Patricia DeMarco Ph.D.

"Live in harmony with nature."

Labor Day 2019- A Fannie Sellins Commemoration and A Commitment

Patricia M. DeMarco With Guest writers Leann Foster and Frank Snyder

The Battle of Homestead Foundation held a Centennial Commemoration of labor heroine Fannie Sellins on August 26, 2019.  Many thanks to the efforts of Steffi Domike, Battle of Homestead foundation founding member and co-editor of “When River Ran Red”[2]for organizing this commemoration and for her enduring efforts to educate and organize workers for justice. Here are the dinner remarks of Leeann Foster, USW International Vice President and Frank Snyder, Secretary-Treasurer of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, given at the grave site of Fannie Sellins and Joseph Starzelski.

The Great Steel Strikes of 1919 came in the wake of victory in World War I, a war intended to establish the rights of democracy for the people and workers of Europe. The munitions and supplies used in that effort came from the ramping up of industrial production for the sake of the war effort.  Workers felt valued, empowered and enjoyed some improvements in their working conditions during that time, but at the end of the war, conditions deteriorated. Workers endured twelve-hour days in the face of the horrific heat and danger of the steel mills.  Even as the steel corporations’ earnings soared, the wages were lowered, and conditions deteriorated to their past levels of desperation. No benefits came to the widowed or maimed. In 1919, in Pittsburgh alone 195 men died in the steel mills.  Discontent and worker organizing was met with brutality, oppression and terrorizing workers organizing for better wages, conditions and hours.  The 1919 strike crumbled in the face of these tactics.  

Fannie Sellins became a heroine to the cause of workers’ rights, and for the cause of compassion and social justice for the families of workers.  She was brutally murdered on August 26, 1919 as she pleaded for the private Coal and Iron Police to stop beating Joseph Starzelski, a picketing miner. Mother Jones wrote of the 1919 strike in her autobiography:

Human flesh, warm and soft and capable of being wounded, went naked up against steel; steel that is cold as old stars, and harder than death and incapable of pain. Bayonets and guns and steel rails and battle ships, bombs and bullets are made of steel. And only babies are made of flesh. More babies to grow up and work in steel, to hurl themselves against the bayonets, to know the tempered resistance of steel. The strike was broken. Broken by the scabs brought in under the protection of the troops. Broken by breaking men’s belief in the outcome of their struggle. Broken by breaking men’s hearts. Broken by the press, by the government. In a little over a hundred days, the strike shivered to pieces. [1]

Remarks of Leeann Foster:

Introduction and Acknowledgments:

Fannie Sellins was a proud union woman. She fought for a better life for herself, her family, her sisters and brothers, all workers and union members. Our steelworker delegation here today honors the life and work of Fannie Sellins and today we declare her to be an honorary Woman of Steel. I’m proud to be here with other Women of Steel: Mariana Padias is a USW organizer, originally from Tucson, Arizona; Colleen Wooten is a USW district 10 staff representative who was unit president out of Express Strips in North Huntington; Keli Vereb works for USSteel at the Irvin Works and is the district 10 co-chair for Women of Steel; Steffi Domike is a labor educator who got her first union card at USSteel’s Clairton Plant. And we have sisters here from ATI. I look forward to meeting you this afternoon.

I am particularly proud of this local, USW local union 1196, which has honored Sellins’ memory for the past century. You represent the best of our union: honoring Fannie Sellins who was martyred for our cause, for the cause of all workers fighting for justice. You strengthen our union for the future by remembering the struggles it took for us to gain representation, learning from our past and fighting every day for a better life for our members. The displays in this union hall are a testament to your efforts to keep your history alive. I thank you and ask for a round of applause for our Brackenridge local.

It is also a distinct honor for me to be here with my brothers and sisters from the United Mine Workers of America. It is here, in UMWA District 5 that the United Steelworkers of America was dreamed of by our common union forefathers. Philip Murray (the man who would become the President of both the Steelworkers Organizing Committee and the first International President of the United Steelworkers of America) was President of UMWA District 5 in 1919, and it was he who hired Fannie Sellins. In 1918 the UMWA took the lead with the industry-wide organizing committee created by the American Federation of Labor to support steelworkers in their fight for a union, for better pay and shorter working hours. I thank you and ask for a round of applause for our brothers and sisters from the United Mineworkers.

Today I have three objectives:

One is to join with you, brothers and sisters, to remember our brave sister, Fannie Sellins, and to take inspiration from her strength, her integrity and her commitment to fighting for a better life for all working people.

A second is to renew our solidarity with all of you: union members and sons, daughters, parents and children of union members, coal miners and steelworkers.

My third objective is to look at our movement today through the lens of the fights in 1919 and the eyes of Fannie Sellins and to ask, “What are the parallels for today?” What can we learn from the past?

Commemorating Fannie Sellins

Fannie Sellins, was a seamstress who came into the labor movement in 1902 by organizing St. Louis’ Local 67 of the United Garment Workers (UGWA). By 1909, she was local union president. An inspirational and passionate speaker, Sellins spoke of the need for all workers to have representation and she knew that our strength comes from our solidarity.

In 1909, Sellins spoke to a group of coal miners in Illinois, “Help us fight.” She said, “We women work in factories on dangerous machinery, and many of us get horribly injured or killed. Many of your brothers die in the mines. There should be a bond of sympathy between us, for we both encounter danger in our daily work.” 

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and the UGWA both understood this “bond of sympathy” between all workers. A century ago, these unions practiced “pragmatic industrial unionism,” expanding their organizing to include all who worked. As we say in my union, “Everyone in, nobody out!”

In 1913, Sellins’ was hired by the UMWA as an organizer and sent to Colliers, WV, a company town. There she worked with families of striking miners.  A federal judge (in the pocket of the coal operators) outlawed the UMWA. In defiance, Fannie Sellins walked the picket line with the strikers, was arrested and given a jail sentence of 6 months. She spent 3 months in jail until the UMWA raised her bail. As you heard up at the site of the murders earlier today and as you can see in this beautiful painting of Sellins as she sat in her jail cell, on December 3, 1913, Sellins declared her belief in her rights ad an American citizen:

“I am free and I have a right to walk or talk any place in this country as long as I obey the law. The only wrong I have done is to take shoes to the children in Colliers whose bare feet are blue from the cruel blasts of winter. If it’s wrong to put shoes on those little feet, then I will continue to do wrong as long as I have hands and feet to crawl to Colliers.” 

Knowing that for the labor movement to succeed, the steel industry had to be organized, in 1917 the UMWA sent Sellins to coal and steel company towns in the Allegheny Valley, including Brackenridge and Natrona, to organize the families of steelworkers to withstand a strike. She spoke with the women of the community and told them that there was a path out of misery and that path was with the union.

Fannie Sellins knew that the companies would try to exploit differences among workers to divide their loyalties. Here is an example of how she confronted this problem: Louis Hicks’ mines in the Allegheny Valley went out on strike in 1917. Instead of negotiating with the UMWA, Hicks brought in Southern black workers to break the strike. The strikers heard about a train of black workers coming to town. Sellins waited at a railroad signal outside of town; as the train slowed down, she ran along the tracks shouting “Don’t break the strike, support the union!” 100 men from Alabama abandoned the train.  After that, the Coal and Iron Police knew who she was and were gunning for her.

What are the parallels for today? What can we learn from the past?

The law was stacked against unions and union organizers in 1919 and, although we have made great strides to get the right to organize, our rights are constantly under attack now and we must fight to defend ourselves and to gain better legal protections for workers.

Law enforcement in 1919 was subject to being purchased by the powerful coal and steel operators. Today, corporate lobbyists have gained enormous power to influence legislators; the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United opened the doors for unlimited corporate donations to political campaigns. Big Money still can buy government and it’s as important as ever for us to work together to support candidates for office who support working people and who cannot and will not be bought.

Immigrants were discriminated against in employment and housing as well as being attacked physically as Joe Starzeleski was in Natrona on August 26, 1919. Even though most of us in this room are the children, grandchildren and great-grand-children of immigrants, today newcomers are demonized. We are seeing immigrants, both documented and undocumented, being reviled by the president of our country. Some of the recent mass shootings have targeted Mexicans and Spanish-speaking citizens. The United Steelworkers takes a strong stand against the current treatment of asylum seekers, particularly the cruel and inhuman family separations on our Southern border. 

The coal and steel companies of 1919 fanned the flames of racism by sending labor agents to the South to recruit unemployed black share-croppers as strike-breakers at Northern mines and mills. This is a dangerous, divisive tactic that unfortunately is still employed today.  During the recent lockout, ATI intentionally hired black mill guards and scabs, knowing full well that that would inflame old divisions among workers and in our communities.

Red-baiting was a company tactic in 1919 and is back in use today. Union organizers are called “communists” or “socialists” and when they speak of workers’ rights and workplace democracy, they are accused of introducing dangerous ideas to workers.

  • This prejudice strongly influenced the attitudes of the coroner’s jury to find the mine guards’ killing of Sellins’ as self-defense. 

But we know that Sellins’ ideas were the furthest thing from dangerous. At the 1921 UMWA commemoration of her death, Robert R. Gibbons, President of UMWA District 5, said, 

  • “Fannie Sellins gave her life in the attempt to put an end to the suffering of the miners and their families, to lead them out of wage slavery. 
  • “Mrs. Sellins was a noble woman. She had taken part in the organization of many mines in the Pittsburgh district.  For this work the women loved her, men revered her, children worshipped her and the enemy abused and murdered her. Her life was filled with ministrations of love, kindness and mercy.”

In thinking about the future of our important work to build and defend working people and build our movement, we can look at Fannie Sellins and take OUR cues from HER fights: Fannie Sellins was not a new immigrant, but she fought with and for new immigrants in the sweatshops of St. Louis. She fought for new immigrants on strike at mine portals and she urged new immigrant families of steelworkers in the Allegheny-Kiski Valley to join her in the fight for a better life. Fannie Sellins, the seamstress, fought for the nine-hour day a century ago so that we could enjoy an eight-hour day and the five-day work week today. We must defend corporate attacks on this right by resisting forced overtime. As the labor movement has fought for almost two centuries: “8 hours for work, 8 hours to sleep, and 8 hours for what we will!” Fannie’s leadership and bravery in the face of overwhelming corporate power and abuse inspires us to follow in her footsteps and tackle the problems in our communities and workplaces.

A woman of steel stands firm, does not back down. 

Thank you, Fannie Sellins, for your courage, your commitment and compassion. And thank you for your leadership.

Remarks of Frank Snyder:

Good evening. My name is Frank Snyder, and I am the Secretary-Treasurer of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, and on behalf of our State Fed President, Rick Bloomingdale, and our 700,000 hardworking women and men who make up our organized labor Federation, I bring you greetings and all the appreciation I can muster, for you never forgetting the life of Fannie Sellens. While this day marks the 100th anniversary of her shocking death, a cowardly act of inhumane violence; it’s her life’s work that a century later serves as a profile in courage, perseverance, dignity and justice.

I digress. Two weeks ago, I came across what seemed to be endless stories marking the 100th anniversary of the death of another well-known name from that era – Andrew Carnegie. And the two could not have been more unlike one another. And in the articles I forced myself to read, they portrayed Carnegie with near religious exuberance. That twisted reality must come from when the richest man of his time, in the twilight of his life, tries to erase his guilt-ridden conscious for the pain he left on so many, with libraries, music halls, and colleges.

The 1892 Homestead strike in Pennsylvania and the ensuing bloody battle instigated by the steel plant’s management remain a transformational moment in U.S. history, leaving scars that have never fully healed after five generations. And no, there are no libraries or music halls or colleges that commemorate the senseless massacre of innocent steelworkers at Carnegie Steel, or the brutal murder of an “Angel of Mercy”. A period every bit as tumultuous as our own today, the 1890s saw sweeping changes in the economy, politics, and society, while giving birth to a technological revolution that would profoundly alter the lives of all Americans. Sound familiar?

Those few who knew how to exploit that new world, like Carnegieor Rockefeller, prospered handsomely; those who did not became icons of how the other half lives. A tale of two cities. The only thing – the only thing, that stood, and stands, in the way of those two cities of haves and have nots, are America’s unions. Men and women, assembled with one another in solidarity, for the purpose of social and economic security, protection, and advancement through collective bargaining.

Still, the war rages on. No, the battlefield is more subtle today than it was a century ago. A hundred years ago corporate America fought us with violence, imprisonment, exile, and in the case of Fannie Sellens, execution.

Today, they still fight us with tactics of fear, intimidation, harassment – all commonplace in today’s anti-union workplaces.

Our outdated labor laws are making us weaker at home and diminishing our standing in the world.

In more cases than not, a free and fair process for forming a union simply does not exist in America today. That must change.And it starts with the Unions of the AFL-CIO, fighting back with PRO Act, The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or H.R.2474, and its Senate companion Bill 1306. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act protects the right to join a union by:

  • Bolstering remedies and punishing violations of workers’ rights, 
  • Strengthening workers’ right to stand together and negotiate for better working conditions, and 
  • Restoring fairness to an economy that is rigged against workers.

Regardless of our profession, we submit to you all, that there is dignity in all work. And all need to be treated with respect, and a voice in the decisions that affect them. That’s what Fannie Sellens gave her life for. And rather than coming together to remember how she died, imagine when we gather in the future and remember how she lived throughout her short chapter in American history, that laid the foundation for meaningful labor law reform to enable all workers to share in social and economic justice and a voice at work through an organized labor union

Image Copyright to Bill Yund
African Americans from the South were deployed as strike-breakers during the 1919 Steel Strike. They also hoped for a better life. When the strike was defeated, most were left jobless, although some were retained in the hottest and dirtiest jobs. This steel plate loader was one of the more fortunate.

As we enter another cycle of elections, it is critical to keep focus on the needs of working people, the source of our productivity, and the soul of our nation in America and around the world. Without justice, there will be no peace. Without fairness, there will be no progress. Without compassion, there will be no true stability in our civilization. Workers standing together for a healthy world will assure solutions to the existential crisis of climate change and global pollution. A just transition must take account of labor, environment and health all together, not just economic considerations of corporations.

[1]Autobiography of Mother Jones. Chapter 24. The Steel Strike of 1919.

[2]David A Demerest, Jr., General Editor, Fannia Weingartner, Coordinating editor. Co-Editors: Steffi R. Domike, Doris Dyen, Nicole Fauteux,Russel W. Gibbons, Randolph Harris, Eugene Levy, Charles J. McCollester, Rina Youngener. “The River Ran Red” Homestead 1892. Pittsburgh Series in Social and Labor History. University of Pittsburgh Press. 1992.

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