Garrett Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Emanuel Garrett

Men and Women of Labor

Out Of The Past

Mother Jones
(May 1, 1830–Nov. 30, 1930)

(23 May 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 35, 23 May 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

“You don’t need a vote to raise hell”, said Mother Jones. And hell she did raise wherever she went; and she went pretty near everywhere in the cause of the working class.

Once, in 1910, she was called before a Congressional investigating committee to account for her part in aiding Mexican revolutionists against the tyrant Diaz. The committee asked her her address. “I live in the United States”, she told them, “but I do not know exactly where. My address is wherever there is a fight against oppression. Sometimes I am in Washington, then in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Texas, Minnesota, Colorado. My address is like my shoes; it travels with me.” Mother Jones was then 80 years old.

She had been born in County Cork, Ireland. Her father, a worker and an advocate of Irish freedom, moved his family to this continent when Mary Harris Jones was six. For a time the family lived in Canada where Mary Harris received her schooling. Out of school, she taught in a Michigan convent for a while; then she opened a dress-making establishment in Chicago. In 1861, she married a member of the Iron Moulders Union. Ten years later her husband, and the four children she had borne, died in a yellow-fever epidemic.

Known to Every Worker

Mary Harris Jones, a woman of forty, came into contact with the Knights of Labor. She had never before been a member of a union. But the Knights of Labor inspired her to her life’s work. Thenceforth she sank her personal life completely into the trade union movement. Mary Harris Jones became Mother Jones to every worker in the country as she travelled from strike to strike, most often by invitation of union leaders, sometimes forcing her was in, pitching her picturesque vocabulary, her steady wit and her sense of drama against the bosses.

Essentially, Mother Jones was a revolutionary, though she herself probably never realized it. Theory wasn’t her strong point; frequently she made errors (e.g., supporting the Democratic party in 1916). But in her bitter denunciations of bossdom, her attacks on the state machinery, and in her militant methods of organizing, Mother Jones was a deep going revolutionist who hated capitalist oppression with her every fibre. Did the bosses get out an injunction against her – a piece of paper to be torn up. Did the bosses order her to leave the state – an order to be defied. Did the National Guard patrol a struck mine – a force to be ignored, and fought.

It made little difference to Mother Jones which union was running a strike – A.F.L., or I.W.W. She participated in both. For the most part, she worked among the miners; for many years she was officially employed by the United Mine Workers though she despised John Mitchell, president of the U.M.W.U., whom she considered insufficiently devoted to the interests of the workers. Often she quarrelled with union officialdom; sometimes she violated union policy.

But her presence was welcomed in any situation; for her real contributions were in the field. She could throw a community into strike action by a single speech; hence the worried look on sheriffs’ faces when Mother Jones came to town. In West Virginia, once, she spoke to a group of miners. At the end of the speech they implored her: “Organize us, Mother.” Which she did, while a union flunkey stood by and complained that she didn’t know the ritual, and that a charter hadn’t been paid for and received from the national office.

Hard-boiled, and also sentimental, Mother Jones believed in using the most spectacular and the most militant means to put an action across. Once she imported a group of crippled miners to New York. A other time, in the coal strike of 1902, she organized a brigade of miners’ wives, armed with mops and brooms. Another time, a group of women were arrested for strike activity. At her advice they brought their children to jail, sang all night, slept during the day; in a few days they were released – no one in town had been able to sleep.

Couldn’t Be Stopped

She worked in a cotton mill to get material against child labor which she abhorred to fury. She posed as a peddler to get information for the U.M.W.U., which led to the strike of 1903 in Colorado. With general causes, like women’s suffrage, she had no sympathy. Women, she said, had to get into the class struggle and fight there.

She was in Pittsburgh during the labor riot of 1877; in Chicago during the Haymarket affair of 1886; in Birmingham during the American Railway Union strike of 1894. Colorado deported her in 1903, and again in 1913. A military court sentenced her to twenty years for inciting to murder, during the 1912 miners’ strike; a senate committee set the verdict aside. In 1914 she presented to President Wilson the facts of the Ludlow massacre in which Rockefeller troops cold-bloodedly murdered the wives and children of striking miners. In 1915, she was in New York working for the garment workers’ and street car strikes. In 1919 she lent her abilities to the great Steel strike. In 1923, at the age of 93, she was still working – in the West Virginia coal fields.

Threatened time and again by thugs and police, Mother Jones never once quailed. The little old woman in the black bonnet who could outswear a trooper couldn’t be stopped. She did as she chose, and hurled defiance at those who would prevent her. “Lad”, she told a miner’s boy who had witnessed a thug threatening her “the great Standard Oil is certainly afraid of an old woman.” And with good reason. For that old woman represented the spirit and courage of the working class.

Emanuel Garrett Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 17 January 2016