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This Day in Labor History: September 30, 1899

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On September 30, 1899, Mary “Mother” Jones organized the wives and daughters of striking coal miners in Arnot, Pennsylvania to descend on the mine and intimidate the scabs working there. This critical action succeeded and helped their men win their strike.

In May 1899, about 1,000 men went on strike in Arnot, which is in north central Pennsylvania, not too far from the New York border, against the Erie Mining Company. They were mostly striking for higher wages. They were working with the United Mine Workers of America, that brave attempt to organize in these brutal conditions. Organizing a low-capital industry that employed low-wage labor in dozens of locations across the country was incredibly difficult. That owners were so willing to use violence against strikers and organizers made it all the harder. It would be decades before the UMWA established itself as a consistent force in the mines.

The UMWA had very little in terms of resources for strikers. By September, four months into the strike, the miners were giving up. They were hungry and poor and just couldn’t hold out any longer. They were going to go back. For UMWA president John Mitchell, winning this strike was important. He urged the workers to hold out a little longer. And to make that happen, he sent his secret weapon to Arnot: Mother Jones. With her uncanny ability to rouse miners, a combination of her motherly figure (she routinely added a decade to her age to make her seem older) and her penchant for swearing during rousing speeches, there was no organizer in America more effective in these years. In some ways, this part of Mother Jones’ life is underrated. She’s seen as a symbol of solidarity and a brave woman–accurately. But she was also one hell of a great organizer. None of the rest matters if she isn’t able to motivate workers to fight for their lives. Otherwise, she’s basically Emma Goldman, who was rarely, if ever, was actually involved in worker struggles on the ground and thus is a hugely overrated figure on the left.

Jones arrived and gave her speech to the workers. It was received…so-so. They were pretty desperate. But Jones had another trick up her sleeve. She reached out to the strikers’ wives and other female relatives. That worked great. She implored them to keep their husbands and sons from working the next day. They agreed. She went to bed that night in the only hotel in Arnot, which was of course owned the company. In the middle of the night, the company, realizing now that she was in town, woke her up and kicked her out. It was very cold early fall night. She took refuge in the house of a local miner. The next morning, the company evicted that mining family out of their company house because they took her in. That was the ticket that Jones needed. The furious strikers immediately were reinvigorated in their strike.

The company brought in scabs at this point. And since the women were the real activists of the strike under Jones’ leadership, she continued to rely on them. She decided to get the women together to lead a march to kick the scabs out of one of the mines. She knew she could not lead this. She was too well known and would be immediately arrested, which she knew would kill the strike. The other thing Jones understood is that you needed to built leadership. So she chose a woman to lead the march. I don’t know her name–she is described as a “large Irishwoman.” Jones later remembered, “I looked at her and felt she could raise a rumpus.” She told them to arm themselves with mops and brooms and hammers and other household tools and to chase the scabs out of the mine with them.

The women marched up to the mine making as much noise as possible. The Arnot sheriff asked the Irish leader to not make so much noise and scare his mules. She proceeded to hit him in the head with a tin pan. Soon the miners fled from these seemingly crazy women. The women guarded the entrance to the mine for several days while the workers continued their strike. By the winter, this long, slow strike was taking its toll on Jones too. After all, she was an elderly woman who was working 12-14 hour days in subzero conditions. Part of her work was figuring out how to feed and house the miners evicted from company housing. The mine owners actually offered to pay the farmers to not help them. But Jones personally organized them too and they allowed the strikers to camp on their farms and helped feed them too.

All of this led to Erie finally giving up the fight in February 1900. The USWA’s success in the region had led to other mines raising their rates and the union threatened larger strikes if Erie didn’t give in. This led other companies to put pressure on Erie. The company granted the demanded wage increases and after 9 months, the strike was won. The UMWA knew that it was Jones that had won it for them. One UMWA official said she “snatched victory out of the jaws of defeat.” They held a huge party for Jones as she left, marching in a snowstorm to the nearby larger town of Blossburg, where the men broke into a local rail car and took crates of beer out for the celebration.

Of course, this hardly led to the unionization of the Pennsylvania mines. It would be struggle after struggle, disaster after disaster, death after death. But it’s also important to focus on how victories were achieved and to tell these brave stories of struggle. That’s especially true when women stepped up into a male world and took the lead in securing the victory. Jones continued working in the anthracite mines of Pennsylvania, building on the Arnot victory to spur more strikes and more challenging of employer power over the coming years. She would be perhaps the nation’s most famous organizer over the next twenty years.

This is the 373rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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