The Coal Miners' Mother
- News for Anarchists & Activists:
UPDATED AT 1:47 AM EST Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2003
The coal miners' mother
Mother Jones was guardian angel of U.S. miners , Paul Knox
writes, Rod Mickelburgh writes
By ROD MICKLEBURGH
From Thursday's Globe and Mail
As the spanking new 20th century dawned, there was little
mirth in the land of the free if you happened to be a coal
miner. From Colorado to the Appalachians, mine owners grew
rich by keeping their thumbs squarely on their workers.
With an endless supply of new immigrants desperate for jobs,
owners had little trouble finding miners willing to work 10
to 12 hours a day for miserable pay in conditions that might
have shocked Charles Dickens a half century earlier.
Most miners were forced to live in company-owned housing
with imposed rents, paid in scrip rather than cash and left
with no choice but to shop at company-owned stores where
prices were artificially high -- leaving them little more
than slaves. For this, they died in the thousands. Between
1870 and 1914, an estimated 50,000 coal miners lost their
lives on the job in the United States, a death rate three
times higher than that of industrial Europe.
When they tried to organize for better conditions, miners
were fired, blacklisted, beaten and sometimes murdered by
company henchmen. During strikes, compliant politicians
ensured that state militias were unleashed to transport
union leaders out and escort strikebreakers in.
"The story of coal is always the same," wrote Mother Jones,
the legendary grandmother of all agitators, renowned for her
irascible tongue and fighting union spirit. "It is a dark story.
"For a second more sunlight, men must fight like tigers. For
the privilege of seeing the colour of their children's eyes
by the light of the sun, fathers must fight as beasts in the
jungle. That life may have something of decency, something
of beauty -- a picture, a new dress, a bit of cheap lace
fluttering in the window -- for this, men who work down in
the mines must struggle and lose, struggle and win."
Most of the time, workers struggled and lost, as they did in
1904, when coal and metal miners in Colorado fought a brave
but hopeless strike against the Rockefeller-controlled
Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. and other powerful companies that
ruled the state's mining industry like feudal fiefs.
The miners were demanding nothing more radical than the
eight-hour day that was already state law, the right to
choose the man on the weigh scale who determined their
piecework income and an end to armed guards patrolling the
Although the strikers achieved none of their goals, the
violent conflict was pivotal in the breakthrough industrial
unions finally made a decade later, when the killing of
strikers, women and children by state troopers in an
incident known as the Ludlow Massacre horrified the country
and forced governments to acknowledge that something had to
be done to right industrial wrongs.
The way was paved for New Deal legislation guaranteeing
workers the right to join unions of their choice and bargain
The seeds for this were on every picket line everywhere in
the United States, but few disputes had the lasting
significance of the miners' defeat in Colorado in 1904.
At the forefront of the strike was a woman with snow-white
hair, sweet-looking blue eyes and wire spectacles, who
nearly always wore a black dress with a lace-trimmed bonnet.
Mother Jones was as unlikely looking a union firebrand as
might be imagined. But at 67, she was the United Mine
Workers' most revered organizer, a tireless advocate for her
"boys" in the mines and a ferocious opponent of the
companies that ran them. "I'm not a humanitarian," she liked
to proclaim. "I'm a hell-raiser."
When Mother Jones died in 1930, the miners' self-styled
guardian angel was mourned in song by an up-and-coming
country singer named Gene Autry. Less known is that her
early life was spent in Canada.
Her immigrant Irish family lived at 210 Bathurst St. in
Toronto. Mary Harris, as she was then, attended Toronto
Normal School in 1857, after receiving a certificate from a
priest at St. Michael's Cathedral affirming her good moral
character. But she left Toronto for good in 1860, accepting
a teaching job at a convent in Michigan that began a shadowy
35-year odyssey of which little is known until she emerged
in the late 1890s as Mother Jones, tirelessly crisscrossing
the country from strike to strike. She was still at it in
She did return once to Canada, journeying north to boost the
spirits of striking coal miners in Cumberland, on Vancouver
Island. Years later, one of the strikers remembered: "She
was a fiery one. I think she was 4-foot-5 or something. A
short woman but, by God, she was something."
The Colorado mining wars began in November of 1903, when
thousands of coal miners walked off the job, along with
metal miners belonging to the Western Federation of Miners.
The WFM was led by Big Bill Haywood, a unionist so radical
that his ashes were later buried in a wall for revolutionary
heroes near the Kremlin.
The moment the strike began, the companies evicted the
miners from their homes, compelling them to set up huge tent
colonies in the teeth of winter, where they struggled to
survive on strike pay of 63 cents a week.
Armed private detectives, vigilantes in the anti-union
Citizens' Alliance and contingents of the Colorado National
Guard continuously harassed the strikers. Yet they held out,
incensing Colorado governor James Peabody, who was
determined to crush the strikes once and for all.
Mr. Peabody's first target was Mother Jones, whose fiery
speeches and determination had done so much to bolster
spirits in the camps.
"[She] can sway thousands to a spirit of frenzy or with a
shake of her head and a few soft-spoken words check the mob
seeking to burn and slay," the Denver Post reported.
When the United Mine Workers called a conference in late
March, 1904, to consider calling off their seemingly doomed
battle, Mr. Peabody put the area under martial law. Saloons
were shut, newspapers were closed and telephone calls in
foreign languages were banned. Mother Jones was arrested and
the governor ordered her out of the state.
But Mr. Peabody quickly found that deporting the feisty
woman was not so easy. Thanks to a sympathetic conductor,
Mother Jones managed to switch trains, winding up in Denver,
the governor's own back yard. There, she sent him a cheeky note.
"I am right here in the capital . . . four or five blocks
from your office. I want to ask you, governor, what in hell
are you going to do about it?"
Cowed and nervous about the publicity, the governor did
nothing about it, and the dramatic incident lives on in
union lore, although Mother Jones did not immediately return
to the strikebound mines in Colorado, heading instead to
another coal strike in Utah.
Meanwhile, violence erupted in the metal miners' strike.
After several union men were shot, a train carrying
strikebreakers was dynamited, killing 13. The state
responded by rounding up hundreds of strikers and herding
them into local stockyards. More than 75 union activists
were bundled aboard trains and dumped across state lines.
Gradually, the striking miners were ground down, returning
to work in the fall without a single improvement. It was a
bitter defeat, but it left an indelible mark on the future
of organized industrial labour in the United States.
Union leaders, including Mother Jones, deepened their
commitment. Radicalism increased. A year later, Mother Jones
was one of 27 delegates at the founding convention of the
International Workers of the World, the celebrated
"Wobblies" who carried the working-class struggle into mines
and logging camps across the continent.
"The generations yet unborn will read with horror of the
crimes committed by the mine owners of Colorado, with their
hired bloodhounds aching to spill the blood of their
slaves," she wrote around that time. "Defeated? No, you
cannot defeat such brave men and women as entered into that
frightful struggle. They have just retreated."
By 1913, conditions had become so bad in Colorado's grim
coal mines that the strikebreakers from 1904 had joined the
union side. The United Mine Workers was ready to renew the
The resulting confrontation erupted into one of the most
violent chapters in labour history, topped by the infamous
Ludlow Massacre. On April 19, 1914, a Sunday, soldiers
surrounded the strikers' large colony in Ludlow and
methodically began firing into the tents. Later, they set
the tents on fire. By the end of the day, strike leader
Louis Tikas had been shot in the head and five other
strikers had been fatally cut down. The dead also included
two women and 11 children asphyxiated in a pit below their
tent, where they had crawled to escape the gunfire and flames.
The miners retaliated with guns of their own, and by the end
of the month, 40 men on both sides lay dead. The union still
fell short of final victory (in part because of William Lyon
Mackenzie King's advice to the Rockefeller family to set up
tame, company-controlled unions), but the ensuing outcry led
to U.S. congressional intervention and an environment that
made the successful union-organizing drives of the 1930s
As for Mother Jones, she carried on for another two decades
until old age finally slowed her remarkable energy as she
Her name lives on as the title of the best-known left-wing
magazine in the United States.
She never forgot the lessons of the hard-fought strike of 1904.
"The bitterness and despair of the workers smouldered and
smouldered long after the fires of open rebellion had been
extinguished in 1904," she recalled in her autobiography.
"Finally, after a decade of endurance, the live coals in the
hearts of the miners leaped into a roaring fire of revolt."
Now available: _The Unspeakable and Others_
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