After the death of her husband and four children, Mary Jones risked her life for decades fighting for US workers’ rights says Nicola Depuis.
THE best introduction to labour organiser, Mother Mary Jones, is her own words: “I’m not a humanitarian. I’m a hell-raiser.” In 50 years of campaigning to improve the working conditions of children, miners and textile workers, Mother Jones was frequently imprisoned.
She impacted the labour movement in America so much that she was denounced in the senate as “the grandmother of all agitators”, and described as “the most dangerous woman in America”.
Mother Jones was born Mary Harris on May 1, 1830 in Shandon, on the northside of Cork City. Her paternal grandfather had been a freedom fighter and was hung for it.
Her father, Richard Harris, a Catholic tenant farmer, emigrated to Toronto, Canada, with his wife, Ellen, nee Cotter, and their young family, in 1835, to escape poverty.
Mary’s father worked as a labourer on railroad construction and paid to put his daughter through school. After she graduated, at the age of 17, Mary worked as a schoolteacher in Memphis, Tennessee. Here, she met her husband, George E Jones, an iron-moulder and organiser of the Iron Moulders’ Union, who taught her about unions.
In 1867, yellow fever washed through Memphis, killing her husband and their four young children within a week. She moved to Chicago and ran a successful dress-making business, until, in 1871, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed her home and her business, forcing her to camp beside the lake with the other homeless.
Mary joined the newly formed Knights of Labor, a secret society that was organising textile workers in Chicago, and she became active in the labour movement.
Over the next 50 years, Mary travelled the country, living alongside the workers in tents and shacks, and showing up “wherever there is a fight”.
Her work varied from delivering speeches to recruiting members to the union, and from educating children to organising soup kitchens.
The song ‘She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain’ is said to have been written about Mary’s travels through the Appalachian mountain camps.
In 1898, she co-founded the Social Democratic Party, and, in 1899, she mobilised the miners’ wives to march with brooms and mops to block strike-breakers from entering mines during the United Mine Workers’ strike in Pennsylvania.
She used such tactics many times throughout her career as an agitator. This was a time when unionisation was regularly suppressed by the brute force of the police, federal troops and armed militia, but Mary held fast to her maxim: ‘Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.’
Incensed by child labour, Mary worked in a number of textile mills, where she witnessed the damage being done to children as young as six, who were routinely losing limbs to factory machinery. In 1903, Mary led the ‘March of the Mill Children’, from the textile mills of Kensington, Pennsylvania, to President Theodore Roosevelt’s home, in Long Island, New York. They brandished banners that declared ‘We want to go to schools and not the mines.’
Although the President refused to meet with the marchers, the incident brought the issue of child labour to the forefront of the public agenda and a child labour law was passed that raised the minimum age of workers from 12 to 14.
Mary helped form the radical labour organisation, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), one of the most influential labour agitation forces in US history.
Her fellow IWW-founder, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn described Mary as “the greatest woman agitator of our times”. Mary participated in the strikes of streetcar and garment workers in New York, and in the steel workers’ strike in Pittsburgh in 1919.
At the age of 93, she was still working amongst striking coal workers in West Virginia. A year later, in 1924, she was involved in her last labour dispute, which was, fittingly, a dressmakers’ strike in Chicago, where she had run her own dress-making business many years earlier. Shortly after celebrating her 100th birthday, Mary Harris Jones died, on Nov 30, 1930. She was responsible for raising the minimum age of child labour in many American states, giving countless children the opportunity to escape the perils of factory work, and to continue their schooling.
A fearless leader, Mother Jones often ventured where others feared to tread, risking imprisonment and death in her pursuit of better rights for workers and children.
* The Mother Jones Festival runs from July 30-Aug 2 in Cork. See www.motherjonescork.comMna na hEireann: Women Who Shaped Ireland, by Nicola Depuis (Mercier Press, 2009) is available from all good bookshops.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved