Fannie Sellins, the labor union martyr | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Current Affairs

The first parish I led as a priest was in Brackenridge PA. The community it served included Natrona Heights and Tarentum, the neighboring towns. Labor Day there was remembered differently than it has been anywhere else I’ve lived, in part because there were still people who remember the “Hunky Strike” of 1919. 

People told stories of the Pinkertons and other para-military, para-police groups that were brought in to stop the strike, and people still remembered the labor leaders in the community who died at their hands. 

One in particular is remembered:

Fannie Sellins, the labor union martyr | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

In 1919, a year of intense labor strife, race-motivated riots and anti-foreign xenophobia, Sellins was assigned as lead organizer in the Allegheny Valley for the AFL’s attempt to organize the steel industry. This effort was sometimes referred to as the “Hunky Strike” because of the involvement of large numbers of Slovaks, Polish and other immigrants from eastern and central Europe. The 1919 dispute grew to become the largest work stoppage to that date in American history.

While the corporate-influenced press manipulated anti-immigrant hysteria by questioning the loyalties and motivations of foreign-born residents, industrialists also stoked the fire of racism by large-scale recruitment of poor black sharecroppers from the South to break the steel strike. The boll weevil infestation of Southern cotton at the time, and also the lure of higher-paying industrial jobs during World War I and afterward, drove the mass migration of black labor northward. The language of racial division, combined with anti-immigrant sentiments, finds powerful echoes in American politics today.

On Aug. 26, Sellins was accompanying a group of miners’ wives and children near a union picket line when she attempted to intervene in the beating of a striker named Joseph Starzeleski. Mine guards turned on Sellins, shot her multiple times and then crushed her head with a club. They then shot Starzeleski several times. The photograph of Sellins battered body hung in steelworker organizing offices during the 1919 steel strike.

The Episcopal Church has a prayer for Labor Day:

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

There are echoes here of the strife and the bloodshed that was necessary to create good and safe jobs. My prayer is that we would hear the echoes, and make sure that the sound of that violence is never heard in this land again.