Tag Archives: Labor History

Subversive Historian – 08/26/09

Fannie Sellins

Back in the day on August 26th, 1919, labor organizer Fannie Sellins was brutally gunned down in West Pennsylvania. Dubbed ‘the angel of mercy’ for her unionizing efforts, Sellins had successfully organized workers in Missouri and West Virginia before United Mine Workers of America leader Philip Murray, impressed by her dedication, offered her a position with the union. Sellins then moved to Pennsylvania to begin organizing in the western part of the state. Assigned to the Allegheny-Kiski Valley, the area had a dubious reputation for repressing unionizing efforts. Undeterred, Sellins successfully organized workers anyway in the anti-union lands known to labor as “Black Valley.” As part of her efforts, Sellins was present on that fateful night when the workers of the Allegheny Coal and Coke Company were confronted by company guards and deputies. In the ensuing violence, she was shot to death as was a miner named Joseph Starzeleski.

As has been all too historically the case with the criminal injustice system, no one was ever convicted of killing Fannie Sellins. The “angel of mercy” was shown none.

Subversive Historian – 08/25/09

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

Back in the day on August 25th, 1925, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was formed in New York. A. Phillip Randolph, a socialist once dubbed as ‘the most dangerous black man in America’ was designated as its leader. The BSCP was extremely significant as a black union dedicated to organizing on twin fronts against the Pullman Company and racism in the U.S. labor movement. Under Randolph’s guidance and the slogan “Fight or be Slaves,” the brotherhood fought for many years to counteract the paternalism of George Pullman’s company while seeking the recognition by the American Federation of Labor of being an international. The latter came first as the BSCP was finally granted the charter from the AFL in 1935. Two years later, Randolph made history when the union signed a contract with the Pullman Company that increased wages and decreased working hours.

It had been the first time a white owner had ever come to official terms with a black union leader.

Subversive Historian – 08/03/09

The Wheatland Hop Riot

Back in the day on August 3rd, 1913, the Wheatland Hop Riot took place in Northern California. Nearly two-thousand agricultural hop pickers toiled at Durst Ranch working long hours in the hot sun for low pay. Many of the workers slept a mile from the ranch in the open air without blankets in cold night temperatures while others had tents. All were subjected to unsanitary water supplies in labor conditions that screamed for unionization. The Industrial Workers of the World heeded the call of the hop pickers as leaders such as Richard Ford spoke to them about the need for a strike. The meeting continued until members of the local sheriff’s posse confronted Ford and attempted to arrest him. Workers sought to protect Ford, when shots were fired in the air. A riot ensued that left four people dead – a worker, the district attorney, the deputy sheriff, and a young boy who was a bystander.

Though Ford preached non-violence the state arrested him and Herman Suhr, a wobbly organizer who wasn’t even present for starting the riot. They were convicted of second–degree murder and sentenced to life. The Wheatland Hop Riot, nevertheless, harvested future organizing in the fields of California.

Subversive Historian – 07/27/09

Albert “Ginger” Goodwin

Back in the day on July 27th, 1918, labor leader Albert “Ginger” Goodwin was shot to death in Canada. Originally from Yorkshire, Goodwin immigrated to Canada and worked as a coal miner. When his travels took him to Cumberland on Vancouver Island, the future martyr cut his teeth as an organizer and effective orator against coal companies joining the Socialist Party of Canada and eventually running for office under its banner. After participating in the Cumberland Strike, Goodwin moved on to Trail where he led another strike effort for an eight hour workday in a smelter plant there. It was at this time that the fiercely anti-war labor organizer was conscripted for World War I only to be deemed temporarily unfit. However, after the picket lines assembled, he was re-categorized but fled to the hills of Vancouver Island rather than report to the military.

A single bullet took Goodwin’s life when special constable Dan Campbell led police in a search for draft resisters. The labor movement gave one of its leaders a fitting eulogy, however, when the first general strike in British Colombia’s history took place days later.

Subversive Historian – 07/07/09

Homestead Strikers Vs. Pinkertons

Back in the day on July 6th, 1892, steelworkers on strike from Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead Mill in Pennsylvania battled the infamous Pinkertons. Henry Clay Frick, who managed the plant, hired the private mercenaries to protect strike breakers he planned to employ. About three-hundred armed Pinkerton agents boarded barges to sail to the plant down the Monogahela River. Though the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steelworkers only represented a few hundred workers at the Homestead Mill, an overwhelming majority of the plant’s 3,800 employees had voted to strike. To protect their work stoppage, striking workers and citizens confronted the Pinkertons on the riverbanks. For the next several hours, the battle turned bloody as gunfire was exchanged on both sides that left several workers dead. The Pinkertons were forced back and retreated from the scene on trains.

Frick, who was in constant contact with a vacationing Carnegie, turned to the state after his mercenaries were beat back. The Pennsylvania National Guard was called in to protect the employment of strike breakers. It was just another example of state intervention that Capitalism detests in words, but not always in deeds…

Subversive Historian – 06/23/09

Taft-Hartley Act

Back in the day on June 23rd, 1947, the U.S. Congress overrode the veto of President Harry Truman and passed the notorious Taft-Hartley Act. With the “Class of 1946” Republicans in control of Congress, the anti-labor legislation passed with a significant number of Democratic lawmakers in support of the override. Many of the provisions of the newly enacted Taft-Hartley Act were a sharp rebuke of the New Deal era Wagner Act which had, in addition to many other things, created the National Labor Relations Board. Organized labor dreaded the passage of Taft-Hartley as it diluted their power by prohibiting closed shops, forbidding secondary boycotts, sympathy strikes, and jurisdictional strikes. One provision even held that union leaders must declare that they were not affiliated with and did not support the Communist Party.

With Taft-Hartley still on the books, the Employee Free Choice Act is currently seeking passage in Congress, but would still fall short of undoing its predecessor’s legacy.

Subversive Historian – 06/03/09

The Iron Range Strike

Back in the day on June 3rd, 1916 the Iron Range Strike in Minnesota gained momentum when forty miners walked off the job. The largely unorganized European immigrant workers in the iron-rich mines of Mesabi were tired of the poor wages and long hours offered by employers like the Oliver Iron Mining Company. Unlike the previous strike in Mesabi in 1907, the striking workers this time were not assisted in their efforts by the Western Federation of Miners. Looking for help, they soon turned to the Industrial Workers of the World. Wobbly leader Big Bill Haywood, drew up a list of demands in the labor dispute of the miners that called for better pay, an 8-hour day, and the abolition of contract labor. The Duluth New Tribune maligned the involvement of the Wobblies writing, “the I.W.W. is not a labor union and the condition faced on the range is not a labor strike. What is faced on the ranges and threatened in Duluth is revolution, just that and nothing less.”

With that kind of a mindset, private mine guards were employed to violently repress the striking workers and as a result the strike was called off by mid-September.