The Haunted House of Labor

Kim Kelly

The house of labor, much like damn near every other historical dwelling on U.S. soil, is built atop a burial ground. The blood and bones of Indigenous people and African captives form its foundation, and every layer built on top adds another new industry, another new kind of oppression, and another generation of suffering. By the time you get to the floorboards, there are already centuries of workers’ pain worn into the wood—the tears of the mill girls, the sweat of the farmworkers, the domestics’ sore backs, the autoworkers’ bloody hands, the coal miners’ heaving breaths, and so many more. Their spirits suffuse our shared history, and their sacrifices have continued to fuel this movement since its earliest stirrings. Of course the house of labor is haunted; every step we’ve taken together has come at a heavy cost, and every march towards victory has wound past a graveyard.

This very moment, when enthusiasm for labor’s future has reached a fever pitch, is the perfect time to call forward the spirits of those who came before and ask ourselves what they might think of what we’ve accomplished in their absence. After all, it is All Hallow’s Eve, a night when many cultures and religious traditions agree that the dead walk and spirits creep. It is a time of mischief and darkness for chaos-seekers, of tricks and treats for the kids, and of good clean harvest-time fun for the squares. It’s an evening on which one can don a bad suit, smear fake blood around their mouth, and call oneself a vampire capitalist without anyone else batting an eye (though they might buy you a drink). For some, the night is also a time to remember those who are no longer with us, whose lives have run their course or been stolen away too soon, and briefly call them back home. As such, it is also the commorancy of ghosts.

When the great communist musician, actor, athlete, and anti-fascist activist Paul Robeson sang about seeing Joe Hill’s ghost back in the 1930s, his glorious bass baritone wasn’t the only memorable aspect of the recording. The lyrics (which were penned by poet Alfred Hayes and set to music by Earl Robinson in 1936) describe the fallen Wobbly’s spirit as an enduring cheerleader for labor, walking an eternal picket line. “Where working men are out on strike, Joe Hill is at their side,” they promised. “From San Diego up to Maine, in every mine and mill, where working men defend their rights, it’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.”

Robeson’s delivery renders it a warm, comforting promise, but to any bad boss’s ears, the threat comes through loud and clear. Hill was a radical, and was executed in 1915 by the state after being convicted on flimsy evidence of murder. Prior to that, the Swedish immigrant had made a name for himself by traveling the country as a union organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World and writing some of labor’s most enduring anthems. It’s to him we owe immortal tunes like “There Is Power In a Union,” “The Rebel Girl” (his ode to fellow Wobbly Elizabeth Gurley Flynn) and “The Preacher and the Slave” (wherein he also coined the phrase “pie in the sky”). 

Hill’s pro-union, pro-worker songs are still sung on picket lines and at union meetings to this day, partly because we still haven’t come up with many others worth remembering (seriously—it’s been over a century now, Linqua Franqa and the ghost of 70s folk singers can’t carry the entire genre themselves!) but mainly due to their power and simplicity. Those old union songs were set to popular religious hymns to make them easier for folks to remember, and used as a means of aural propaganda. Their little Red Songbook became an essential organizing tool, and its anti-boss ditties—many of which were written by Joe himself—spread far and wide. “You never heard anyone sing the ways those guys sang unless it was for a religion,” one old World War I veteran once recalled. “Out in the harvest fields or in one of their free speech fights, sitting in the barred windows of the second floor of the jail singing the songs that Joe Hill had written for them or Ralph Chaplin’s “Solidarity Forever”, a singing that swelled through the town until nobody could escape it.”

Joe Hill wasn’t the first union organizer to lose his life back in those days; far from it, sadly. He wasn’t even the only Wobbly. Just two years after Hill’s execution, on August 1st, 1917, an IWW organizer named Frank Little found himself roused from his bed in the middle of the night and tossed into the back of a car by a cadre of masked men. Not long after, he was pulled back out, tied to the car’s bumper, and dragged down a gravel road. Once his tormentors got tired of that, Little was beaten again, then hung from a railroad trestle on that bright Montana morning. No one was ever arrested for his lynching. The “crime” he had apparently committed—and been assassinated for—was organizing striking copper workers at the nearby Anaconda mines, and speaking out against U.S. involvement in WWI. His gravestone in Butte still reads, “slain by capitalist interests for organizing and inspiring his fellow men.”

The modern labor movement could certainly use more than a few Frank Littles right now, when true guts and organizing skills are both desperately needed to keep the fire burning. As he once said in court, “Your jails and dungeons have no terror for me.” His ghost is surely still looking over the workers of the West—and probably cracked a crooked smile as the Anaconda Mining Company’s once-rich holdings slowly disintegrated into a Superfund site. 

Little’s brutal murder is shocking to read about even now, yet the workers he was in town to support—the striking copper miners—were well-accustomed to violence. By then, they and their coworkers in various parts of the country had already spent years fighting tooth and nail for their right to unionize at all. For decades, any effort taken on behalf of the miners was a risky proposition for organizers and miners’ families alike, to say nothing of what the workers themselves faced.

Two years after Little’s murder, the labor movement lost yet another good organizer and advocate for miners. This time, it was in Pittsburgh, and the victim was Fannie Sellins, a former garment worker turned organizer for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Sellins was a mother of four young children who still found time to organize her garment factory in St. Louis, start working for the UMWA in West Virginia distributing food and aid to strikers’ families, and get arrested multiple times for defying anti-union injunctions (she served three months in prison before President Woodrow Wilson pardoned her).

In 1919, the UMWA hired her to oversee picketing at the Allegheny Coal and Coke Company outside of Pittsburgh, PA. She was more than up to the task, but her big heart proved fatal. On August 26th, Sellins happened upon the Coal and Iron Police beating the tar out of striker Joe Starzeleski. According to reports, she rushed to move a group of children away from the danger, then came back to “scold” the violent policemen and plead with them to stop their attack.

In response, the police shot her three times, and used a cudgel to crush her skull. She was 47 years old, and the coroner ruled her death “justifiable homicide.”  None of the policemen were convicted for her murder. The UMWA later erected a monument to her and Starzeleski that now reads, “In Memory of Fannie Sellins and Joe Starzeleski, killed by the enemies of organized labor, near the Allegheny Steel and Coal Company, at West Natrona, PA.” 

I think about Fannie Sellins whenever I hear yet another report of violence on the picket line, whether it’s the harassment endured by striking hotel workers in Los Angeles or the multiple vehicular attacks weathered by striking Warrior Met miners in Brookwood, Alabama. If one of those workers had been badly hurt and succumbed to their injuries, how would a judge have categorized their death?

Sellins’s murder eerily mirrors that of Nagi Daifullah, a Yemeni-born translator and organizer for the United Farm Workers who played an instrumental role during the union’s 1973 Salad Bowl Strike. In August 1973, Daifullah was murdered by Kern County police deputy Gilbert Cooper, who crushed his skull with a heavy flashlight and dragged his body along the pavement, Frank Little-style. The young man had been chatting with some striking farm workers outside a local cafe, and stood up for them when the cops showed up to harass the group. He died at the age of 24, and Cooper was never charged with a crime. Ghost stories are fun if you want a little shiver, but one of the truest horror stories facing the working class, now as ever, is the unchecked power that agents of the state and the state itself hold to execute us at will.

Speaking of state agents, even after literally killing to get their way, those early 20th century mine bosses still could not keep miners from trying to organize. From 1912 to 1914, Colorado mine workers in the southern half of the state were embroiled in a violent conflict with their employers, the J.D. Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron. The Northern Colorado Coalfield Strikes eventually escalated into the Colorado Coalfield War, which would lead to tragedy.

By April 1914, 1,200 striking miners and their families, evicted from their company-owned houses, had set up a tent colony in Ludlow, CO. Mine bosses had hired an array of private detectives and gun thugs to intimidate the strikers by periodically raiding the camp; the Colorado National Guard had been called in that November, and joined them in tormenting the workers. The miners tried to ensure their family members’ safety by digging earthen pits beneath their tents, which were meant to be used as emergency hiding places when the raiders came back. 

On April 20th, the Guardsmen returned. They opened fire on the miners’ camp, and kicked off a day-long battle, killing at least a dozen people who tried to flee the gunfire. When night fell, the soldiers set the camp ablaze and continued their attack. The next day, 25 people were dead. Among them were two women and 11 children. Their blackened bodies had been discovered smoldering beneath one of the tents; after seeking shelter in their homemade cellar, they had suffocated to death.

News of the Ludlow Massacre horrified the nation, called Rockefeller’s business sense into question, and helped spur the passage of stricter labor laws. Mother Jones herself met with Rockefeller to give him an earful; the tycoon’s heart may have been left unmoved, but his reputation never lost its stain. Every time a vulture capitalist is hauled up in Congress or in the court of public opinion to explain exactly how their negligence, greed, and heartlessness has led to damaged or lost lives, another Ludlow victim gets their wings. 

Simultaneously, in Appalachia, coal miners were at war against the mine bosses who’d been holding them in a hopeless cycle of debt, poverty, and death for generations. The West Virginia Mine Wars were an epicenter of violent struggle, first during the Paint and Cabin Creek strikes of 1912-1913 and then later in 1921, when thousands of union miners tried to march to Mingo County to free some of their striking coworkers. To get there, they had to cross over Blair Mountain, and it was there that they were met by the mine bosses’ private armed guards.

For three days, the miners’ shotguns and rifles clashed with those of the hated mine guards; at one point, the bosses’ army used private airplanes to drop bombs on the miners’ camp. When federal troops finally marched in, the miners—many of whom were veterans themselves who had recently returned from the trenches of WWI—willingly surrendered rather than fire on fellow soldiers. By the time the smoke cleared, dozens of miners had lost their lives. The Battle of Blair Mountain remains the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War. 

The fighting at Blair Mountain officially ended on September 4th, 1921, but its memory looms large in American labor history and in the collective imaginations of those who still call those hills home. The Mine Wars Museum in Matewan, WV collects and preserves the stories of that era for the next generation of union-curious visitors, as well as locals who never got to learn that part of their history in school. The ghosts of that era are everywhere in Matewan, from the old train tracks that were once used to haul scabs and ammunition to the mines, to the bullet holes in its historic buildings, to the shoes, shell casings, Coke bottles, and lanterns that fill the museum’s vast collection of battlefield artifacts. 

The area is still populated by people who can trace their roots directly back to that battle, too, like author and historian Chuck Keeney, whose great-grandfather Frank Keeney led the miners up the mountain. When I was there for a union training event earlier this summer, I watched local thespians reenact the 1921 murder of pro-union sheriff Smilin’ Sid Hatfield, then bought a cookbook from one of Hatfield’s distant relatives in one of the town’s tiny souvenir shops.

The museum is housed in a building named after UMWA president Cecil Roberts, whose great-uncle Bill Blizzard was a union leader in the Mine Wars. Blizzard’s mother and Roberts’s great-grandmother, Sarah, was a union activist in her own right, renowned for raising hell alongside Mother Jones and sabotaging rail lines to keep armed guards away from a striking miners’ camp. (I am a certified scaredy-cat, but Ma Blizzard’s is one ghost I’d absolutely love to share a drink with.)

Mother Jones herself is perhaps one of labor’s most enduring and beloved undead spokespeople. In fairness, she set herself up to be remembered. Born Mary Harris, she took the name “Mother Jones” for herself after starting off her third act—from her life as a young immigrant seamstress, to her all-too-brief years as a wife and mother, to her final form as a vengeful maternal angel for the working class. In her widow’s weeds, lace collar, and owlish spectacles, Jones looked every inch the respectable grandmother… until she opened her mouth, and profanity-laced calls to revolution poured out. Her most famous quote—”Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living”—has provided inspiration for generations of rank-and-file rabble-rousers (and at least one book!). But it has also found utility outside the bounds of organized labor.

Last week, as thousands of Jewish American activists and their allies took over New York City’s Grand Central Station in order to call for a ceasefire in Israel’s war on Gaza, they hung banners reading “Mourn the Dead, and Fight Like Hell for the Living.” It’s improper to put words in the mouths of the dead, but I do not think it is too far of a stretch to say that Harris—an Irish immigrant who lost her own children to a deadly plague and dedicated years of her life to fighting the scourge of child labor—would approve. At the very least, she would weep for the children of Gaza and Israel, and pray for their mothers. She fought for those who fought for others, and the activists who found inspiration in her words that day have inspired thousands of others in turn. “The first thing is to raise hell,” says I,” she once wrote. “That’s always the first thing to do when you’re faced with an injustice and you feel powerless. That’s what I do in my fight for the working class.”

If any of us in the American labor movement finds ourselves visited by a cold chill, a flickering candle, or a ghostly apparition tonight, one can only hope it is one of these brave souls. Conversely, may every greedy, sneering anti-union boss be visited by spiteful gusts of wind and the howling of innocents, from the phantom children of Ludlow to the fallen men of the Hawk’s Nest disaster, in which mine bosses carelessly and cruelly allowed over a thousand Black workers to die from overexposure to the same deadly silica dust now choking a new generation of Appalachian miners.

I hope those miners’ ghostly faces haunt the dreams of every mine owner who’s ever skirted dust regulations, and of every lawyer and politician who’s helped them get away with it. I hope the factory owners who force their underpaid immigrant workforce to labor in squalor awake to the screams of the Triangle Factory girls in their ears, and that the landowners who refuse to give farmworkers proper pay or water breaks feel the hot breath of hell on their necks. Samhain is a time of liminality, after all; right now the barriers between worlds are in tatters, and the dead have scores to settle. J. D. Rockefeller’s not around anymore, but Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mary Barra, and Howard Schultz are right there

Vengeance aside, Mother Jones told us to educate ourselves for the coming conflicts, and reading up on the lives and legends of some of labor’s finest is an excellent place to start as we continue to heed their words. May their presence continue to buoy our own spirits on the picket line, may their fiery words continue to give us the courage we need to keep pushing forward, and may their memory give us strength as we fight our own battles against old enemies. “Takes more than guns to kill a man,” as Joe Hill said, by way of Paul Robeson, by way of Alfred Hayes. “What they can never kill went on to organize.” ♦

Kim Kelly is an independent journalist based in Philadelphia. She is the author of FIGHT LIKE HELL: The Untold History of American Labor.

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