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.
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.
Back in the day on April 20th, 1914 Colorado National Guardsmen machine-gunned a tent colony of striking coal miners. This episode of violence exactly ninety-five years ago came to be known as the “Ludlow Massacre.” Coal miners in the state had been on strike since September 1913 seeking to unionize the Colorado Fuel & Iron Corporation owned by the Rockefeller family. Striking for better wages, working conditions and an end to company town domination, the will of the workers could not be broken by previous violent skirmishes with hired thugs and the guardsmen, John D. Rockefeller’s version of the drastic measures taken to finally end the strike incredulously declared that, “There was no Ludlow Massacre. There were no women or children shot by the authorities of the State or representatives of the operators.”
However, the legendary Woody Guthrie, compensating for the omissions of establishment history, help maintained the memory of the Ludlow Massacre when he sang, “We took some cement and walled that cave up/ Where you killed these thirteen children inside/ I said, “God bless the Mine Workers’ Union/ And then I hung my head and cried.”
Last night I had the pleasure of speaking with Chicana sage Betita Martinez. We spoke for about twenty minutes on a number of topics related to women in the work place and union organizing. I asked her to recount the stories and protagonists of Chicana women fighting for labor rights during the times of the great depression. We also talked about domestic workers which Betita last wrote about in Z Magazine and also about new possibilities under the new Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. Always radical, the legendary Chicana activist ended the interview with the provocative question:
“If we’re not troublemakers, then what the hell are we doing?”