Mary Harris Jones: One Tough 'Mother' - Part 2 of 3: 'Wherever There Is a Fight'

Mary Harris Jones: One Tough 'Mother'

Part 2 of 3: 'Wherever There Is a Fight'

By Joseph E. Gannon

From July 1914 issue of "International Socialist"
Dressed in her signature black, "Mother" makes her point.

"Mother Jones" worked a few more years doing seamstress work around the city, but at the same time, she began to attend meetings of the Knights of Labor, one of the largest of the early labor unions. Her intelligent questions during meeting brought her to the attention of the union leaders, and they asked her to work for the union. Well into her forties, she now began the career that would make her one of the most loved, and, in some quarters, among the most hated women in America.

Traveling the country, to "wherever there is a fight," as she put it, to organize American workers, she discovered something: She was a breathtaking orator. There is a saying that is popular in the American South: "It ain't the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog." No person ever proved that saying more than the 5-foot-tall Jones. Her dedication and tireless work for America's poor would cause female labor organizer, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, to call Jones, "the greatest woman agitator of our time." Labor leader Walter Hurt called her "the Grand Old Woman of the revolutionary movement."

Labor activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, an admirer of Jones', at a strike in Paterson, New Jersey, 1913.

Often part of the power of our great, typically male, speakers has been their intimidating physical presence. Jones did not impress anyone with her physical appearance. But when she began to speak, this tiny woman seized her audience's attention with the strength of her will and the courage of her convictions. Always dressed in black, with her hair graying, she soon earned the nickname "Mother" Jones, from the mostly young men and women she often led. Those men and women would be the only family she would have for the rest of her life, and she wore the name they gave her with pride.

"Mother" Jones would organize workers in nearly every area of American labor, and in every corner of the country at one time or other over the next 40 plus years. She focused on two areas: child labor and the plight of America's miners.

We have all heard horror tales of the days when children were among the American work force, but few realize what a grim existence America's miners led in the late 19th century.

Even today, mining is, by its nature, a dangerous activity. In the 19th century, when industry had little regulation, it was much more so. Of all the exploiters of workers in the 19th century, perhaps none were worse than the mine owners.

Safety conditions in mines were abominable, and the miners usually lived in drafty shacks owned by the mines, which they "rented" at outrageously high rates. Most owners paid their workers in script, rather than actual money, and this script was only good at the mines' company stores, where the owners could charge whatever they pleased. Through this system, miners were kept as virtual slaves. Many a miner did, indeed, "… owe my soul to the company store." The conditions outraged Jones, and she threw her prodigious energies into this battle for justice and human dignity.

Library of Congress
A group of child factory workers around the turn of the century.

From the 1890s on, Jones devoted much of her time to America's miners. In West Virginia, her name was revered among the miners and reviled by the mine owners. The fight to unionize miners in West Virginia was one of the most difficult and meanest fights in the history of American labor, and Jones was one of the greatest leaders of that fight.

Mine owners often owned all the land and roads around their mines, and they had heavily armed private armies protecting these areas. The miners lived on that land, creating special problems for any labor organizer. Jones met that problem head-on, as she did so many others in her life.

At the age of 81, Jones once walked directly up to a smoking machine-gun, moments after it had been firing at a group of miners she was leading to a meeting. Placing her hand in front of the barrel and staring into the eyes of the man in charge, she dared him to open fire again. When it appeared he might do just that, she showed that her mind was still sharp at her advanced age. Bluffing the man, she told him she had several hundred armed miners in the hills above them ready to swoop if he pulled the trigger. She and her "boys" were allowed to pass.

The emblem of the United Mine Workers of America.

Shortly after that incident, this same man confronted Jones and her lads again, blocking a bridge they needed to cross to follow the only road leading to another meeting. This time he was sure he had the "hellcat," as he had called her, stymied. He had the bridge blocked, and the only other way to get to the mining camp was up the creek bed.

It was early spring and the creek was running ice cold with the winter snow-melt from the hills. Jones asked him if he really meant to make an 81- year-old woman walk up that ice-cold creek. He must have been certain she wasn't about to do it, and who would think he could be wrong? Only one person, perhaps, but that one was Jones herself.

Perhaps influenced by the presence of reporters, who could report to the nation on the callousness of the mine owners' private armies, she doffed her shoes and stockings, rolled up her skirt, and stepped right into that frigid water. When the miners in the camp saw her coming through that icy creek, they flocked to the union banner, not even requiring a word from her.

No doubt the mine owners prayed that icy trip up that creek would kill the elderly Jones. Not only did she survive, but, at 81, her struggle against the nearly unrestricted exploitation of America's workers now began in earnest.

Part 3: A Soldier for Justice

She "fought like hell for the living" to help win basic human rights for America's working poor and never took a step backward, no matter how rich or powerful the opponent. She was one of the strongest female figures in US history, and now you can read her entire incredible story in Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America by Elliott J Gorn.

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