Mary Harris Jones: Champion of the Labor Movement

Period 2 World History


Mary Harris Jones was born into a poor Irish family in that great year of 1837. [i] Her family was well known for creating commotion, seeing as her father, protested the treatment of peasants by the landlord, escaped the hangman, and fled to Canada. His family followed, and Mary grew up to be a teacher in Toronto, and later on in Memphis, Tennessee. She married George Jones, and not long after that the Civil War broke out. After the war was over she lost her husband and children to a fever epidemic. A few years later she lost her business to the Great Chicago Fire. Her life seemed to be horrible, but Mary Harris Jones ends up changing the world today, by being the great hero of the labor movement. [ii]

During the late 19th century, the goal of rich businessmen was to keep profits high by working people long hours in unsafe conditions, often times for very low wages. The only way they got away with this is because the States were full of immigrants, freed slaves, and broke farmers looking for any way to make some money. Mary’s goal was to give a voice to all of these suffering workers; her husband had belonged to the Iron Molders, one of America’s first national trade unions. The whole point of unions was to organize workers so they could bargain with their bosses over pay. If the bosses did not bargain, then often times the workers went on strike. This was a daring thing to do, seeing as no work meant no money, which in the end meant no food for their families.[iii]

On May 1, 1886, about 340,000 workers all across America walked off of their jobs in order to try to achieve an eight-hour workday versus the usual ten to sixteen hour workday. Mary was one of the biggest patrons of this, and she helped lead the song of the workers : “We want to feel the sunshine/ We want to smell the flowers/ We’re sure that god has willed it / And we mean to have eight hours.” Everyone figured that their government, which was supposed to be the “government of the people, would join their side.[iv]

But, the government didn’t even listen. They government figured that whatever was good for business was good for the country. Strikes were popping up all over the place. It was a brutal war of public opinion, demonstrations, boycotts, terror, and a great hunger. Huge companies dished out hundreds of dollars to hire spies, armies of guards, and even roughnecks, to break up the rioting in front of their businesses. Most of the time people were badly hurt or killed, just to stop the demonstrators.[v]

Mary did not care what the companies did. She constantly encouraged people all over to stand up for their rights, from streetcar workers in New York City, to steelworkers in Pennsylvania. They were “her boys,” and she was their “mother.” She would often stand in the front of the demonstrations, and dare the company guards to shoot an old woman.[vi]

Mary went on to take jobs in Alabama textile mills, just so she could see first hand the children, sometimes as young as six, working on the looms. Then, in 1903, she led a children’s march right to the front of Theodore Roosevelt’s (who was president of the United States at the time) house. He didn’t even come out to see them. Mary had been thrown in to jail too many times to count, but she didn’t care. In 1913, at the age of 83, she was thrown into jail once again for 26 days.[vii]

Although she worked very hard, most of Mary’s battles were lost. She lived to be a hundred, and she never even got to see the labor laws changed. She did not mind; she had hope. “The cause of the worker continues onward. The future is in labor’s strong, rough hands.” In 1894, Labor Day became a national holiday. In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act protected the worker’s rights to organize and strike. In 1938, Congress established the minimum wage to be twenty-five cents an hour, and outlawed child