Mother Jones Organized Against Child Labor 120 Years Ago: Let’s Resume Her Fight

To the shock of many, the difficulty of exploited baby labor has been grabbing headlines in the USA In late February, The New York Instances printed a major exposé that documented how migrant kids as younger as 12 are working as roofers and meals deliverers, in slaughterhouses and industrial factories, for main firms and private equity corporations, struggling damage and even loss of life, whereas authorities have ignored warnings and punished whistleblowers.

All this comes as a barrage of states, pushed by company lobbying and billionaire darkish cash, transfer to weaken baby labor legal guidelines. For instance, Iowa’s new legislation loosening baby labor laws was just about written by industry lobbyists and secretive assume tanks funded by rich far proper donors.

A giant purpose these developments really feel so startling is as a result of the battle in opposition to baby labor on the state and federal stage was — so we thought — fought and received way back by a decades-long marketing campaign that started within the late nineteenth century and ended with the passage and upholding of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.

It’s an apt second to revisit that struggle in opposition to baby labor: This yr marks the a hundred and twentieth anniversary of the famed protest, the 1903 March of the Mill Youngsters, led by the legendary labor chief, Mom Jones.

Known as “essentially the most harmful girl in America” by West Virginia District Legal professional Reese Blizzard for her ability to “[crook] her finger” and have “20,000 contented males lay down their instruments and stroll out,” Mom Jones might have been essentially the most well-known girl within the U.S. through the early twentieth century. An unmatched orator pushed by a bottomless love for the working class, she overcame private calamity to reinvent herself because the adored mom determine of the labor motion and as a crusader in opposition to baby labor.

This Might Day, because the injustices she fought in opposition to rear their heads as soon as once more, the historical past of Mom Jones — her 1903 kids’s march, in addition to her indomitable spirit that impressed 1000’s to struggle — are as related as ever.

“She Was the Strolling Wrath of God”

“She had power, she had wit, above all she had the hearth of indignation — she was the strolling wrath of God.” So wrote the famed muckraker Upton Sinclair someday after the 1914 Ludlow Massacre in a fictional description of Mom Jones. By then, she was already an icon, essentially the most infamous labor chief within the U.S.

However earlier than she turned Mom Jones, she was Mary Harris, born in Cork, Eire, in 1837. The Nice Famine drove her household to Toronto within the early 1850s. After stints as a trainer and seamstress in Chicago, Harris moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and married George Jones, a proud member of the Iron Molders Union. She quickly bore 4 kids, however catastrophe struck in 1867 when a yellow fever epidemic ripped by Memphis. Within the span of per week, Mary Jones’s complete household perished.

Mary Jones virtually by no means talked about this disaster later in life, however it drove her transformation into Mom Jones.

“That is actually a very powerful occasion in her life, and naturally, it’s not the type of factor one will get over, even in the event you don’t speak about it,” Elliott Gorn, writer of the definitive biography of Mom Jones, informed Truthout. “I actually assume that was what put the emotional dynamite into her life that enables her to exit and be this fearless organizer — she had nothing left to lose.” She quickly moved again to Chicago and arrange a dressmaking store. It burned down within the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

For the subsequent 25 years, Mary Jones just about disappeared. We all know from her autobiography that she attended employees’ conferences, and joined the Knights of Labor. Then instantly she reemerged towards the top of the century in a brand new public persona, Mom Jones, defender of employees’ rights in all places.

Clad in an ornate, black Victorian gown and hat along with her fluffy white hair falling into wire-rimmed spectacles, she mesmerized throngs of miners and mill employees with a piercing voice that flouted genteel etiquette, berating them like an offended grandmother to struggle.

Portrait of Mother Mary Jones, the famous labor leader, on December 18, 1918.
Portrait of “Mom” Mary Jones, the well-known labor chief, on December 18, 1918.

Gorn stresses how Mom Jones intuited a transforming of dominant concepts about gender and age to create a personality that gave her energy and affect to serve the labor motion.

“A poor, aged, Irish immigrant girl: that’s not a spot of energy in American society, and even in labor unions, that are largely very male,” stated Gorn. “However the character of Mom Jones gave her a supply of energy: the mom of the labor motion, the fearless protector of her brood.”

She even lied about her age, claiming she was a full seven years older than she actually was. “She’s rising her venerability,” stated Gorn. “She needs to have the ability to go to a gaggle of robust coal miners and say, ‘If me, an previous girl, could be out right here risking my neck, actually you males could be doing the identical.’”

From the late Nineties by her loss of life in 1930, Mom Jones would develop into a nationwide movie star, and, for a lot of employees, an virtually legendary determine: the matron of the household of labor; the mom of soot-covered coal miners from Pennsylvania to Colorado; the nemesis of robber barons; talking profanities in her Irish accent, urging employees to unite throughout divisions of race, gender and nationality, dealing with down armed mine guards, enduring arrests and jail time with aplomb.

As Gorn writes, “The primary half of Mary Jones’s life ready her for the duty of changing into Mom Jones.” She was a survivor. She was offended. She carried along with her a “suppressed rage” that she channeled into the struggle for justice. She wished employees to struggle.

And nothing drew her wrath greater than baby labor.

“Properly, I’ve Received Inventory in These Youngsters”

Based on the 1900 U.S. census, one in five kids beneath 16 years of age had been employed (although that’s actually an underestimate). Then, as now, a lot of them had been immigrants.

In 1903, almost 75,000 textile employees struck in Philadelphia, together with 10,000 kids — “stooped issues, spherical shouldered and thin,” wrote Mom Jones. Pennsylvania was second solely to Alabama in its variety of baby laborers, and, in accordance with Mom Jones, when she requested reporters why they refused to cowl the difficulty, they responded that they couldn’t as a result of the mills’ house owners had inventory within the newspapers.

“Properly, I’ve bought inventory in these little kids,” she stated, “and I’ll prepare somewhat publicity.”

She assembled a crowd of kids within the metropolis’s historic Independence Park, shouting at and shaming close by metropolis officers. “I held up their mutilated arms and confirmed them to the gang and made the assertion that Philadelphia’s mansions had been constructed on the damaged bones, the quivering hearts and drooping heads of those kids,” she later wrote. “That their little lives,” she added, “went out to make wealth for others.”

She berated native officers as they handed by, lifting up gaunt kids and yelling, “Some day the employees will take possession of your metropolis corridor, and once we do, no baby might be sacrificed on the altar of revenue.”

Met with solely shrugs, Mom Jones concocted an excellent public relations transfer: She would take the mill kids on a weeks-long march from Philadelphia, up by New Jersey, previous New York Metropolis, and all the best way to Theodore Roosevelt’s summer time mansion on Oyster Bay, Lengthy Island. They’d demand to talk to the president.

Mom Jones introduced the march to the general public on July 7, 1903, and shortly set off with round 100 kids carrying placards that learn “We would like time to go to highschool” and “We would like time to play.” The media following them from city to city as they stopped in cities like Trenton, New Brunswick and Princeton, the place Mom Jones spoke to a big crowd gathered close to the city’s storied college about “increased schooling.”

“Right here’s a textbook on economics,” she said, pointing to a “little chap” of 10 years who was “stooped over like an previous man from carrying bundles of yarn that weighed 75 kilos.”

“He will get three {dollars} per week and his sister who’s 14 will get six {dollars},” she shouted. “They work in a carpet manufacturing facility 10 hours a day whereas the kids of the wealthy are getting their increased schooling.”

She lambasted not solely the mill bosses but in addition their house owners on Wall Road — the bankers and traders who had been the final word profiteers behind baby labor.

Gorn says the kids’s march was a significant success. “It was only a fixed drumbeat of reports. She simply had this outstanding aptitude for the dramatic.” He emphasizes that whereas ethical outrage drove Mom Jones’s hatred for baby labor, it additionally symbolized, for her, capitalism’s cutthroat degradation of all employees.

“She understood that it’s a mistake to consider baby labor as a separate class from all of labor,” he stated. “One of many causes you arrange the kids’s march isn’t just as a result of it’s horrible exploitation of kids, however as a result of their low-cost labor undercuts the work of adults.”

Mom Jones continued the march — smaller after a torrid warmth wave shrunk its preliminary numbers — by Manhattan and Coney Island and at last, on July 28, to Oyster Bay, the place Roosevelt refused to satisfy with them.

However, the march was a powerful success, with the media carefully overlaying the excessive drama. “She gained invaluable publicity for the difficulty of kid labor,” wrote Gorn.

Furthermore, the march was an essential early catalyst for the reform motion that, in stops and spurts within the a long time to come back, finally received federal regulation regulating baby labor.

“Pray for the Useless and Battle Like Hell for the Dwelling”

After her loss of life in 1930, Mom Jones pale softly from nationwide reminiscence, although not within the coal-mining communities that had been her strongest base.

The award-winning actress Kaiulani Lee first discovered about Mom Jones whereas performing in Appalachia throughout her excursions with the NYC Road Theatre within the Seventies. She remembers visiting a miner’s cabin with a picture of Jesus Christ hanging on the wall. Close by, she noticed one other image of an “previous girl in Victorian garb.”

“I acknowledged Christ, however I didn’t know who she was,” Lee informed Truthout.

Lee learn Mom Jones’s autobiography and by no means forgot about her. Many years later, Lee determined to make use of her unimaginable writing and performing abilities to carry Mom Jones again to life. “I knew hers was the voice that might communicate for employees,” she stated.

You may get a way of what Mom Jones’s highly effective presence will need to have felt like by watching Lee’s efficiency within the extremely lauded new movie, Fight Like Hell, praised by everybody from the Amazon Labor Union’s Chris Smalls to the Affiliation of Flight Attendants’ Sara Nelson.

The 55-minute movie takes place across the time of the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, maybe essentially the most violent strike in U.S. historical past. Mom Jones is in a secluded cabin within the woods of West Virginia.

“There’s a battle between the courses,” she begins, in her faint Irish brogue. “I’ve been current in that battle for half a century.” What follows is an performing masterpiece, a one-shot monologue, the place Lee takes you thru the extraordinary drama — and unfathomable tragedy — of Mom Jones’s life, all within the labor chief’s personal phrases. The movie is tense, good, emotional, and most of all, invitations the viewer to take part wrestle.

Lee’s Mom Jones discusses the difficulty of kid labor and recounts the kids’s march.

“Wrestle and lose, wrestle and win,” she says throughout one of many movie’s dramatic crescendos. “That’s the story down the stairway of the ages.” The movie captures the spirit of wrestle that drove Mom Jones’s life, and by instance, pleads with us to proceed that wrestle as we speak.

I watched the movie from starting to finish twice, and each occasions it left me teary-eyed and full of hearth and struggle, desirous to sprint to any rally or picket line inside affordable distance. I hope it’s shown widely in union halls, left-wing bookstores and school campuses throughout the nation.

Others are additionally conserving Mom Jones’s legacy alive. Throughout the historic 1989 Pittston coal strike, dozens of ladies, largely miners’ relations, banded collectively because the “Daughters of Mother Jones,” waging militant motion to assist the strike.

The Chicago-based Mother Jones Museum & Heritage Project holds common occasions in her honor and, after years of campaigning, received permission to construct a Mother Jones statue at a primary location within the Windy Metropolis.

In 2021, when putting Warrior Met Coal miners in Alabama staged a nationwide solidarity rally, a 12-foot inflatable replica of Mom Jones, her fist within the air, greeted the gathering.

There’s a purpose Mom Jones lives on: By way of private tragedy, she emerged because the very embodiment of labor’s wrestle, a transcendent voice, mothering and thundering, that might wipe the worry and lethargy from the eyes of employees and embolden them to struggle. When employees internationally as we speak invoke her most well-known slogan — “Pray for the Useless and Battle Like Hell for the Dwelling” — they’re recalling that spirit of solidarity and wrestle that she embodied and tried to bestow on others.

One-hundred-and-twenty years after the enduring kids’s march, with migrant children filling factories and slaughterhouses, with our personal modern-day robber barons strong-arming a rollback of kid labor legal guidelines, and with 1000’s of employees, from espresso retailers to warehouses, recreating anew labor’s militant custom, the legacy of Mom Jones is as related as ever. She evokes employees as we speak simply as she did over a century in the past.

​​30 seconds is all it takes to make a distinction

Because the world modifications at an unprecedented tempo, we’d like moral, unbiased information greater than ever earlier than. We want journalists who can examine, report, and analyze complicated points with honesty and integrity. We want journalists who can maintain these in energy accountable, shine a lightweight on injustices, and provides voice to the unvoiced.

Truthout depends on reader donations to take care of this sanctuary for sincere, justice-driven journalism. Now we have simply hours left to lift $5,000 — we’d like all our buddies to assist us attain this aim. It takes lower than 30 seconds to present, so in the event you worth a free and unbiased press, please make a tax-deductible donation as we speak!