Labor Organizer Mary "Mother Jones" Harris Part 1

About the labor organizer Mary Harris aka Mother Jones her biography and place in United States history as a social reformer.

MARY "Mother Jones" HARRIS (1830-1930).

Labor organizer.

Born in Cork, Ireland, Mary Harris was the daughter of Richard and Helen Harris, who emigrated to Canada. Although her school years were spent in Toronto, where her father's work as a railway construction laborer had taken the family, she was proud when she became an American.

As a young woman, Mary alternated between teaching and dressmaking. Teaching led her to Memphis, Tenn., where she married a member of the Iron Holders' Union, a man named Jones, who then lured her to Chicago, where the great Chicago Fire in 1871 destroyed all of her possessions, as well as the dressmaking establishment she had built up with a partner. There, she had worked on the wardrobes of wealthy families. But her destiny was interwoven with the fabric of national history. Patterns of wealth and power, poverty and helplessness, took shape as America changed from a land of farms to a modern industrial country. Unskilled native and immigrant laborers, and their wives and children, bore the heaviest burden of progress. In this period, from about 1870 to 1920, Mary Jones roamed up and down the land, agitating, organizing, preaching a gospel of justice and dignity for the working man wherever these were sadly lacking.

To railroad workers in Pittsburgh, as well as to coal miners in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Colorado, she was a familiar sight as she went about organizing local unions and walkouts, educating and aiding the workers. Cotton mill workers in the North and in the South, streetcar and garment strikers in New York City, steel and copper workers, all came within the orbit of her concern. Wherever depressed conditions were found, or there was a struggle to better such conditions, she appeared. But for the most part, Mother Jones put her heart and soul into the plight of the coal miners. Working as a paid organizer for the United Mine Workers, she was a prime mover in the unionization of coal workers in West Virginia. In Colorado to investigate conditions caused by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co., a Rockefeller subsidiary, she went to coal camps disguised as a peddler. As she put it: "I then got myself an old calico dress, a sunbonnet, some pins and needles, elastic and tape and such sundries, and went down to the southern coal fields of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co."

She soon discovered that a feudal system existed in which there was company ownership of whole towns--including their schools, churches, and newspapers--and the prevalence of such questionable practices as payment of wages in scrip instead of cash. The miners wanted an 8-hour day plus other reforms. Under militia control, strikers suffered atrocities, deportations, and even murder. The bitter struggle flared again some years later, accompanied by more violence. Mother Jones was shocked by the Ludlow Massacre of April 20, 1914, in which 20 persons died. Some of these victims, who had been living in a miners' tent colony, were mere children. Mother Jones related this story to audiences across the country.

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