The Mother of All Labor Activists
“Goodbye, boys. I’m under arrest. I may have to go to jail. I may not see you for along time. Keep up the fight! Don’t surrender! Pay no attention to the injunction machine at Parkersburg. The Federal judge is a scab anyhow. While you starve he plays golf. While you serve humanity, he serves injunctions for the money powers.” Strong words for a woman who was in her eighties when she spoke them, wouldn’t you say?
Mary Harris entered life on August 1, 1837, near Cork, Ireland. Her parents, Richard and Helen, were farmers and welcomed their fifth child (and third daughter) with much love.
Economic conditions in Ireland were hard, as were the political realities of the time. “I was born in revolution”, Mary would later say. Indeed, the British government hung her grandfather for his involvement in Irish Republicanism. Richard decided he had had enough and immigrated to Canada, sending for his family to join him there in 1850.
The family thrived in Toronto. Little Mary was intelligent and dexterous, talents she would later apply as a schoolteacher and then as a skilled dressmaker. The family eventually moved to Chicago, then a small, very-much-toddlin’ town on the American frontier.
Tragedy Strikes Twice
Mary met and married George Jones in 1861. A skilled iron molder and dedicated union member, George moved her to Memphis, Tennessee and plied his trade there. The couple prospered modestly and was blessed with four children of their own. Tragedy struck the family in 1867 as a yellow fever epidemic swept through Memphis. Mary lost her husband and all four of her children to the dreaded disease.
Devastated, she moved back to Chicago and set up her own dressmaking shop. Again, she prospered moderately until the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 burned her shop to the ground.
A Life Calling
The circumstances of Mary’s upbringing and the traumatic blows of fate she had suffered planted in her an enduring love for the working class, those who daily struggled to earn their bread while living close to the edge of financial disaster. She decided to become involved in the movement to cure some of the horrid working conditions laborers faced at that time.
She joined the Knights of Labor, organizing union locals and then her first strike, against the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 1877 (yep, the B&O Railroad of Monopoly fame). It wasn’t long before the government called in the state militia to quell the strike, precipitating a bloody riot. That experience steeled her thoroughly.
She began to travel the entire country, speaking out for the abolition of child labor and the formation of stronger unions for working adults. She soon settled her attention on the laborers on America’s railroads and in the mines, two exceedingly dangerous occupations at that time.
A Nickname Sticks
When she began to refer to the miners as “her boys”, it wasn’t long before they began to refer to her as “Mother Jones”, a name which stuck for the rest of her long life.
She was widely known by the late 1890’s, having been instrumental in organizing the United Mine Workers (UMW) and the International Workers of the World (the IWW or “Wobblies”). She was also active in the Socialist Party of America.
In 1913, she testified before Congress about working conditions, and was denounced on the Senate floor as “the most dangerous woman in America”. Arrested many times and charged with crimes such as slander, libel, and sedition, she was finally convicted of a felony (conspiracy to commit murder) at the age of 83. The resulting public uproar was so furious that officials decided to release her to keep the peace. When one detractor called her, “the grandmother of all agitators”, she volleyed with, “I hope to live long enough to be the great-grandmother of all agitators!”
You Don’t Mess with Mother Jones
In 1925, Mother Jones was 88 years old when two thugs broke into the boarding house where she was staying. It was a big mistake; one fled seriously wounded, and the other, a 54 year-old drifter, subsequently died of head injuries caused by her trademark black leather boots.
Mother Jones worked her last strike at age 91. She passed away peacefully at 93 on November 30, 1930, in Hyattsville, Maryland.
In an era when women could not even vote, Mother Jones said, “You don’t need a vote to raise hell– you need convictions and a voice!”