Joseph Sabino Mistick: Unions for America
By the time Fannie Sellins was killed outside a mine near Brackenridge on Aug. 26, 1919, the widowed mother of four children was already a veteran union organizer, a fierce fighter for the poor and a fearless picket-line marcher.
Sellins’ life was celebrated last week in the Allegheny Valley at an event sponsored by the Battle of Homestead Foundation, the United Mine Workers and the United Steelworkers. Her story is about sacrifice and the sanctity of hard work.
When she was widowed, Sellins started working in a garment factory in St. Louis, becoming a union leader and negotiating on behalf of 400 factory employees during a lockout. Later, she was arrested in West Virginia for disobeying an injunction against picketing, and then she was arrested again for getting right back on the line after her release.
In the summer of 1919, while Sellins was managing picketing for the United Mine Workers, she saw company guards beating a miner to death. When she intervened, the guards turned on her and shot her twice in the head, and then they bludgeoned her.
In “The Point of Pittsburgh,” labor historian Charles McCollester writes that Sellins said her work was the distribution of “clothing and food to starving women and babies, to assist poverty-stricken mothers and bring children into the world, and to minister to the sick and close the eyes of the dying.” She saw it as part of her union service.
Early industrialization had led to deepening conflicts in the nation, with management versus labor and nativists versus immigrants and rich versus poor. As long as the workers were divided, they were easily defeated. As unions became stronger, unity among workers increased.
Successful fights for fair wages, safety rules, pensions, sick days, vacation and holiday pay, weekends, overtime pay, compensation for injuries and health care — guaranteed by law or by contract — effectively ended the factionalism that had torn America apart. And a working middle class began to take shape.
But, since 1980, things have changed. In a recent Forbes article, Mark Travers wrote, “The average CEO-to-worker pay ratio has increased from 20-1”, throughout the 1960s and ’70s, “to a whopping 312-1 in 2017.” And middle-class wage growth has been stagnant for decades.
Using census data, it is easy to chart the decline of union membership and the drop in middle-class income. A report by the Center for American Progress Action Fund shows both falling steadily and in tandem for over 30 years. And, as the working and elite classes grow further apart, America is split more and more deeply.
James Madison described the nature of factionalism. In Federalist No. 10, Madison cited wide differences in wealth and property ownership as the principal causes of faction. He said it is in the “nature of man” to embrace self-interest over public interest at the expense of others.
This Labor Day, Fannie Sellins’ story reminds us of the need for strong labor unions to defeat factionalism. The promise that corporate tax cuts and corporate welfare will trickle down to the workers has proven again to be empty. And, unless there are unions fighting for the workers, closing that inequality gap will be impossible.
Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer. Reach him at [email protected].