B   M   W   E
Mother Jones and Child Labor
By Janet Greene

Yellow fever swept away her husband and the four little ones who had first called Mary Harris Jones "Mother." But at her death in 1930--63 years later--she was "Mother" to thousands of American working people and their families from New York to California; coal miners, steel workers, iron miners; street car workers, garment workers, and thousands of children who labored in factories from Pennsylvania to Alabama.

How this middle-aged widow, grieving for her husband and children, left Memphis in 1867 and ended up at the head of some of the most important confrontations between labor and capital in the twentieth century is a story she tells best herself in her book, "The Autobiography of Mother Jones," published in 1925. Scholars may disagree with her memory of just when she got involved with the Knights of Labor or the United Mine Workers of America, but they agree she was a remarkable grass-roots organizer, a difficult task around the turn of the century, when the workforce was made up of many foreign-born workers.

"You pity yourselves," she once scolded the mineworkers union, "but you do not pity your brothers, or you would stand together and help one another.

"The enemy seeks to conquer by dividing your ranks, by making distinctions between North and South, between American and foreign. You are all miners, fighting a common cause and a common master. The iron heel feels the same to all flesh. Hunger and suffering and the cause of your children bind more closely than a common tongue."

Perhaps because she had lost her own family, the "cause of the children" was close to her heart. In 1900, children were employed in factories and worked up to 60 hours a week for between $2 and $13 per week; in the South, wages were even lower.

Employers who hire children, Mother Jones warned, do so to increase their profits, they thought: "Child labor is docile ... It does not strike. There are no labor troubles." Along with others, she called for a federal child labor law to protect children from exploitation.

In 1903, Mother Jones began a dramatic crusade for a national child labor law, in Kensington, Pennsylvania, where 75,000 textile workers were on strike for more pay and shorter hours; 10,000 of them were young children. Her "Autobiography" describes the scene:

"Every day little children came into Union Headquarters, some with their hands off, some with the thumb missing, some with their fingers off at the knuckle. They were stooped little things, round shouldered and skinny. Many of them were not over ten years of age, although the state law prohibited their working before they were twelve years of age."

The law was poorly enforced. In many families, the father had been killed or disabled by work in the nearby coal mines. In order to feed the family, the mothers had to send their young children to work to get money for food.

When Mother Jones asked local papers to publish the facts about child labor in Pennsylvania they refused, saying the mill owners had stock in their newspapers.

"Well, I've got stock in these children," she said, "and I'll arrange a little publicity."

Mother Jones marched with a band of striking children from Pennsylvania to New York to meet with President Theodore Roosevelt and ask for his support for federal legislation to protect children.

"We want President Roosevelt to hear the wail of the children who never have a chance to go to school but work eleven and twelve hours a day in the textile mills of Pennsylvania," she told a rally in New York. "(These children) weave carpets that you and he walk upon; and the lace curtains in your windows, and the clothes of the people."

The march gained publicity for the child labor question and raised money for the strikers. But Theodore Roosevelt refused to meet with the children. It was another 38 years before any federal child labor laws went into effect. (However, the state of Pennsylvania did change state law to require proof, in addition to an affidavit, that a child employee was at least 13.)

Today, child labor is a global issue for unions, the United Nations, and numerous citizens' groups, including international organizations of children themselves. Children may weave carpets for pennies in Pakistan rather than in Pennsylvania, but even in the United States child labor laws are frequently violated.

Today's movement against the exploitation of children follows in the footsteps of Mother Jones.

{Janet Green is Director of the Harry van Arsdale Labor History Project, Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, and author of Volume 1 of 2 volumes, "From Forge to Fast Food: Child Labor in NY State," a teacher's guide for 7th and 8th grade social studies. Available from Council for Citizenship Education, Russell Sage College, Troy, NY 12180, $5 each or $10 for 2 volumes.}

Return to Front Page
Return to BMWE Web Site