Mother Jones Dinner speaker: Labor should challenge capitalism head-on
Mother Jones and 600 miners marching to the State Capitol at Denver, Colorado | Historic labor archives

SPRINGFIELD, Ill.—The labor movement must embrace its “willingness to lose,” while challenging capitalism and its exploitation of workers head-on, says University of Colorado law professor Ahmed White.

White brought that thesis to the 37th annual Mother Jones Dinner in Springfield, Ill., in October. The Mother Jones Foundation hosts the annual dinner “to remind modern audiences of our rich labor heritage” and to address contemporary labor questions.

The dinner is not the sole commemoration of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones in the Land of Lincoln. She’s buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in the downstate coal country city of Mount Olive.

And a planned monument, depicting Jones leading a workers’ mass march down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, will soon be at the starting point for those marches: Chicago’s historic Water Tower, which survived the 1871 Great Chicago Fire.

Author of Under The Iron Heel: The Wobblies And The Capitalist War On Radical Workers, White elaborated on his book’s history of the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Founded in Chicago in 1905, the IWW sought capitalism’s overthrow and democratic worker workplace control.

The union was popularly known as the “Wobblies” and organized immigrant, agricultural, and timber workers other unions ignored. Because the IWW refused to sign contracts with employers, the organization won some victories but had little long-term presence.

White documented how state and federal laws repressed the IWW, particularly World War I era criminal syndicalism legislation that saw union halls raided, plus union members arrested and convicted by the hundreds. He noted many imprisoned Wobblies had a martyr complex, viewing the union almost as a religion.

Vigilantes aided by local law enforcement attacked the union, lynching and killing leaders. On July 12, 1917, 1,286 striking copper miners in Bisbee, Ariz., were forced onto railroad cattle cars and dropped in the desert. Continual repression meant by the mid-1920s the IWW was a shadow of itself.

White’s conclusion was that capitalism’s “iron heel” will continue to oppress workers and that worker freedom only comes with the current economic order’s demise. Thus his call for a “willingness to lose” echoes the IWW ideal, which continually stood against capitalism.

In honor of the dinner’s namesake, the evening also featured a one-act play, A Table For Two At The Dill Pickle Club by Larry Kirwan. The performance depicts a Chicago 1920 backroom meeting between famed Irish-American labor organizer Mother Jones (1837-1930) and Irish and U.S. labor organizer Jim Larkin (1874-1947). Larkin helped found the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, still a powerful Irish labor organization.

In the play, the two commiserate about their lives. While Mother Jones was feisty and ready for battle against corporate interests, especially in the railroads and coalfields, Larkin, who was without a legal passport, was anxious to return to his homeland. Larkin was arrested in the U.S. in 1920, convicted under the criminal syndicalism laws that targeted the IWW and sent to Sing Sing prison.

New York State Democratic Governor Al Smith pardoned Larkin in 1923. Larkin returned to Ireland where he continued his labor and radical politics.

At the dinner, which ended with everyone singing Solidarity, Irish native and Chicago Teachers Union Local 1 member Brigid Duffy portrayed Jones. Columbia College’s Will Casey played Larkin.

Mike Matejka is a reporter for the Labor Paper in Springfield, Illinois.

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Mike Matejka
Mike Matejka

Mike Matejka is a reporter for the Labor Paper in Springfield, Illinois.