“Why do we celebrate Labor Day?” I asked the 8th grader. He replied “I don’t know. But it’s a day off school.”
On Labor Day we pay honor and respect to our American workers and remember those whose sacrifice and courage created the workplace we often take for granted.
Fair wages, the eight hour day, the forty hour week, a safe workplace free of harassment and discrimination are benefits we reap from the seeds sown by those who came before us.
Mary Harris was one of those “sower of seeds.” Born in Ireland in 1830, Mary immigrated to America when she was five. At age 37, she was a widow having lost her husband, George Jones, and four children to a yellow fever epidemic. She moved to Chicago where four years later she lost everything she owned in the Great Chicago Fire.
Mary left Chicago but not before she witnessed what became known as the Haymarket Massacre. During a peaceful rally someone dropped a dynamite bomb from a window touching off violence that ended in the hanging of leaders of the ‘eight hour day’ movement.
“Those were the days of sacrifice for the cause of labor,” she wrote in her autobiography.
In the late nineteenth century, houses were warmed by coal mined by miners who were virtually slaves to the Company. Fourteen hour work days were common and wages were kept at the bare minimum. The miners were paid in scrip, not cash, which could only be used at the Company store – where prices were inflated. The Company owned the shacks and land where miner’s families lived. The Company owned the schools, the churches and the roads leading to the mine.
When the miners began using a strike to force better working conditions and pay, the Company took their homes and possessions leaving the workers without protection. Tent cities sprung up around the mine during a strike.
Mary ran a boarding house in southern Illinois. The miners who lived at Mary’s house shared with her stories about their plight. Men were killed by unsafe conditions and disease was rampant. Mary called her boarders “my boys”. In turn, they called her “Mother Jones”.
Standing barely five feet tall Mother Jones became a common sight among the miners and their families. They called her the “angel of the miners.” She traveled across the country to organize the miners to fight for better working conditions.
In her autobiography, Mother Jones writes about the incredible struggle miners and their families.
“Mother…You must get up. The sheriff is here to put us out. This house belongs to the Company.” The family gathered up all their earthly belongings, which weren’t much…and put them in a wagon. The sight of that wagon with the sticks of furniture and the holy pictures and the children, with the father and mother and myself walking along through the street turned the tide. It made the men so angry that they decided not to go back that morning to the mines. Instead they came to the meeting where they determined not to give up the strike until they had won victory.
Mother Jones organized the miner’s wives who became an army of women housekeepers… Every day women with brooms or mops in one hand and babies in the other arm wrapped in little blankets, went to the mines and watched that no one went in…
Improvised mother agonized over sending their children to labor in the mines and the textile mills. “ Little girls and boys, barefooted, walked up and down the endless rows of spindles reaching thin little hands into the machinery to repair snapped threads. They crawled under the machinery to oil it. They replaced spindles all day long,..tiny babies of six years old with faces of sixty did an eight hour shift for ten cents a day. If they fell asleep, cold water was dashed on their faces.
Mother Jones led a group of children, some of them maimed from working in the Pennsylvania textile mills, to President Teddy Roosevelt’s home to dramatize the case for abolishing child labor. But when laws protecting children and workers did pass, critics called the laws “job killers.”
Today, many enjoy an eight hour day, paid vacation and safety standards at work. But if you consider the farmer – we still have a long way to go.
So next time your child or grandchild asks “what is Labor Day?” remember Mother Jones, the “miners angel”.