In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we offer a shoutout to Mary Harris “Mother” Jones (1837-1930). Born in Cork, Ireland, on May 1 (long before that became the international labor holiday), she emigrated with her family first to Canada, and later to the United States. She was a schoolteacher and dressmaker who became a labor and community organizer. A fiery orator, a brave and determined heroine to millions of workers, she was active from the end of the Civil War till shortly before her death.
In June 1897, after she addressed the railway union convention, she began to be referred to as “Mother” by the men of the union. The name stuck. She helped coordinate major strikes and co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World. She is known for saying, “I’m not a lady, I’m a hell-raiser!“
Because of her agitation, Mother Jones was barred from several states, and more than once spent extended periods of time in prison. She was banished from more towns and was held incommunicado in more jails in more states than any other union leader of the time. At times she was held in military camps for months on end, and once was held in a rat-filled cellar for 26 days.
Although her name is most often associated with the coal and steel unions, she was also in the forefront against the exploitation of children in the textile mills and coal mills and fought to bring education to those children.
Her tactics set her apart from other organizers. She welcomed African American workers and involved women and children in strikes. She organized miners’ wives into teams armed with mops and brooms to guard the mines against scabs. She staged parades with children carrying signs that read, “We Want to Go to School and Not to the Mines.”
The book Mother Jones Speaks: Speeches and Writings, edited by Philip S. Foner, is a comprehensive collection of her speeches, letters, articles, interviews and testimony before Congressional committees. In her own words, she explains her life, her mission and her passion on behalf of working people.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons