5 Philadelphia union leaders who should inspire you to start a union
The recent news that workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island have voted to unionize should be an inspiration to workers across the country, including in our region (where it has to be said, there is already many Amazon facilities ripe for unionization). Philly is and always has been a union city, thanks to the strength and determination of generations of workers, who have always fought like hell for what they deserve and whose blood, sweat and tears have fueled this city for centuries.
Looking to the future, here are five labor leaders from our city’s past that workers today should look to for inspiration as they continue the fight for a better world:
Who he was: Born in a vibrant multiracial neighborhood of South Philly in 1890, Fletcher worked days as a longshoreman and spent his nights organizing working-class liberation. He joined the Industrial Workers of the World, an anti-capitalist union that welcomed all workers, and became a key organizer for Local 8, a union of black workers and Irish and Eastern European immigrant dockworkers. ‘East. As historian Peter Cole notes in his book Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly, Local 8 voluntarily integrated 51 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, grew into a strong and effective multiracial union, and governed the Philadelphia waterfront for nearly a decade.
What he did: Fletcher traveled the East Coast organizing workers. In a harrowing incident, he narrowly escaped being lynched in Norfolk, Virginia. He was unflappable, charismatic and completely dedicated to the cause; unfortunately, in 1917 the US government decided that he and his fellow IWW members had become too dangerous and arrested them in an anti-leftist sweep known as the Palmer Raids. Fletcher was tried for espionage and sedition in 1918 and sent to the United States Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan.; he was sentenced to 10 years and fined $30,000. His sentence was commuted in 1922 and upon his release, he plunged back into unionization.
What we can learn: This fearless son from South Philly has dedicated his life to work, and his story should teach today’s organizers that we are truly stronger together. Organizing across race, gender, ability and generation is key to winning the class war.
Who she was: Mary Harris Jones was born in Ireland in 1837, and if the hand of fate had pushed her a little differently, she would have lived her life there, or died young in the Great Famine of the 1840s. she survived to become one of the best-known working-class figures in American history, living a long and turbulent life that spanned three countries and endless struggles in the coalfields, factories and railroads. iron. For the past three decades, she’s answered only one name: Mother Jones.
What she did: Although Mother Jones is perhaps best known for her roles as a United Mine Workers organizer, public speaker and self-proclaimed provocateur, she was also dedicated to the cause of the abolition of child labor, a crusade that brought her to life. brought to Philadelphia in 1903. At the time, Pennsylvania employed the largest number of child laborers in the country, with 120,000 children working in factories or coal mines. In July, she gathered a “child army” of around 300 factory workers and child supporters at City Hall and led them on a march from Kensington to New York, where they intended to surrender. visiting President Theodore Roosevelt at his summer residence in Oyster Bay and demanding he give her and three boys from Kensington an audience. While the president refused, the Factory Children’s March made child labor a national topic of discussion and helped introduce labor law reform. A blue historical marker now stands at City Hall marking their journey and commemorating their commitment to a fight that continues on a global scale.
What we can learn: In 2021, there were approximately 160 million children involved in child labor worldwide; half of them are between 5 and 11 years old, about the same age as the tiny coal miners and factory workers Mother Jones tried to save. Some things are always worth fighting for, no matter how long it takes to win.
Who she was: Kensington is one of the city’s most convoluted communities today, but in the 1920s and 1930s it was known for its silk stockings. It was a working-class enclave that functioned as a booming industrial town located in the middle of a large city and populated by hosiery factory workers. It was also the birthplace of the American Federation of Fashion Hosiery Workers (AFFFHW), a socialist-led union; its first female organizer was the hosiery Anna Geisinger. The union built labor power inside and outside the city limits of Philadelphia; its home base of Kensington, Branch 1, had an outsized impact on labor history, and in particular on the early development of working-class feminism.
What she did: Philadelphia scholar Sharon McConnell-Sidorick explores the evolution of the union in her book, Silk Stockings and Socialism: Philadelphia’s Radical Hosiery Workers, from the Jazz Age to the New Deal, and spotlights labor leader Geisinger as one of the driving forces behind the union’s militant and dedicated female membership. Geisinger was elected an organizer of the AFFFHW in 1928, later served on the Branch 1 board of directors and was also a sought-after speaker; in her speeches to unionized workers, she made explicit connections between the “particular problems” women face in the workplace and the need to organize. The AFFFHW was ahead of its time on issues such as equal pay, child labor, pensions, fair housing and even birth control.
What we can learn: “Every woman who works for unionism works for a better world,” as Geisinger told a crowd. “The cause of work is the same everywhere.”
Who he was: One of the most influential early labor organizations in American history grew out of a Thanksgiving Day meeting between seven weary garment cutters in Philadelphia. Uriah Smith Stephens was a Quaker descendant born in Cape May, NJ, and spent several years as an indentured servant after his family lost everything in the Great Depression of 1830. When he finally settled in Philadelphia in 1858, he immediately became involved in abolitionist causes and began working as a clothes cutter.
What he did: Stephens helped organize the Garment Cutters’ Association of Philadelphia in 1862, but after the fledgling union failed, he came up with the idea of a new type of labor organization, which would organize all kinds of workers at the industrial scale instead of channeling them. into tighter craft guilds. This Thanksgiving gathering gave rise to the Noble Order of Knights of Labor (better known as the Knights of Labor, or KOL), which was initially modeled on secret societies like the Freemasons, with elaborate rituals and a primordial secrecy. This hullabaloo gave the organization an air of mystery and protected its members from the wrath of union busters. However, after Stephens was replaced in 1881 by Terence V. Powderly, the KOL dropped its creepy vibes, began welcoming black women and members, and exploded in growth; at its peak, the union had over 700,000 members.
What we can learn: The Knights of Labor have a fascinating history of their own, and the impact the organization has had on working people in this country is immeasurable – but it all started in the kitchen of Uriah Smith Stephens, right here in Philadelphia. Sometimes it only takes a handful of people to change the world.
Who she was: Legendary organizer Fannie Sellins didn’t live in Philadelphia, but her story is too important to leave out of any discussion of Pennsylvania labor history. Born in Cincinnati in 1872, Sellins became involved in the labor movement through her work as a laborer in a garment factory in St. Louis, where she helped organize Local 67 of the United Garment Workers of America and led a successful strike in 1909. After being elected president of Local 67, she traveled the country speaking to workers about union rights.
What she did: Sellins’ fiery speeches caught the attention of the UMWA, which hired her to work as an organizer in the West Virginia coalfields. In 1919, she was sent to help striking coal miners at the Allegheny Coal & Coke Co. in Pittsburgh, where workers were locked in a bitter and bloody struggle with millionaire coal boss Lewis Hicks and his guards. armed. On August 26, when she came across a group of deputies beating up a retired miner named Joseph Starzeleski, Sellins intervened, yelling at the men to stop; in response, they turned their weapons against her. She was shot three times and a deputy fractured her skull with a blackjack. None of his killers were ever convicted and a jury ruled his death a “justifiable homicide”. Witnesses say she died trying to protect a crowd of curious children who had gathered to watch the commotion.
What we can learn: Fannie Sellins made the ultimate sacrifice for daring to stand up for striking workers, and her memory will live on as long as there are still injustices to fight. Her story should inspire us to show courage and always put the needs of the most vulnerable people first.
Kim Kelly is a freelance journalist and author of Fight Like Hell: The Untold Story of American Laborreleased on April 26.