This book, subtitled “One Woman’s Courage in the Struggle for American Labor Union Rights” tells the story of labor activist Fannie Sellins.
Fannie Sellins was born Fanny Mooney in 1872. She married Charles Sellins, and after his relatively early death (when her youngest was just a baby) she had to support her four children. She went to work in a garment factory, one of the two sweatshops owned by the Marx & Haas Clothing Company. Girls as young as ten as well as grandmothers toiled there together, working ten- to fourteen-hour days, six days a week. Their pay averaged less than five dollars a week ($145 a week in today’s dollars). The building was stifling in summer, freezing in winter, and locked all day from the outside; this was a common practice in factories to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks and to reduce theft. [This same observance led to the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York, in 1911, in which 146 garment workers died.]
Fannie heard about the garment workers unions in Chicago and New York, and together with some other seamstresses organized Ladies’ Local 67 of the United Garment Workers of America in St. Louis. Fearing a strike, Marx & Haas nearly doubled workers’ wages and shortened the workday, but they did not improve conditions otherwise.
The air was filthy, and many of the employees contracted tuberculosis. When one tailor couldn’t make it up the six flights of stairs because of his illness, he was docked a week’s pay. To protest, Fannie and other union workers went on strike.
One month into the dispute, the local union leader died of tuberculosis, and Fannie became the new president. She traveled from city to city, speaking up to six times a day to all kinds of labor unions about the poor conditions at her factory and at other labor sites. She asked for support for the strikers. She also asked her audiences to buy only clothes with the “union-made” label inside them.
The book details the poor working conditions not only in the garment industry, but in the other places of work to which Fannie visited. Fannie was particularly affected by the West Virginia coal miners, who lived in abject poverty. Boys started in the mine as early as age six. The families lived in hovels with minimal food to eat and even without running water.
Fannie helped the miners of Colliers, West Virginia raise funds for a strike. Mine managers promptly evicted families from their houses – they now had to live in tents – and hauled in trainloads of strikebreakers. Fannie was arrested, although the first time, the judge released her with just a warning. Later she spent three months behind bars, during which time her health suffered greatly.
She moved on to help the coal miners in Western Pennsylvania organize, convincing thousands of miners to join the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and eventually to go on strike. The millionaire Lewis Hicks who ran fourteen notoriously bad mines went to the South to find strikebreakers, bringing up black sharecroppers by train. Hicks never told them they would be strikebreakers, or that they would be in danger because of it, just that they would be getting better wages. Hicks had the train doors locked from the outside [a favorite practice, it seems] so that union workers couldn’t get to the men.
When the train came to the mines, Fannie ran alongside it, yelling to the men inside through the windows not to break the strike and to support the union. She encouraged the men to climb out the train windows and join them. But the impasse was not broken until America entered World War I on April 6, 1917. The U.S. made a wage deal with coal mine operators to keep the mines working, and Hicks agreed to give workers a 50 percent pay raise, at least until the war ended.
Once again after the war, the UMWA initiated strikes. In August, 1919, Fannie was assigned to the Allegheny River Valley district to direct picketing by striking miners at Allegheny Coal and Coke Company. She was killed by sheriff’s deputies on August 26 who claimed that she led a “charging mob of men and women armed with clubs and bricks,” which was not true; in fact, Fannie rejected the idea that miners arm themselves for protection. Although there were a number of witnesses who gave sworn statements that the attack by the deputies was unprovoked, the local sheriff’s department refused to arrest them. When the case was reopened in 1923, again the deputies were acquitted. The author speculates that fears of communism – growing since the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, colored the attitudes of the juries.
As the author writes:
“Today, both Fannie Sellins’s death and her passion for the welfare and rights of working people have been largely forgotten. But her name remains hallowed among union people in Western Pennsylvania, and her spirit lives on whenever someone stands up for the American ideals of equality and justice for all.”
At the end of the book, there is a glossary (words such as arbitration, lockout, and sweatshop), a detailed timeline of select events in the American labor struggle from 1877-1935, notes, sources, and a list of websites and books for further information.
This book for young readers is not a picture book, although the format is similar. Rather, it tells the story of Fannie Sellins with a great many photographs and reproductions of relevant documents.
Evaluation: This thoroughly researched book for ages nine and over includes an excellent selection of historical photos that brings the story to life in a way words could not, especially the depictions of poverty among mine workers. The story of Fannie Sellins’ belief in justice and personal sacrifices against the tenacious greed of factory owners is a lesson we still can learn today.
Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, an imprint of ABRAMS, 2016