The recent news that workers at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse voted to unionize should be an inspiration to workers around the country, including in our region (where it must be said, there are already plenty of Amazon facilities ripe for unionization). Philly is and has always been a union town, 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 powered this city for centuries.

With an eye toward the future, here are five labor leaders from our city’s past that today’s workers should look to for inspiration as they continue the fight for a better world:

Ben Fletcher

Who he was: Born into a vibrant multiracial neighborhood in South Philly in 1890, Fletcher worked days as a longshoreman and spent his nights organizing for working-class liberation. He joined the Industrial Workers of the World, an anticapitalist union that welcomed all workers, and became a key organizer for Local 8, a dockworkers’ union of Black workers and Irish and Eastern European immigrants. As historian Peter Cole notes in his book Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly, Local 8 voluntarily integrated itself 51 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, built itself up into a strong and effective multiracial union, and ruled the Philly waterfront for nearly a decade.

What he did: Fletcher traveled the East Coast organizing workers. In one harrowing incident, he narrowly escaped being lynched in Norfolk, Va. He was unflappable, charismatic, and wholly committed to the cause; unfortunately, in 1917, the U.S. government decided that he and his fellow IWW members had become too dangerous and arrested them during 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 in Leavenworth, Kan.; he was given 10 years and a $30,000 fine. His sentence was commuted in 1922, and as soon as he was freed, he dived right back into organizing.

What we can learn: This fearless son of South Philly dedicated his life to labor, and his story should teach today’s organizers that we truly are stronger together. Organizing across race, gender, ability, and generational lines is the key to winning the class war.

Mother Jones

Who she was: Mary Harris Jones was born in Ireland in 1837, and if the hand of fate had nudged her a bit differently, she would have lived her life there, or would have died young in the Great Famine during the 1840s. Instead, she survived to become one of the best-known labor figures in American history, living a long and eventful life that spanned three countries and endless struggles in the coalfields, factories, and railroads. For the last three decades of it, she answered to only one name: Mother Jones.

What she did: Though Mother Jones is perhaps best known for her roles as a United Mine Workers organizer, public speaker, and self-described hell-raiser, she was also devoted to the cause of ending child labor, a crusade that brought her to Philadelphia in 1903. At the time, Pennsylvania employed the highest number of child laborers in the country, with 120,000 children working in factories or coal mines. That July, she mustered a “children’s army” of about 300 juvenile mill workers and supporters at City Hall and led them on a march from Kensington to New York, where they intended to visit President Theodore Roosevelt at his summer home in Oyster Bay and demand he give her and three Kensington boys an audience. While the president refused, the March of the Mill Children made child labor a topic of national discussion and helped usher in labor law reform. A blue historical marker now stands at City Hall marking their journey and commemorating their commitment to a fight that continues globally.

What we can learn: As of 2021, there were about 160 million children involved in child labor around the world; half of them are between the ages of 5 and 11, 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.

Anna Geisinger

Who she was: Kensington is now one of the city’s more complicated communities, but during the 1920s and 1930s, it was known for its silk stockings. It was a working-class enclave that functioned as a booming mill town plopped in the middle of a big city, and was populated by hosiery factory workers. It was also the birthplace of the American Federation of Full-Fashioned Hosiery Workers (AFFFHW), a socialist-led labor union; its first female organizer was hosiery worker Anna Geisinger. The union built worker power in and outside the Philadelphia city limits; its Kensington home base, Branch 1, had an outsize impact on labor history, and especially on the early development of labor feminism.

What she did: Philly-based scholar Sharon McConnell-Sidorick explores the union’s evolution in her book, Silk Stockings and Socialism: Philadelphia’s Radical Hosiery Workers From the Jazz Age to the New Deal, and highlights worker-leader Geisinger as one of the driving forces behind the union’s militant, dedicated female membership. Geisinger was elected as AFFFHW’s organizer in 1928, later sat on Branch 1′s executive board, and was also a sought-after public speaker; during her addresses to union workers, she drew explicit connections between the “special issues” that women faced in the workplace and the need to organize. The AFFFHW was ahead of its time on issues like equal pay, child labor, pensions, fair housing, and even birth control.

What we can learn: “Every woman who works for unionism is working for a better world,” as Geisinger told one crowd. “The cause of labor is the same everywhere.”

Uriah Smith Stephens

Who he was: One of the most influential early labor organizations in American history came out of a Thanksgiving Day meeting between seven fed-up garment cutters in Philadelphia. Uriah Smith Stephens was a descendant of Quakers who was born in Cape May, N.J., and spent several years as an indentured servant after his family lost everything in the 1830 economic crisis. When he finally settled in Philadelphia in 1858, he immediately became involved in abolitionist causes and picked up work as a garment 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 an idea for a new kind of labor organization, one that would organize all kinds of workers on an industrial scale instead of funneling them into narrower craft guilds. That Thanksgiving meeting gave rise to the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor (better known as the Knights of Labor, or KOL), which was initially modeled after secret societies like the Freemasons, with elaborate rituals and paramount secrecy. This rigmarole lent the organization an air of mystery and protected its members from the wrath of union-busters. However, after Stephens was succeeded in 1881 by Terence V. Powderly, the KOL ditched its spooky vibes, began welcoming women and Black members, and exploded in growth; at its peak, the union boasted more than 700,000 members.

What we can learn: The Knights of Labor has a fascinating history of its own, and the impact the organization had on working people in this country is immeasurable — but it all started in Uriah Smith Stephens’ kitchen, right here in Philly. Sometimes all it takes is a handful of people to change the world.

Fannie Sellins

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 job as a garment factory worker in St. Louis, where she helped organize Local 67 of the United Garment Workers of America and led a successful strike in 1909. After she was 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, who hired her on to work as an organizer in the West Virginia coalfields. In 1919, she was sent to assist striking coal miners at the Allegheny Coal & Coke Co. in Pittsburgh, where workers were locked in a bitter, bloody struggle with millionaire coal boss Lewis Hicks and his armed guards. On Aug. 26, when she came upon a group of deputies beating a retired miner named Joseph Starzeleski, Sellins intervened, shouting at the men to stop; in response, they turned their guns on her. She was shot three times, and a deputy cracked her skull with a blackjack. None of her murderers were ever convicted, and a jury ruled her death a “justifiable homicide.” Witnesses say she died while 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 so long as there are still injustices to fight. Her story should inspire us to have courage and always put the needs of the most vulnerable people first.

Kim Kelly is an independent journalist and the author of Fight Like Hell: The Untold Story of American Labor, released on April 26.