Monday, October 31, 2016

Fannie Never Flinched: One Woman's Courage in the Struggle for American Labor Union Rights by Mary Cronk Farrell

Fannie Never Flinched begins with the end of the story - the violent fatal shooting of Fannie Sellins, a 52 year old little known union activist who only wanted better wages and conditions for workers like herself.

When Fannie found herself a widow with four young children, one still just a baby, she knew she would have to get a job.  Living in St. Louis, Missouri in 1897, there were very few opportunities for a woman and Fannie took what she could find - sewing piece-work in a sweatshop owned by Marx & Haas Clothing Company.  Here, the air was foul, the hours were long, wages were low, the chance of an accident was great and the doors were locked from the outside.  Plus, there was the knowledge that if you couldn't do your job for whatever reason, it would immediately be given to the next person waiting to be hired.  There was always a seemingly endless line of woman willing to take ones place.

But when Fannie heard that seamstresses in New York City and Chicago had formed a union called the United Garment Workers of America, or UGWA, and had successfully demanded higher wages and safer working conditions, she knew that garment workers in St. Louis needed to organize, too.  In 1902, Ladies' Local 67 of the UGWA was officially launched, followed by pay increases and shorter working days.

For Fannie, it was the start of her career as a union organizer and president of the local UGWA.  But it was not an easy path for her.  Marx & Haas really wanted to break the union hold on their company, and in 1909, they locked out 1,000 workers over a dispute with one of the tailors.  The workers went on strike, picketing the company. When a judge ordered them back to work, they stopped picketing but continued their boycott.  Before she knew it, Fannie was traveling from city to city asking other garment workers to support their strike.

By now, Fannie had quite a reputation as a leader in the garment workers' union and in 1913, she was invited to visit coal miners in Colliers, West Virginia.  Miners and their families were living and working in deplorable, dangerous conditions.  But going against the owners of Allegheny Coal and Coke, who did not want their workers unionized and had law enforcement on their side, ultimately proved fatal for Fannie. Hit in the head and knock unconscious, she was shot 5 times by Sheriff's deputies.  It is a sad statement that the deputies who killed Fannie in cold blood never paid for their crime, and in fact, it was Fannie who was blamed for leading a charging mob against law enforcement.

The struggle to establish labor unions in the United States was a long, hard, often dangerous fight and nothing exemplifies that more than then the life and death of Fannie Sellins. And Mary Cronk Farrell has written a clear, incisive biography of this courageous lady, who, as she says, never flinched in the face of danger.

Using photographs, documents and newspaper articles Farrell chronicles the rise of Fannie's career, and puts it into the larger context of what was happening in industries all over the United States in this picture book for older readers.

In her Author's Note, Farrell writes about the difficulty of finding reliable information about Fannie. She did achieve a certain amount of fame and martyr status among workers wanting to organize after her death, but their attempts were usually met with soldiers, police and even hired guns.  Did she die in vain, Farrell asks, challenging her young readers to think carefully about their answers.

Farrell also includes an extensive Glossary, a Time Line of Select Events in the American Labor Struggle, 1877-1935, Notes, Sources, Books for Further Reading and Websites for More Information.

Fannie Never Flinched is a excellent book for young readers interested the history of unions and the history of women and/or American history in general. It is also a poignant portrayal of a time in this country's history that still resonates in today's world, as we see unions losing ground and jobs being outsourced to countries overseas.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was provided to me by the publisher, Abrams BFYR

1 comment:

  1. What a shocking story. I can’t believe this is the first time I’ve heard of Fanny. Thank you for sharing this Alex.


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