SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 210 July/August 2017

Mother Jones: US labour pioneer

The bitter struggles of union and socialist activists have largely been erased from US history, yet there are many inspirational examples. One of the most remarkable and determined was Mother Jones who travelled the length and breadth of the USA fighting for workers’ rights. LINDA TAAFFE looks at her life and times.

Mother Jones played an outstanding role in the battles of the labour movement in the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, yet today not many know her work. When Leon Trotsky was sent her autobiography he was bowled over: "An epic book!... a heroic American proletarian… Mother Jones sets herself the most moderate goals: more pay and less hours, and she goes by bold revolutionary paths… What an unwavering devotion to the workers, what elementary contempt for the traitors and upstarts found among the ‘leaders’ of the workers!"

The socialist and founding member in 1905 of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Eugene Debs, paid tribute to her in 1907: "No soldier in the revolutionary cause has better right to recognition… than has Mother Jones… Her very name expresses the spirit of revolution… Her striking personality embodies all its principles". This vagabond agitator was 77 years old at the time, still as active as ever and with even more dramatic events yet to experience – like in 1911 in West Virginia, the scene of extremely bitter class conflicts, where she was wrongfully convicted of conspiracy to commit murder.

Her life as a ‘hell-raiser’ did not really begin until the 1870s. Up to then her life was normal for a worker of the time, full of poverty and tragedy. She was born Mary Harris in Cork, Ireland, in 1830 but her family emigrated to Canada when she was young. Her grandfather was said to have been hanged as an Irish freedom fighter. After moving to Tennessee, USA, she married George Jones, an active member of the Iron Moulders Union. By the end of 1867 she was left a childless widow after her husband and four children died in a yellow fever epidemic. She moved to Chicago to resume her trade as a dressmaker. Again tragedy struck. Her shop and home burned down in the great Chicago fire of 1871. It was here that she came into contact with the Knights of Labor.

Huge uprisings began in 1877 with the revolt of the railroad workers, the first national strike in the US. It left 42 dead in Pittsburgh and the mass destruction of Pennsylvania Railroad company property by enraged workers. Mary Jones was there. During the following year the strike was crushed, with around 100 workers dead nationwide. The course for the rest of Mary Jones’s life was set. She battled incessantly alongside workers until she was 100.

Ruthless bosses

The context for Mother Jones was one of the most explosive periods in US history. Karl Marx wrote that capitalism, despite being comparatively progressive, came into being "with blood dripping from every pore". On the virgin territory of the USA the ruthless American capitalists – referred to by Mother Jones as the pirates of Wall Street, robbers or burglars – carved out massive profits from the lives and limbs of men, women and children. Up until then, workers had been able to escape westwards to get land. Now, all the land had been claimed. Workers had to stay put and take the road of bitter struggle for better conditions and pay.

Every strike was a mini civil war with Pinkerton agents used as the bosses’ private armies, throwing strikers’ families out into the cold or shooting them in their beds. Militias were drafted into areas of unrest. Justice for strikers was meted out by military courts. It was like something out of the Middle Ages. Nowhere did the conditions more resemble feudalism than in the Rockefeller-dominated coalfields of southern Colorado. The bosses had the power of life or death over 12,000 men and their families living in company-owned shacks. Wages were paid in ‘scrip’ which had to be spent at the company store, and discounted when converted into cash. Teachers were chosen and paid by the company. Miners had to go to a company doctor. Coroners and judges in the pay of the bosses prevented workers getting justice for their many grievances.

Mother Jones went wherever she was needed, firstly as an organiser for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). She was proud of having no abiding place, saying that "wherever the fight was on against the robbers" that was her home. She would tie up her belongings in her shawl, throw it over her shoulder and be off, criss-crossing the country, sleeping on the floor in workers’ shacks. Mother Jones organised support for families, getting farmers to share produce. She emboldened miners with her courage, even condemning them for cowardice if they flinched, and fearlessly facing down guns and jails herself. Great crowds would assemble wherever she went.

Mother Jones was not only the ‘miners’ angel’, she responded to the call of steel, copper, textile, garment and street-car workers, brewery bottlers and many others, all with the same energy and commitment. She inspired confidence, determination and unity, referring to workers as her ‘boys’. She recalled speaking on the highway and being told to stop or be shot. "I answered: ‘I am on the public highway. It belongs to me’. They stood there with their guns in their pockets. They did not shoot a bullet". She often ended up in jail, refusing to accept any favours, always insisting on being kept with her union boys. Yet she was so polite to the judges that they became perplexed by this little prim white-haired old lady. They sometimes ended up complimenting her, or advising her to better take up charity work instead!

Child exploitation, union corruption

It was the children forced to work in the most barbaric conditions who touched her heart the most. ‘Trap boys’, some as young as nine, were compelled to work through the poverty of their families "for 14 hours a day underground for a mere 60 cents, completely on their own; only when a mule appears with the coal do they open the trap doors and let a gush of cold air in chilling their little bodies". She denounced the "interests of distant bond and stockholders… who caused these babes to be imprisoned through the long, beautiful daylight in the dark, dismal caverns of the earth". In Georgia, a law was passed to protect songbirds but, Mother Jones lamented, "what about the little children from whom all song is gone?"

In 1903, out of 100,000 textile workers who went on strike in Philadelphia, 16,000 were children. They struck to reduce the working week from 60 hours to 55. Kids came into the union headquarters, "some with hands off, some with a thumb missing, some with fingers off at the knuckles, stooped little things, round-shouldered, skinny". Shocked, Mother Jones tried to get them publicity, but was met with a wall. Newspaper men admitted that they could not print anything because the textile owners had stock in their papers. She replied: "Well, I’ve got stock in these little children and I’ll arrange a little publicity".

She organised an army of child textile workers to march 125 miles to president Theodore Roosevelt so he could hear the wailing of the children, and to demand a bill to protect them from the bosses’ greed. What a sight! Banners demanded time to play, and more schools: "Prosperity, Where is our Share?" She filled halls along the way, including at Coney Island where she arranged for some kids to be put in animal cages to drive the point home. She was unremitting. Fifty years previously men had taken up arms to end slavery: "Today a white child is sold for $2 a week to the manufacturer". They never met the president but they did inspire mass support for legislation against child labour.

In the garment workers’ strike she had come into conflict with some union leaders. In fact, she never shied away from criticising them if necessary. She denounced John Mitchell, UMWA president, for urging north Colorado miners to accept an agreement, abandoning those in the south. Mother Jones was horrified and turned this around through the power of her appeal to stick together at all costs. Later on, however, Mitchell got the decision reversed. After having been made a paid organiser at the inception of the UMWA in 1890 she resigned in disgust.

Mother Jones castigated John L Lewis, another UMWA leader, for living like a millionaire. On his passport his occupation was described as executive, not labour leader! His departure on a trip was even noted in newspaper society columns. His philosophy was to help the miners via helping the mining bosses get richer. She commented that some of the leaders had bellies as fat as president William Howard Taft from all the gorging and champagne. She lambasted Mitchell for being part of the Civic Federation, a concerted attempt by the American ruling class to corrupt union leaders and undermine the advance of the working class: "Those who represent labour in the Civic Federation… get out of it or get out of the labour movement".

Conflicting views

The period Mother Jones lived through was full of terrible defeats but also significant victories. She came up against all the issues facing any militant today. She was an internationalist, rallying support for Mexican revolutionaries, who were ruthlessly hounded by the US military in Arizona on behalf of the dictator Porfirio Diaz. In a form of rendition, they were kidnapped and hauled back to Mexico to face prison, sometimes execution. Later, she helped unionise Mexican miners. In 1913, she met Pancho Villa, one of the revolution’s leaders.

She was an anti-racist, unionising European immigrants and opposing the exclusion of black miners when the bosses tried to use them as scabs. She eagerly welcomed the Russian revolution in 1917 as a victory for the poor, and a blow against landlords and the tsar, although she expressed uncertainty whether it could ever work for the US.

Her outlook was simple – to win each battle for the downtrodden – and was bold on tactics, although she did not have a worked out political strategy of how to overthrow capitalism. She knew that was necessary, and said so often. She knew that the conflict between labour and capital would never end until all industries had been taken over: "I am not in favour of the government paying $10,000 for the mines. I wouldn’t sanction ten cents. Nature did not put that coal there for a bunch of national looters and burglars to hold. I want the US to simply take over without making any compensation. Enough compensation has been paid already".

Mother Jones was associated with all the left political trends of the time. She was a founder member of the IWW but soon saw its confines too restricting. She collaborated with the Socialist Party, sold their paper Appeal to Reason for a while, and enthusiastically supported Eugene Debs for president when he got a million votes. In a later election, however, despite being a proclaimed socialist, she supported Woodrow Wilson of the Democrats. She was a fantastic communicator. Using direct, often mildly profane language she could hold an audience of workers spellbound.

Sometimes she used women as a force to shame their husbands to take strike action. Other times she led women in their own right in strikes and marches for better wages and conditions, like the New York shirtwaist workers. Yet, almost incomprehensibly, she was not in favour of votes for women. Her views seemed in conflict. The bosses treated men and women brutally, so women were forced to fight, and she wholeheartedly encouraged that. She was scathing about rich women who spent more on their pet poodles than a woman worker earned. Nonetheless, she held an idealised view of women primarily as homemakers and nurturing children.

She seemed to be swayed by the more homespun aspects of the American Dream. She wanted the US to be a land where anyone really could become president and not have the life squashed out of them by greed. She mentioned US founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. She became so revered in later years that she was asked to give testimony to three congressional committees investigating conditions in the mines, industrial relations, and the persecution of Mexicans.

Fighting spirit

As an octogenarian she was still active: "I’ll tell you, son, it’s the opportunity to fight that gives me long life. If I hadn’t been engaged in fighting industrial battles, I would have passed away long before this… I haven’t got time to get sick". Eventually, however, six months after her 100th birthday, time caught up with her. At her funeral, 15,000 workers surrounded the church. She was buried in Mount Olive Cemetery, Illinois, a fitting symbol of working-class struggle. This was where in 1903 Mother Jones had paid tribute to the men killed in the Virden massacre of October 1898. They had been refused burial in their own town so the miners’ union established the cemetery at Mount Olive. Mother Jones was laid to rest near her boys.

The US ruling class has tried its best to expunge the shameful role of the bosses, their governments and state apparatus in this period of history. They have tried to build up cynical myths about democracy, law and justice. They have also spent millions glamorising, not the magnificent role of working-class fighters, but gangster violence. Even the term ‘working class’ disappeared from American vocabulary. Workers became ‘middle class’!

The marvellous history of how workers battled for decades against the most ruthless bourgeois in the world is truly inspiring. And now the embers are being rekindled. The US is facing a period that could be very similar to the one Mother Jones lived through. Then, the struggle took place when capitalism was on an upswing. Now it is more like a death agony. Workers are coming back onto the scene. Our first socialist councillor Kshama Sawant was elected in Seattle in 2013. The fight for $15 has been ground-breaking. Then Bernie Sanders came forward raising expectations with his call for a political revolution.

In May 1914, Mother Jones was invited to Seattle to speak at the first Labor Memorial Day to honour those killed in strike battles. The previous month militiamen had attacked a tent colony of striking miners and their families at Ludlow, killing 32 including women and children. Mother Jones travelled from Colorado where she had spent 26 days in jail and was greeted in Seattle by 1,000 miners. If she could return there today she would feel very encouraged and enthused. To raise the hopes of a group of workers, Mother Jones once said that John Brown may have died but his spirit is marching on. So too is the fighting spirit of Mother Jones, and all her magnificent fellow class fighters, marching into the 21st century, the century of revolution.

This article has been inspired by the comprehensive work of Philip S Foner, Mother Jones Speaks: Speeches and Writings of a Working Class Fighter (Pathfinder Press, 1995)

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