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The Coal Miners' Mother

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  • Dan Clore
    News for Anarchists & Activists: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo UPDATED AT 1:47 AM EST Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2003 The coal miners mother Mother Jones was
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 1, 2004
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      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
      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
      mine site.

      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
      her mid-80s.

      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
      turned 90.

      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."

      Dan Clore

      Now available: _The Unspeakable and Others_
      Lord We├┐rdgliffe & Necronomicon Page:
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      "It's a political statement -- or, rather, an
      *anti*-political statement. The symbol for *anarchy*!"
      -- Batman, explaining the circle-A graffiti, in
      _Detective Comics_ #608
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