—!Three shots were fired, each taking effect. She fell to the ground, and [the official] cried: “Give her  another!”
Multiple accounts agree that Sellins was motionless and lying face down.  She was rolled over and a deputy shot her in the face.  Another smashed her skull with a shovel.  

The photo of Sellins' crushed skull was widely circulated during the 1919 Steel Strike.
The bodies of Starzeleski and Sellins were thrown into a touring car and whisked away.
The autopsy told a slightly different story.  Sellins was probably knocked unconscious by the first blow and when she was turned over suffered two gunshot wounds to the face.  Any other shots fired apparently missed her.  The crushed skull was undeniable.
Despite the physical evidence a Coroner’s Inquest found that the deputies were justified because:
 Mrs. Sellins, accompanied by women and children, went outside the home of a family she was visiting to stop a fight between steelworkers and some of the deputies.
In the wake of the murder both the UMWA and the Steel Workers Strike Committee widely circulated the gruesome picture of Sellins' smashed head.  The case became a cause célèbre and many newspapers were shocked and sympathetic.
Under public pressure 10 deputies were originally charged.  Historians doubt that the men included the manager who initially clubbed Sellins, the deputy who shot her, or the one who smashed her skull.  Only two men were brought to trial.  No one was ever convicted.  No surprise there.
In the end both the Allegheny Coal and Coke and the 1919 Steel Strike were crushed.
But Sellins remained a rallying figure in Pennsylvania even if her fame waned elsewhere.

The United Mine Worker's memorial to Sellins at the Union Cemetery at Arnold, Pennsylvania. 
In 1920, UMWA District 5 members erected a memorial at Sellins grave in Union Cemetery at Arnold, Pennsylvania.  The inscription reads:
In Memory of Fannie Sellins and Joe Starzeleski, killed by the enemies of organized labor, near the Allegheny Steel and Coal Company, at West Natrona, Pa.
In 1989, 70 years after her death, Sellins’ grave was designated a Pennsylvania State Historic Landmark and a marker was erected.
Like the Haymarket Memorial at Forest Home Cemetery near Chicago and Mother Jones’s grave at the Union Miner’s Cemetery at Mount Olive, Illinois, the monument has become a labor pilgrimage site.  Commemoration ceremonies are held there annually on Labor Day.

Fannie Sellins Never Flinched by Mary Cronk Farrell.
Sellins’ story has been told most completely by Mary Cronk Farrell in her book Fannie Never Flinched: One Woman’s Courage in the Struggle for American Labor Union Rights published in 2016 by Abrams Books.

Labor rebel and balladeer Anne Feeney grew up in Pennsylvania inspired by the story of Fannie Sellins.
Contemporary labor bard Anne Feeney recorded her tribute to Sellins on her 2003 album Union Maid.
Fannie Sellins
In labor’s glorious history was many a union maid
Who stood up to the bosses, so staunch and unafraid.
Molly Jackson, Mother Jones fought for a brighter way.
But let’s sing of Fannie Sellins, and remember her today.

All over Pennsylvania Fannie spread the Union word.
In the coalfields and the company towns her voice of hope was heard:
“United we will bargain, but divided we will beg”
Fannie Sellins spread the dreams of the UMWA.

A widow with four children, toiling eighty hours a week
Found time to fight injustice and bring power to the meek.
She lived with tireless energy, no duty would she shirk.
Though murderers cut short her life, we carry on her work.

In the company slums of Ducktown in the summer of nineteen,
An unarmed striking miner was gunned down by deputies.
When Fannie cried out, “Spare his life!” They shot her down as well.
And hundreds watched in horror as this fearless woman fell.

Now the ones who gave the orders faced no charge of any sort.
And the men who pulled the triggers were acquitted by the court.
But when companies own the courthouse, justice fails for you and me.
So let’s work like Fannie Sellins now for true equality.

A widow with four children, toiling eighty hours a week
Found time to fight injustice and bring power to the meek.
She lived with tireless energy, no duty would she shirk.
And though murderers cut short her life, we carry on her work.

Though murderers cut short her life, we carry on her work.
—Anne Feeney

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