‘I’m not a humanitarian, I’m a hell-raiser'

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.

The Globe and Mail
January 1, 2004

‘I’m not a humanitarian, I’m a hell-raiser’
Mother Jones, guardian angel of U.S. miners who were desperate to improve their lot, left enduring legacy, Rod Mickleburgh discovers.
Rod Mickleburgh

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.

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 collectively.

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.

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. 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.

Gradually, the striking miners were ground down, returning to work in the fall without a single improvement.

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 battle.

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 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 possible.

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."

The 1900s had already begun, but the new century was still taking shape. One hundred years later, The Globe and Mail recalls how 1904 helped shape our world - from America's heartland to the Caribbean, from Africa's jungles to the shores of the Pacific Rim.

The grandmother of all agitators.

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