Mother Jones and the Labor Movement

While prominent Church leaders in the U.S. would provide leadership in the labor arena in the 1930s and later, it was an Irish Catholic immigrant woman in her sixties that would provide much of the support for laborers in the early decades of the 20th century. Mary Harris Jones, known as "Mother" Jones to her supporters and to history, joined the burgeoning labor movement in the late 19th century in Chicago and would make it her life's work until her death in 1930 at the age of 93. Jones would spend the majority of her 30 years of work as an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), having a special affinity for the coal miners. Her hands-on approach to organizing by going into mining camps and being on the front lines with strikers endeared her to her supporters, and her efforts helped raise awareness of the need for unionization.

-In 1925, Jones would publish her autobiography simply titled The Autobiography of Mother Jones. With a short section on her early life, the book deals mainly with her work in support of the U.S. labor movement.

-Jones had a good relationship with UMWA president John Mitchell in her first four years with the organization. One of her first major assignments as an organizer was in West Virginia, with several letters between herself and Mitchell in July, August, and October 1901 detailing some of the early work there.

-Jones also fought against child labor, with the most famous example of this being a children's crusade she led from Philadelphia to New York to protest conditions. This newspaper clipping includes a letter written by Jones to President Theodore Roosevelt seeking his assistance in ending the practice.

-In addition to West Virginia, Jones would also spend considerable time in Colorado assisting with coal industry organizing there. This speech from 1913 indicates that while she never encouraged strikes, she argued that Colorado miners needed to take a stand.

-While raised a Catholic, Jones had, at best, a tenuous relationship with official Church leadership. Many of her speeches are sprinkled with allusions to Christ, but she often spoke contemptuously of Church leaders not actually assisting the working class in practical ways. In a letter to her friend Terence Powderly, Jones rails against the religious leaders of a hospital in Colorado where she was placed under house arrest.

-While Jones would continue to work for several more years, this letter in 1917 to Illinois State Federation of Labor president John Walker summed up her fears for the future of the labor movement, particularly in the UMWA as the union's legendary leader John L. Lewis was making his rise to power.