You Can Thank Mother Jones for Your Labor Day Barbecue

David Tindell

David Tindell AFL-CIO

There are many great figures in labor history who are never covered in history class—women and men who wreaked havoc upon the rules of our once extremely plutocratic society to guarantee the living standards that millions of American workers enjoy today.

As we observe Labor Day with family and friends on Monday, let’s not take for granted these spoils, and instead savor our shared labor legacy alongside our beers and brats. One figure, among many, who deserves particular attention is Mary Harris “Mother” Jones.

She’s more than the name of a magazine. Once called the “most dangerous woman in America,” you probably won’t find her name in any public-school textbook. At barely 5 feet tall, the legendary Mother Jones stood up to men twice her size to fight for the rights of thousands of mine workers in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Colorado

In 1903, she marched alongside hundreds of child strikers and their parents for three weeks, traveling from Philadelphia all the way to President Theodore Roosevelt’s home in New York to protest the exploitation of these children. Although it was decades before Franklin Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act protecting young workers nationwide, her efforts publicized the problem of child labor and moved the wheels of progress.

Let’s take a trip back to her time. Facing issues such as globalization and automation, workers today have very real concerns. But Mother Jones, born in Cork County, Ireland, in 1837, was alive to see the Industrial Revolution kick the living standards of working people right off a cliff. Not only were men, women and children working 80-hour weeks to earn just enough to live in poverty, many were dying in the process.

In 1900, 35,000 workers were killed and half a million were maimed in industrial accidents. Many of the 1.7 million workers under the age of 15 developed spine curvature, stunted growth and diseases such as tuberculosis.

Personal tragedy seemed to follow Mother Jones throughout her life. Her family immigrated to North America when she was a young girl to escape the Irish potato famine. Yellow fever claimed the lives of her husband and four children when she was 30. Four years later, she lost all of her belongings in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Busy running from famine and yellow fever in her younger years, she didn’t wage many of her greatest labor battles until she was in her 60s. And let’s not forget that she lived during a time when women had second-class status in American society. Women’s organizations had only begun to form, and women’s suffrage was just beginning to enter mainstream politics.

So, why thank Mother Jones? For her example. Mother Jones co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World, led successful coal miner strikes and raised awareness of child exploitation. What makes these accomplishments truly impressive is their context.

Despite her age and stature, despite the hardships she endured, and during a time when society denied women equal participation and respect, Mother Jones made it her life’s work to upend how the world operates, and forever changed the lives of thousands of mine workers and children.

Reading the news today about wealth inequality, trade agreements that sacrifice jobs for commerce and presidential candidates comparing unions to ISIS terrorists, it’s easy to find the world an increasingly negative place.

But, in our shared history, we find incredible stories of fighters such as Mother Jones, Samuel Gompers and A. Philip Randolph, who overcame odds even larger than our own.

So for Labor Day, when you get a second between bites, put down your hot dog and read up on Mother Jones. You’ll definitely be thankful—and hopefully maybe even a little inspired.


This has been reposted from the AFL-CIO.