Saturday, December 26, 2015

THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MOTHER JONES   Charles H Kerr Publishing Company, Chicago, 1974

This is one of those 'should read' books that I should probably have read decades ago. Better late than never I guess. Mother (Mary) Harris Jones was one of the greats of the 'golden age' of American labor. It's a select company, Lucy Parsons, Big Bill Haywood, Joe Hill, Eugene Debs. Elizabeth Gurly Flynn, Ralph Chaplin, etc.: It's a bright galaxy to which she belongs.

 She may or may not belong to yet another exclusive club. She as born in Cork Ireland sometime in the 1830s. Today a monument to her memory stands in that city. Her family emigrated to Canada some years later where she initially trained as a teacher in a Toronto Normal School. The actual date of her birth is uncertain. As to her birthday being May 1, May Day, it seems almost too convenient. In terms of the year shortly before her death in 1930 she claimed that the birthday marked her as 100 years old. That would put her in the other exclusive club - of centarians. The question of her birthday has never been resolved. As to her claim remember where she was born. Blarney Castle is not that far from Cork.

In any case she had a long life, and was an outstanding labor militant from the days of the Knights of Labor until the agitation of the Depression. This life was filled with exciting struggles, and it is well worthwhile to hear her description of having guns pointed at here with a death threat attached, of hiking it up mountains via creek beds in the cold to come to the aid of miners surrounded by armed goons in the employ of the mining bosses. Her ability to 'string pull' was perhaps just as interesting as her physical courage. Politicians listened to her.

Her major focus of organizing was in the mining industry, and she became so prominent that the nickname 'the miners' friend' stuck. Her scope in such campaigns was wide, not just the men themselves but their families, local communities and, as mentioned, the far away politicos. She also organized in the silk mills, railroad shops and for the campaigns against child labor.

To here the abstract world of politics was less important than the more mundane everyday life of working men and women. She took part in the founding of the IWW, having signed the call for the Convention (the only woman amongst the signers), and she attended it in Chicago. Other than this she seemed unimpressed with the prospects of the IWW. She did campaign for the Western Federation of Miners and for clemency for various class war IWW members, but her major focus remained the miners of the United Mine Workers, and there was surely enough scope there to occupy anybody's time. She did, however, share the IWW's contempt for many union 'leaders' who feathered their nests at the expense of the interests of the workers. As she says in her autobiography;

"Those ere the days of sacrifice for the cause of labor. Those were the days when we had no halls, when there were no high salaried officers, no feasting with the enemies of labor. Those were the days of the martyrs and saints."

The last chapter of her autobiography is titled, appropriately, 'Progress in spite of leaders'.

Jones faced her share of tragedy during her life. Personal as when she lost her husband and four children and those of the many workers she had met and befriended over the years. Labor disputes often took a fatal toll in those days.

The book is prefaced with an introduction by Fred Thompson and a foreword by Clarence Darrow, both very useful in setting Jones' book it a wider context and pointing out here very occasional errors. All told the book was captivating, and I wish I read it long ago.


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