On Monday, we will honor America’s workers. Blue collar, white collar or pink collar, Labor Day is a well-earned break for all who work hard for their families and communities.
But these are tough times. The wreckage from pandemic mismanagement is everywhere — food banks, breadlines, boarded-up businesses, tens of millions out of work and probably more on the way. This is a good moment to remember lessons from hard times past, to recall visionaries we’ve forgotten.
Mary Harris — A.K.A. Mary Jones, “Mother Jones,” “the Miners’ Angel,” “the most dangerous woman in America” — was one of the most colorful and famous women in the first two decades of the 20th century. Everyone knew about her back then. She was constantly in the newspapers.
Hers’ was the classic American story of humble beginnings. The Harris family came to North America from County Cork, impoverished refugees from the Irish Potato Famine. In just a few years beginning in 1845, a million Irish died of hunger and disease, and another million, like Mary Harris’s people, fled. Her path took her to Toronto; Monroe, Michigan; Chicago and finally Memphis, where she met and married a union iron-molder named George Jones. They had four children together.
In 1867, yellow fever struck Memphis, carrying away George and all four children. Mary Jones helped nurse survivors, then moved back to Chicago. She had taught school as a young woman, but now being around children was too painful. She put her dress-making skills to work and started a small business downtown.
In October 1871, the Great Chicago Fire took everything she had.
So famine, plague and fire left her bereft. She spent the next 25 years mostly in Chicago, and reached her sixties as the 19th century ended, an elderly, widowed, working-class, immigrant woman, almost as dispossessed as an American could be.
And then she became Mother Jones. In the years after the fire, she watched workers struggle to imagine better lives for themselves. She paid attention as big new corporations exploited employees. Passionate young labor leaders inspired her; she found her voice and started making speeches. She channeled all of the pain and loss of her early life into creating a better world for workers like herself, and Chicago was the crucible of her faith.
It was the rank-and-file themselves who called her Mother, and she thought of them as her sons and daughters. From the late 19th century until the 1920s, she was indeed an enraged mother, defending her brood, organizing workers, men and women, black and white, native-born and immigrant. She was everywhere, this old woman in her Victorian dress, giving electric speeches, raising money and telling her followers to “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”
Sixty-six years old and already well-known, Mother Jones exploded into the headlines with the 1903 “March of the Mill Children.” Textile mills routinely employed young workers, some under 12 years old, at dangerous, mind-numbing jobs for pennies a day. Adult wages were often so meager that whole families needed to work to make ends meet. So Mother Jones organized a children’s crusade, part of a larger textile strike, from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia to Sagamore Hill, President Theodore Roosevelt’s summer home on Long Island.
Along the way she gave speeches. “Here’s a textbook on economics,” she told a crowd in Princeton New Jersey, holding up the crippled hands of a boy-worker. “He gets $3 a week working in a carpet factory ten hours a day, six days a week. We are told every American boy has the chance of becoming president. I tell you that these little boys would sell their chances any day for a good square meal and a chance to play.”
In 1915, Mother Jones helped lead women garment workers, most of them immigrants, in one of Chicago’s largest strikes. They marched through the Loop and along the River, and her fiery speeches inspired them.
“Organize! Join the union. That’s your only chance to fight the power of money,” she told them. “Our revolt is against poverty and all the misery that poverty brings.”
The height of Mother Jones’ fame came with the coal wars in West Virginia and Colorado. Miners and their families were forced to accept meager pay in IOU’s, good only for renting shacks in company towns and buying groceries at company stores. Labor organizers took their lives in their hands as mine owners hired armed thugs to keep the unions out. But Mother Jones declared she could raise more hell in prison than out.
“Are you afraid of your little bosses,” she would goad the miners, and she’d tell them they were not fit to have women live with them, whom she then organized into “mop-and-broom” brigades.
Once, when asked to state her home address before a Congressional Committee, Mother Jones responded, “All over this country, wherever there is a good fight against wrong…. my address is like my shoes; it travels with me.”
Still, it was Chicago she kept returning to, staying with old friends like attorney Clarence Darrow and Chicago Federation of Labor President John Fitzpatrick. Chicago, too, was where she wrote “The Autobiography of Mother Jones.”
Struggle and lose, struggle and win, Mother Jones used to say. She fought the good fight for fair wages, decent hours, unions to counter the power of business, and respect for the dignity of work. She defended the family of labor, of all who shared a common identity as workers. She believed that in solidarity lay the power to resist exploitation. And she knew it was a fight that would last for generations.
Mayor Lightfoot has asked us all to think about who Chicago should honor with our statues and memorials. The Mother Jones Heritage Project has been doing precisely that. For over a year, we have been raising money and awareness of this great historical figure. Our honorary chairs include Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants; Daniel Mulhall, the Irish ambassador to the United States; and Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers Union. We are committed to remembering this great American, this great Chicagoan.
Many people deserve to be honored in bronze. Not all of them were rich, well-born men. A statue of Mother Jones would remind us that workers built this city. It would remind us, too, that women, who are barely memorialized at all in Chicago, contributed just as much as men.
And a Mother Jones statue would honor immigrants, waves of them from all over the world who also built this great city and dreamed American dreams.
Elliott Gorn teaches history at Loyola University Chicago and is author of “Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America.” Rosemary Feurer teaches history at Northern Illinois University. For more information, go to: https://www.motherjonesmuseum.org/statue
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