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The Months of Labor—May 1, 1886

A May Day message from Mother Jones

Really, I am just an old Irish working-class woman, born in Cork, Ireland sometime around 1830. Later, I launched into Labors’ cause. I declared my birthday as May 1, because of its relevance to the labor demonstration of May 1886 at Haymarket Square in Chicago. That event began as a peaceful rally for an eight-hour day and a May Day Worker’s Holiday — and in reaction to the police killing of several workers the previous day.

This is when I found my true calling; organizing communities and workers. I’m not a humanitarian, I’m a hell-raiser. (I think this is why WIP asked me to tell my story during the month of May.)

I joined the United Mine Workers cause after Haymarket and became known as Mother Jones by “my boys,” the striking miners. Those miners were forced by the mine owners into armed struggle. I shuddered and fought like hell when the mine owners ordered their contracted militias to fire upon my boys on the line. I went west to Colorado and helped organize coal miners. I was once again arrested and served some time in prison. Then I was escorted from the state in the months prior to the Ludlow Massacre. 

Oh my, people worked for 10 to 12 hours a day back then, and in the most dangerous conditions! Imagine yourself being made to work more hours than you spent time with your family. I understand conditions now are worsening again. Back then workers had begun to organize for better conditions of employment. We made our demand for an 8-hour work day. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (with my friend Peter McGuire of the Carpenters leading the charge) held a convention in 1884, and set May 1, 1886 as the date when the eight-hour day would become standard. Perhaps you need a national convention of workers to set a new, minimum wage standard, equal pay, elimination of sexism and racism in the workforce? I helped in this struggle in Chicago and America, and became recognized for including women and children in the rallies and marches for workers’ rights. Can you believe a district attorney later dubbed me “the most dangerous woman in America” during my trial in West Virginia for organizing banned meetings of miners? LOL!

For nearly 50 years, I traveled the country to be the voice of child mill workers, deported Mexican workers, steelworkers and most famously coal miners. But I won’t nag or scold you who work under the bosses now. But I do pray that you heed the call to see who you are and your position in the current social and economic reality. Times are changing again for workers in America. I have heard of your struggles for a living wage, equal pay for women, your so-called “gig economy” (which plays on the false notion that a worker can become an “entrepreneur” or his/her own boss, but in reality, makes the worker responsible for taxes and costs previously the employers’ responsibility), racism, and other forms of oppression. Back then, we fought against these conditions, which are nothing more than industrial peonage. I reminded workers that they had to take power, and that marching in the streets is an essential part of gaining collective rights. I say to you now, it is again the day for raising ourselves up for the sake of children to a nobler manhood and better womanhood. Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living. As you say now, time to Stay Woke.

This month MB, our long-time union member/author, channels the voice of Mary Harris Jones. Jones was a founder of the Social Democratic Party in 1898 and helped to establish the IWW in 1905. She remained active even at the age of 82 when she was arrested for her part in a West Virginia miners’ strike. She was sentenced to 20 years in jail, but an outcry by union supporters forced the governor to grant her a pardon. She died in 1930.


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