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Mother Jones - Labor Leader Diaries

Mother Jones, a north star for us all.

Mary G. Harris was born August 1st, 1837 in Cork, Ireland. In 1847, the Irish faced starvation from a potato blight caused by a British feudal economic policy of monocropping. Her family immigrated to North America as part of one of the greatest mass exoduses from a single island in history.

Upon arriving in Toronto, the Harris family faced discrimination due to their immigrant status as well as their Catholic faith and Irish heritage.

At age 23 she found a teaching position at a convent in Monroe, Michigan. Dissatisfied with the work conditions, she moved to Chicago then to Memphis, where in 1861 she married George E. Jones, a member and organizer of the of the National Union of Iron Moulders.

In 1867, a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis killed her husband and their four children in the matter of two months. She was 30 years old. After that tragedy, she returned to Chicago to begin a dressmaking business catering to the upper class. But four years later, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed her home, shop, and possessions.

The 1877 railroad strike further radicalized her and she joined the Knights of Labor where she helped organize workers in an era where protests and strikes could end with police shooting and killing of workers.

The violence directed at workers helped grow the Knights to become the largest labor organization in the country with over a million members. As May 1st, 1886 approached, the Knights of Labor prepared for a general strike demanding an 8 hour work day. The Chicago Haymarket bombings created a reactionary tsunami leading to the demise of the Knights of Labor.

As the Knights crumbled into oblivion, Mary Jones became an educator and organizer with the United Mine Workers, traveling throughout the United States.

By age 60, she had assumed the persona of "Mother Jones" by claiming to be older than she was, wearing outdated black dresses and referring to the male workers that she helped as "her boys". The first reference to her in print as Mother Jones was in 1897.

In 1902, she was put on trial in West Virginia for ignoring an injunction banning meetings by striking miners. The district attorney called her "the most dangerous woman in America.”

In 1903, Jones sought to organize children who were working in mills and mines in Pennsylvania. Many of the children at union headquarters were missing fingers and limbs, and she attempted to get newspaper publicity for the bad labor conditions experienced by children. However, the mill owners held stock in most newspapers and would not publish the facts about child labor.

So she organized a march from Philadelphia to Oyster Bay, New York, the hometown of President Theodore Roosevelt, demanding children to go to school and not the mines. Though the president refused to meet with the marchers, the incident brought the issue of child labor to the forefront of the public agenda.

During the Paint Creek–Cabin Creek strike of 1912 in West Virginia, a shooting war broke out between United Mine Workers members and the private army of the mine owners.

Mary Jones defied Martial law in the area to continue public speaking and organizing and she was arrested and sentenced to twenty years in the state penitentiary. After 85 days of confinement, her release coincided with Indiana Senator John W. Kern's initiation of a Senate investigation into the conditions in the local coal mines.

Jones remained a union organizer for the UMW into the 1920s and continued to speak on union affairs. Mary Harris Jones died in Adelphi, Maryland just outside Washington, D.C. She is buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois.

Mother Jones: “And I long to see the day when Labor will have the destinies of the nation in her own hands and she will stand a united force and show the world what the workers can do.”

Research was based on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother_Jones.


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