Who Was Mother Jones?
(dedicated to the spirit of Tom Joad)
She was a zealous labor activist from whom a good magazine takes its name. On this Labor Day it’s fitting to celebrate the life of this remarkable woman. A fierce advocate for workers, especially children, and a passionate public speaker as well, she made a lot of enemies among the power structure, as troublemakers have always done.
Mary Harris Jones was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1837. It was most likely in late July, no one is sure, but she’s been given the birthday of May 1st, to coincide with the day internationally identified with workers. Her family migrated to Canada when she was a teenager. She began her career teaching in Michigan, but was apparently not very keen on it, and moved to Chicago and later to Memphis, where she met and married George E. Jones, a union member and organizer. She opened a dressmaking shop, and here began a series of calamities that would have shaken even the strongest resolve. She had opened the shop on the eve of the Civil War. In 1867 an epidemic of yellow fever took her husband and all four children. She moved back to Chicago and opened another dressmaking business, then lost her shop, home, and all her possessions in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Through it all, the cause of workers’ rights burned brightly. No feminist, this gal. She came from a strong Roman Catholic upbringing, and preached that “working men deserved a wage that would allow women to stay home and care for their children.” She believed that neglectful motherhood was the leading cause of juvenile delinquency. Neither was she a suffragette, having once said “You don’t need the vote to raise hell!” And raise hell she did. By 1880, she wrote in her autobiography, she was “engrossed in the labor movement.” She got involved with the Knights of Labor, and was a participant in the infamous Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1886. It began on May 1st as a peaceful rally for the eight-hour day, but on the 4th a massive force of police marched in and ordered the crowd to disperse — just like today. Someone threw a dynamite bomb, killing a policeman, and in the following chaos there were several deaths. The event was widely used as part of a harsh clampdown of unions. The New York Times ran a story about “Anarchy’s Red Hand,” bloviating that “the villainous teaching of the anarchists bore bloody fruit in Chicago tonight . . . “ Keep in mind, the 1880s and 1890s were the age of the robber barons, wealthy industrialists who gobbled up smaller companies to form monopolies, while paying meager wages — just like today.
Mary took her fight south to the West Virginia coalfields. In 1890 she was organizing for the United Mine Workers, and in 1898 was involved in the formation of the Social Democratic Party, alongside other activists, including Eugene V. Debs. She was known as a charismatic and effective public speaker, livening up her presentation with props, jokes, profanity, and dramatic stunts. She really knew how to work a crowd. By 1897 she had acquired the moniker “Mother Jones,” but was also known as “the miners’ angel.” In 1901 she joined a strike by silk workers in Pennsylvania, most of whom were young women demanding an adult wage (child labor laws weren’t passed until 1938, and there are still big loophole). She got wives of workers organized into a militia, wielding brooms, beating on tin pans, and yelling, “Join the union!” The mill owners — see if this sounds familiar — insisted that if they raised wages they wouldn’t be able to stay in business.
The following year she was back in the West Virginia coalfields, got arrested and went on trial for ignoring an injunction banning meetings by striking workers. “There sits the most dangerous woman in America.” said state District Attorney Reese Blizzard. “She comes into a state where peace and prosperity reign . . . crooks her finger, and 20,000 contented men lay down their tools and walk out.” The anti-union sentiment is obvious. In 1903 she was back in Pennsylvania again, at the silk mills. She’d noted that several of the children working in the mills or mines had missing fingers or other work-related disabilities. She tried to gain press publicity, but was told that the mill owners held stock in essentially all the newspapers. She fired back, “Well, I’ve got stock in these little children, and I’ll arrange a little publicity.” She organized them into a march, from Kensington, PA, all the way to President Roosevelt’s home in Oyster Bay, N.Y., about 100 miles. They carried banners saying “We want to go to school and not the mines.” The President didn’t meet with her, but she certainly got her publicity. In 1905 she was one of the founders of the I.W.W., the International Workers of the World, later known as the Wobblies.
In February, 1913, she was arrested while protesting with miners back in West Virginia. She was convicted in a military court of conspiracy to commit murder, and sentenced to 20 years. Newly-elected Governor Henry Hatfield pardoned her, perhaps noticing that she was 75 and had pneumonia. But these events led to a U.S. Senate investigation of the coalfields and working conditions there. A settlement was reached giving the miners a nine-hour day, the right to shop in non-company stores, and the supposed elimination of discrimination against union workers. The Governor ordered the miners back to work, or face deportation from the state. Some went back to work, and some didn’t.
From there she went to help organize miners in Colorado. Once again she was arrested, served several months in jail, and was escorted to the state border, just months before the Ludlow Massacre at Colorado Fuel & Iron. After that tragedy she was invited to Standard Oil’s headquarters in New York to meet with John D. Rockefeller, a major stockholder in the Colorado company. Their conversation prompted him to personally visit Colorado and institute long sought reforms.
She never stopped fighting for workers, her credo being “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” She joined the Socialist Party of America, and remained involved with the United Mine Workers, but left the UMW after a disagreement with its leader, the legendary John L. Lewis. She was once denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate as “the grandmother of all agitators.” Her answer: “I hope to live long enough to be the great-grandmother of all agitators.” Incidentally, for any pinheads out there who saw the word “socialist” and immediately shit themselves, chill out. Public education, the armed forces, the Post Office, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are all essentially socialist in nature, and people like them. They’d be even more effective if they were expanded.
She spent her last years living with friends in Adelphi, PA, where she died. She is buried in the Union Miners’ Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois. She never lived to see the Wagner Act of 1935, legalizing the right for workers to organize and form unions. If she were alive today, I think she’d be greatly distressed that America has come full circle back to once again having to fight for a decent living wage. I think she’d be furious, as am I, that all the blood that was shed for workers’ rights the last 130 years, seems to have been in vain. All that ground has to be fought for again, and again we must fight for it, and keep on fighting, until workers who create the nation’s wealth are adequately compensated for it.
Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. — Republican President Abraham Lincoln.