The Autobiography of Mother Jones
Before 1899 the coal fields of Pennsylvania were not organized. Immigrants poured into the country and they worked cheap. There was always a surplus of immigrant labor, solicited in Europe by the coal companies, so as to keep wages down to barest living. Hours of work down under ground were cruelly long. Fourteen hours a day was not uncommon, thirteen, twelve. The life or limb of the miner was unprotected by any laws. Families lived in company owned shacks that were not fit for their pigs. Children died by the hundreds due to the ignorance and poverty of their parents. Often I have helped lay out for burial the babies of the miners, and the mothers could scarce conceal their relief at the little ones’ deaths. Another was already on its way, destined, if a boy, for the breakers; if a girl, for the silk mills where the other brothers and sisters already worked.
The United Mine Workers decided to organize these fields and work for human conditions for human beings. Organizers were put to work. Whenever the spirit of the men in the mines grew strong enough a strike was called.
In Arnot, Pennsylvania, a strike had been going on four or five months. The men were becoming discouraged. The coal company sent the doctors, the school teachers, the preachers and their wives to the homes of the miners to get them to sign a document that they would go back to work.
The president of the district, Mr. Wilson, and an organizer, Tom Haggerty, got despondent. The signatures were overwhelmingly in favor of returning on Monday.
Haggerty suggested that they send for me. Saturday morning they telephoned to Barnesboro, where I was organizing, for me to come at once or they would lose the strike.
“Oh Mother,” Haggerty said, “Come over quick and help us! The boys are that despondent! They are going back Monday.”
I told him that I was holding a meeting that night but that I would leave early Sunday morning.
I started at daybreak. At Roaring Branch, the nearest train connection with Arnot, the secretary of the Arnot Union, a young boy, William Bouncer, met me with a horse and buggy. We drove sixteen miles over rough mountain roads. It was biting cold. We got into Arnot Sunday noon and I was placed in the coal company’s hotel, the only hotel in town. I made some objections but Bouncer said, “Mother, we have engaged this room for you and if it is not occupied, they will never rent us another.”
Sunday afternoon I held a meeting. It was not as large a gathering as those we had later but I stirred up the poor wretches that did come.
“You’ve got to take the pledge,” I said. “Rise and pledge to stick to your brothers and the union till the strike’s won!”
The men shuffled their feet but the women rose, their babies in their arms, and pledged themselves to see that no one went to work in the morning.
“The meeting stands adjourned till ten o’clock tomorrow morning,” I said.” Everyone come and see that the slaves that think to go back to their masters come along with you.”
I returned to my room at the hotel. I wasn’t called down to supper but after the general manager of the mines and all of the other guests had gone to church, the housekeeper stole up to my room and asked me to come down and get a cup of tea.
At eleven o’clock that night the housekeeper again knocked at my door and told me that I had to give up my room; that she was told it belonged to a teacher. “It’s a shame, mother,” she whispered, as she helped me into my coat.
I found little Bouncer sitting on guard down in the lobby. He took me up the mountain to a miner’s house. A cold wind almost blew the bonnet from my head. At the miner’s shack I knocked.
A man’s voice shouted, “Who is there!”
“Mother Jones,” said I.
A light came in the tiny window. The door opened.
“And did they put you out, Mother!”
“They did that.”
“I told Mary they might do that,” said the miner. He held the oil lamp with the thumb and his little finger and I could see that the others were off. His face was young but his body was bent over.
He insisted on my sleeping in the only bed, with his wife. He slept with his head on his arms on the kitchen table. Early in the morning his wife rose to keep the children quiet, so that I might sleep a little later as I was very tired.
At eight o’clock she came into my room, crying.
“Mother, are you awake!”
“Yes, I am awake.”
“Well, you must get up. The sheriff is here to put us out for keeping you. This house belongs to the Company.”
The family gathered up all their earthly belongings, which weren’t much, took down all the holy pictures, and put them in a wagon, and they with all their neighbors went to the meeting. 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 streets 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 the victory.
Then the company tried to bring in scabs. I told the men to stay home with the children for a change and let the women attend to the scabs. I organized an army of women housekeepers. On a given day they were to bring their mops and brooms and “the army” would charge the scabs up at the mines. The general manager, the sheriff and the corporation hirelings heard of our plans and were on hand. The day came and the women came with the mops and brooms and pails of water.
I decided not to go up to the Drip Mouth myself, for I knew they would arrest me and that might rout the army. I selected as leader an Irish woman who had a most picturesque appearance. She had slept late and her husband had told her to hurry up and get into the army. She had grabbed a red petticoat and slipped it over a thick cotton night gown. She wore a black stocking and a white one. She had tied a little red fringed shawl over her wild red hair. Her face was red and her eyes were mad. I looked at her and felt that she could raise a rumpus.
I said, “You lead the army up to the Drip Mouth. Take that tin dishpan you have with you and your hammer, and when the scabs and the mules come up, begin to hammer and howl. Then all of you hammer and howl and be ready to chase the scabs with your mops and brooms. Don’t be afraid of anyone.”
Up the mountain side, yelling and hollering, she led the women, and when the mules came up with the scabs and the coal, she began beating on the dishpan and hollering and all the army joined in with her. The sheriff tapped her on the shoulder.
“My dear lady,” said he, “remember the mules. Don’t frighten them.”
She took the old tin pan and she hit him with it and she hollered, “To hell with you and the mules!”
He fell over and dropped into the creek. Then the mules began to rebel against scabbing. They bucked and kicked the scab drivers and started off for the barn. The scabs started running down hill, followed by the army of women with their mops and pails and brooms.
A poll parrot in a near by shack screamed at the superintendent, “Got hell, did you! Got hell!”
There was a great big doctor in the crowd, a company lap dog. He had a little satchel in his hand and he said to me, impudent like, “Mrs. Jones, I have a warrant for you.”
“All right,” said I. “Keep it in your pill bag until I come for it. I am going to hold a meeting now.”
From that day on the women kept continual watch of the mines to see that the company did not bring in scabs. 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. And all night long they kept watch. They were heroic women. In the long years to come the nation will pay them high tribute for they were fighting for the advancement of a great country.
I held meetings throughout the surrounding country. The company was spending money among the farmers, urging them not to do anything for the miners. I went out with an old wagon and a union mule that had gone on strike, and a miner’s little boy for a driver. I held meetings among the farmers and won them to the side of the strikers.
Sometimes it was twelve or one o’clock in the morning when I would get home, the little boy asleep on my arm and I driving the mule. Sometimes it was several degrees below zero. The winds whistled down the mountains and drove the snow and sleet in our faces. My hands and feet were often numb. We were all living on dry bread and black coffee. I slept in a room that never had a fire in it, and I often woke up in the morning to find snow covering the outside covers of the bed.
There was a place near Arnot called Sweedy Town, and the company’s agents went there to get the Swedes to break the strike. I was holding a meeting among the farmers when I heard of the company’s efforts. I got the young farmers to get on their horses and go over to Sweedy Town and see that no Swede left town.
They took clotheslines for lassos and any Swede seen moving in the direction of Arnot was brought back quick enough.
After months of terrible hardships the strike was about won. The mines were not working. The spirit of the men was splendid. President Wilson had come home from the western part of the state. I was staying at his home. The family had gone to bed. We sat up late talking over matters when there came a knock at the door. A very cautious knock.
“Come in,” said Mr. Wilson.
Three men entered. They looked at me uneasily and Mr. Wilson asked me to step in an adjoining room. They talked the strike over and called President Wilson’s attention to the fact that there were mortgages on his little home, held by the bank which was owned by the coal company, and they said, “We will take the mortgage off your home and give you $25,000 in cash if you will just leave and let the strike die out.”
I shall never forget his reply:
“Gentlemen, if you come to visit my family, the hospitality of the whole house is yours. But if you come to bribe me with dollars to betray my manhood and my brothers who trust me, I want you to leave this door and never come here again.”
The strike lasted a few weeks longer. Meantime President Wilson, when strikers were evicted, cleaned out his barn and took care of the evicted miners until homes could be provided. One by one he killed his chickens and his hogs. Everything that he had he shared. He ate dry bread and drank chicory. He knew every hardship that the rank and file of the organization knew. We do not have such leaders now.
The last of February the company put up a notice that all demands were conceded. “Did you get the use of the hall for us to hold meetings?” said the women.
“No, we didn’t ask for that.”
“Then the strike is on again,” said they.
They got the hall, and when the President, Mr. Wilson, returned from the convention in Cincinnati he shed tears of joy and gratitude.
I was going to leave for the central fields, and before I left, the union held a victory meeting in Bloomsburg. The women came for miles in a raging snow storm for that meeting, little children trailing on their skirts, and babies under their shawls. Many of the miners had walked miles. It was one night of real joy and a great celebration. I bade them all good night. A little boy called out, “Don’t leave us, Mother. Don’t leave us!” The dear little children kissed my hands. We spent the whole night in Bloomsburg rejoicing. The men opened a few of the freight cars out on a siding and helped themselves to boxes of beer. Old and young talked and sang all night long and to the credit of the company no one was interfered with.
Those were the days before the extensive use of gun men, of military, of jails, of police clubs. There had been no bloodshed. There had been no riots. And the victory was due to the army of women with their mops and brooms.
A year afterward they celebrated the anniversary of the victory. They presented me with a gold watch but I declined to accept it, for I felt it was the price of the bread of the little children. I have not been in Arnot since but in my travels over the country I often meet the men and boys who carried through the strike so heroically.