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Labour Movement History: Remembering Mother Jones

by PETER FROST

Mother Jones was simply one of the most famous US female labour leaders of the 1x9th century. Indeed the term “Mother Jones” is still a byword for left-wing opinion in the US. She played a key part in events at Ludlow.

Mary Harris fled famine struck Ireland with her family. She became teacher and then a seamstress in Chicago.  

In Memphis in 1861 she married George Jones, an ironworker. George introduced her to the embryonic US labour movement.

The couple had four children before the 1867 yellow fever epidemic killed both husband and children. Mary would wear nothing but black for the rest of her life.

She moved to work in the sewing sweatshops of Chicago, but again disaster struck and she lost everything in the great Chicago fire of 1871.  

Rather than mourn, she plunged herself into trade union work, joining the Knights of Labour. From now on she dedicated herself to improving life for working people.  

The US had discovered rampant and aggressive capitalism. The greedy few became obscenely rich while more and more US citizens, many recent immigrants, found themselves dirt poor with low wages and long hours — if they could find a job at all.

Unemployment stalked the land. Workers had no union rights, no pensions, no healthcare, working conditions were appalling.  

The bosses used private armies or state militias to stop workers coming together in a union.

Brave organisers like Mother Jones, Joe Hill, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and many more roamed the country spreading confidence and political understanding among the workers involved in strikes and struggles.

Bear in mind that many of the key working-class organisations did not exist at this time. The Industrial Workers of the World, the famous Wobblies, would not become a reality until 1905, the Communist Party of the USA not until 1919.

Much earlier, in Pittsburgh during the great railroad strike of 1877, the legend that became Mother Jones was born. Mary demonstrated both her inspirational talent as a speaker as well as well-honed organisational skills.

She was part of the strikes that led to the Haymarket riot in Chicago in 1886 — the birth of May Day as a workers’ celebration.

In Birmingham, Alabama, she worked the textile mills of the Deep South, leading an important strike in 1894. She organised a famous march of children to protest about child labour.  

Amazingly she found time to pen two important books — The New Right in 1899 and a two-volume Letter of Love and Labour in 1900 and 1901.

Much of her efforts went on organising miners, first in the coalfields of West Virginia and Pennsylvania.  

She moved about, sometimes employed by the United Mine Workers. She lodged mostly with supporters and lived on food and a little money from grateful supporters.

In 1903, she split from the UMW when the right-wing national leadership refused to support a strike in the Colorado coalfields.  

Mother Jones stayed in the west for the next 10 years, organising copper miners in Idaho and Arizona.

In 1913, aged 83 she was sent to jail for 20 years for her part in a violent West Virginia strike. Huge public outrage demanded and won her freedom and Mother Jones headed for Colorado and the Ludlow strike.

After the Ludlow massacre she led the national crusade to get justice for the victims. That campaign forced Congress to investigate the massacre and the strike. Its report, published in 1915, opened the way to child labour laws and an eight-hour working day.

Mary went on to help found the IWW and was a leading Wobbly organiser. She told her own story in the Autobiography of Mother Jones, published in 1925.

Mother Jones died in 1930. She had just celebrated her 100th birthday, although sources vary on her date of birth.

She is buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois, alongside miners murdered in the 1898 battle of Virden — working-class martyrs she always called “her boys.”

Mary Harris, Mother Jones, will never be forgotten.

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