Mary Harris “Mother” Jones

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“Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”

Mary Harris Jones (Born July 1837, died November 30, 1930) better known as Mother Jones, was an Irish-America radical labor leader. She participated in strikes and labor organizing across the country, advocated for the abolition of child labor and cofounded the IWW.

Early Life

Mary Harris was born in Cork County Ireland sometime in July 1837. At a young age her family fled Ireland in order to escape the Great Famine. They immigrated to Canada where she spent her early life, training to be a teacher and a dressmaker.

In her early 20’s she moved to Chicago where she worked as a dressmaker then to Memphis where she met and married George Jones. George Jones was an ironworker, a staunch unionist, and a member of the International Iron Molders Union. The couple had four children, but in 1867 her family fell victim to an epidemic of yellow fever. Her husband and all her children died.

With her family gone Mary Harris Jones returned to Chicago where she worked once more as a dressmaker. Her shop was very successful and was patronized by some of the cities wealthiest residents. But in 1871 her shop burned down during the Chicago fire and Mary was forced to start her life over again.

As a union organizer

Widowed, homeless and destitute Mary Harris Jones decided to reinvent herself, creating a persona that would become a labor legend. Dressing all in black, and exaggerating her age Jones used the iconography of the kindly old matriarch but subverted it. Instead of a soft-spoken and sweet old lady, she became a fiery and confrontational labor organizer.

In her new persona she helped organize workers across the country. Striking garment workers in Chicago, bottle washers in Milwaukee breweries, miners in Birmingham, unemployed workers in Kansas City if she could make it she was there to help.

After the Pullman Strike Eugene Debs was arrested and served a six month prison sentence for defying a court injunction not to disrupt railroad traffic. After his release Mary Harris Jones helped organize a huge show of support for the Debs.

In 1897 she was invited to speak at the national convention of the American railway union. After he speech there, the members began to refer to her as “Mother” in reference to how she often referred to union men as her “boys”. Later that summer, when the United Mine Workers (UMW) union called for a nationwide soft coal strike, Mother Jones travelled to Pittsburgh to support the striking Miners. Though the union only had around 9,000 members, tens of thousands of workers went on strike in solidarity with the Union. It was in Pittsburgh that she got the nickname “Mother Jones”.

The 1897 strike by the UMW was a success gaining considerable wage increases, and growing the union from around 9,000 to 115,000 members. Mother Jones involvement in the strike also impressed the union leadership, and began a long partnership between Jones and the Mine Workers. She organized on behalf of the UMW in states like West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Colorado.

From the beginning Mother Jones had used her persona to enhance her fiery oratory. But in her campaigns on behalf of the miners this found new more militant expressions. Her tactics involved direct confrontations with cops and mine bosses, where she used her persona to shame management into backing down and earned public sympathy for her bravery. She shamed reluctant strikers and mine-workers into walking out with her, questioning their manhood and asking them whether they’d let themselves be upstaged by a little old woman.

She also organized traditionally marginalized groups in her union drives most notably miners wives. She formed them into mop and broom brigades, who went into the coalfields to sweep out scabs, and occupy the mines.

Her time with the Miners and her tactics frequently brought her into conflict with the law. She was arrested, imprisoned, or banished from towns across the country. She was even briefly held and charged with a capital offence in West Virginia before public outcry forced her release. She was also a firsthand witness to one of the most sickening scenes in labor history, the Ludlow massacre.

In 1914 in Ludlow Colorado National Guardsmen strafed a tent camp of striking miners and their families. After the initial attack and an ensuing raid by Colorado national guardsmen and militia, between 19 and 25 people were killed including 11 children. These actions had a profound effect on Mother Jones who spoke often of the events and testified before the United States Congress about the massacre. The massacre also further inspired her later advocacy for the abolition of child labor.

Mother Jones and Child Labor

In 1901 during the Pennsylvania Silk Mill strike mother jones was sent by the UMW to encourage unity among the striking workers. There Mother Jones spoke out forcefully against the use of child labor in the textile mills, though she still organized the more than 16,000 child workers who were out on strike.

In 1903 she helped organize a “Children’s Crusade”, a march from the textile mills of Philadelphia to the holiday home of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. Along the way the children would stop in towns and give speeches and put on shows dramatizing their lives in the textile mills, and winning headlines around the country. The images of the 100 marching children many of them missing limbs or otherwise mutilated from the unsafe conditions in the factories were a powerful reminder to the rest of the country of what life was like for the poorest members of the country.

Final years and death

Even at the end of her life mother Jones continued to support the labor movement. The last labor action she was involved with was a strike by Chicago dressmakers in 1924. She died in 1930 in Silver Spring Maryland.

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