Jones: The Mother of the Labor Movement
by Region 8 Webmaster John Davis
Mary Harris is name that you wont find
in many history books. There are no skyscrapers in New York City
that bear her name, or federal governmental office buildings named
after her. The lone representation
of her legacy by governmental recognition is the Mary Harris Jones
Elementary School in Adelphi, Maryland. However, the record of her
life is one of great importance to working people in this country.
Far too often history records the exploits of the
wealthy and powerful while ignoring the triumphs of those who dedicated
their life to helping others. Mary Harris was one such person, whose
life and legacy is one that deserves recognition on this the day
set aside to honor America’s workers. While the name Mary
Harris is not know, it is her nickname “Mother Jones”
that briefly scratches recognition in the history books.
Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was born
in Ireland in 1830 and moved to Toronto with her family at an early
age. Once completing her schooling, Mary worked as both a teacher
and seamstress in the United States, ending up in Memphis, Tennessee
in 1861. It was here she met and married George Jones, a member
of the Iron Molders’ Union. Mary and George had a good life
and began a family right away. In 1867 a yellow fever epidemic swept
through Memphis, claiming the life of her husband George and their
four small children. George and Mary nursed each child as the sickness
claimed them one by one, with George finally succumbing to the disease
after the children. His union brothers came and took care of the
burial for Mary, as she found herself alone in the world. The poor
of Memphis could not afford nurses to help them during the plaque,
so Mary applied for and received a permit to care for the sick.
Helping those she could, she spent her final days in Memphis caring
for the sick until the disease had ran its course.
Afterwards, Mary moved to Chicago where she had
briefly lived before moving to Memphis and took work as a seamstress.
Her position as a seamstress placed her in the homes of the rich
and powerful of Chicago, while the hungry and downtrodden lived
on the streets outside the windows of the fine mansions in which
she worked. Each day Mary watched the poor struggle to survive as
the rich feasted off their labor. It was in Chicago that she joined
the Knights of Labor.
The Knights of Labor had been founded in the years
following the Civil War, when a group of men from both the North
and South came together to fight a new type of slavery, with that
being industrial slavery. The poverty in the years following the
war had resulted in poor people of all races being exploited by
the rich and powerful. Mary spent many evenings listening to the
speakers at the union hall who inspired her to take up the struggle
for the working poor and downtrodden. The great Chicago fire of
1873 left many poor and homeless, including Mary Jones who also
lost her seamstress shop in the tragedy. It was then that she would
wholly devote herself to the cause of labor.
In the 1880s, a massive immigration of the poor
from Europe to the United States flooded the job market, further
driving down wages and working conditions. To try and level the
job market, the Knights
of Labor and other unions began to work toward the idea of an eight
hour work day in 1886, due to the fact that most workers were forced
to toll long hours each day which meant fewer jobs and more desperation.
Mary Jones was instrumental in the movement and helped lead a parade
on Christmas Day of the poor and poverty stricken down the streets
that lined the mansions of the wealthy. The next May a strike was
called at the McCormick Harvester Works in support of the eight-hour
workday. The police were brought in to shoot the striking workers
and those who organized the strike were arrested and hanged on November
11, 1886. Mary Jones was not one of the unlucky activists to be
charged and murdered, but she continued her fight for workers.
By now Mary had become known as “Mother Jones”
and moved down into the mining areas of West Virginia, Pennsylvania
and Virginia. Through many communities she worked to organize the
miners so they could collectively demand better working conditions
and fairer treatment.
In the spring of 1903, Mother Jones took up the
struggle of children working in mills and joined a strike of 75,000
textile workers in Kensington, Pennsylvania. Of this number of strikers,
over 10,000 were children, many of which were missing fingers from
working in the mills. Most were under ten years old, while the law
required children to be twelve before they could work in the mills.
Mother Jones soon discovered that most of the children were working
illegally because their fathers had been maimed or killed in the
local mines. She tried to get the local newspapers to carry stories
about the tragedy of children labor, but they refused because the
mill owners held stock in the papers. So, again Mother Jones turned
to parading the poor in the streets and took thousands of these
little children down the streets to city hall where she called upon
the mill owners to stop sacrificing children upon the altar of profit.
While local papers would not carry the story, papers in larger Pennsylvania
cities and in New York told of the sacrifice of the innocents in
the mills in the name of profit.
Mother Jones then got the idea to take the children
on a tour to spread the news of how they were being exploited. The
marchers carried signs that read “More Schools and Less Hospitals”
and “We Want Time To Play.” The group marched from Pennsylvania
to Oyster Bay, New York where President
Theodore Roosevelt was vacationing with his children. The President
refused to grant an audience to the army of children that followed
Mother Jones, but they continued to spread the word. In New York
City the Mayor denied them access to the city until Mother Jones
– then in her 70s- visited the Mayor in person and shamed
him into letting the group enter the city. The people of New York
listened to Mother Jones tell of how children as young as eight
worked eleven hours a day in a factory for just three dollars a
The owner of the wild animal show at Coney Island offered to treat
Mother Jone’s “Army” to a day on the boardwalk.
Mother Jones was allowed to speak to the crowd at the show and she
placed a group of little children in the cages that usually housed
animals and told the crowd that children were being held captive
in the mills of Pennsylvania just as the animals were captive in
While her pleas continued to fall on deaf ears in
Washington, the Pennsylvania Legislature were pressured into passing
laws that forbid children under the age of fourteen to work in the
In 1925 Mother Jones was attacked by a pair of men
at friends house in which she was staying. She fought off the men
and one eventually died from wounds he suffered in the attack. Mother
Jones was arrested and charged with murder. However, the charges
were later dropped when it was learned the men were associates of
a prominent local businessman carrying out his despicable wishes.
Mother Jones died at the age of 100 in 1930, following
a long life of working for the rights of others. While she lost
her own children in 1867, her work for all children earned her the
name “Mother Jones” for virtually everyone else. This
Labor Day, remember it is not just the last fling of summer, but
rather a day to remember heroes such as Mother Jones who fought
so all working class Americans could have a better life.