Notwithstanding the dread my teacher mother felt every Labour Day, today is a day to celebrate the contribution of working people and their unions, not only to the building of BC, but to the many social benefits they fought for over the years, which we now tend to take for granted. You know, boring stuff like the eight-hour day, the five-day work week, paid holidays, workers’ compensation, safety standards, pensions, sick pay, the simple right to join a union and so many others. Sadly, some of these gains are being eroded in this scary new gig and everything-goes economy that seems to be driving workers down, rather than up. But that’s a topic for another day. Instead, to mark this country’s 123rd Labour Day, I offer a little-known tale from BC labour lore. At a time when the heroic fight of Vancouver Island coal miners against the robber baron mine owners was seriously flagging, done in by strikebreakers, militia soldiers and the courts, they received a legendary visitor.
Mention Mother Jones today, and thoughts immediately turn to the prominent muck-raking journal of the same name. But 100 years ago, the world knew a different Mother Jones. Mary Harris Jones was arguably the most famous woman in America. She was also regularly denounced by authorities as the most dangerous woman in America. A diminutive firebrand well into her senior years, Jones preached a fierce, anti-capitalism gospel of resistance and socialism wherever she travelled, and that was mostly wherever miners were on strike. Undeterred by jailings and frequent arrests, she took on mine owners, Pinkerton thugs, strikebreakers and governors alike, with her no holds barred support for miners and their families. She once wrote of miners in those grim days of low wages and terrible working conditions: “For a second more sunlight, men must fight like tigers. For the privilege of seeing the colour of their children’s eyes by the light of the sun, fathers must fight as beasts in the jungle. That life may have something of decency, something of beauty – a picture, a new dress, a bit of cheap lace fluttering in the window – for this, men who work down in the mines must struggle and lose, struggle and win.”
In June of 1914, she came to British Columbia. Two thousand Vancouver Island coal miners were in the second year of a desperate struggle against the mines’ grasping owners. Their union had sent for Mother Jones to buoy the strikers’ spirits. She made the long journey to Seattle from the violent Colorado coalfields, where striking miners were being gunned down by the state militia. As she prepared to board the steamer for Victoria, however, Canadian officials barred her way, labeling the feisty 77-year old “a disturbing element…likely to stir up trouble.” Mother Jones, who had friends in high places, retorted: We’ll see about that. She contacted U.S. Labour Secretary William B. Wilson, a former official of the United Mineworkers Union, who pulled strings in Ottawa, demanding that she receive “every right she is entitled to as an American citizen”. The next day, Mother Jones was on her way to Canada. The country was not new to her. A daughter of Irish parents, driven from their homeland by the potato famine, she grew up in Toronto, educated at Toronto Normal School, before heading permanently to the United States at the age of 23.
In Nanaimo, Mother Jones received a rapturous reception from the hard-pressed miners. As she recounted in her autobiography: “A regiment of Canadian Kilties met the train, squeaking on their bagpipes. Down the street came a delegation of miners [who] wore the badge of the working class—the overalls. I held a tremendous meeting that night, and the poor boys who had come up from the subterranean holes of the earth to fight for a few hours of sunlight, took courage. I brought them the sympathy of the Colorado strikers, a sympathy and understanding that reaches across borders and frontiers.”
A photo of that first meeting shows crowds of miners and their families, decked out in the best clothes they could manage, gathered on a hillside as Mother Jones hammers home her message of miner solidarity and resistance. From there, she went to four other strike battlegrounds, including Ladysmith and Cumberland. Years later, one of the strikers remembered: “She was a fiery one. I think she was 4-foot-5 or something. A short woman but, by God, she was something.” Mother Jones finished her BC visit with a rousing speech at the Labour Temple in Vancouver. Before an overflow crowd, she called for unity and a general strike, if necessary, to win the battle of the coalfields.. “Capitalism,” she told cheering trade unionists, “has danced too long on the hearts of the aching miners.”
When miners’ guardian angel died in 1930 at the age of 93, no less than a young Gene Autry, the famed, future Singing Cowboy, recorded The Death of Mother Jones. Sang Gene: “This grand old champion of labor/Was known in every land/She fought for right and justice/She took a noble stand.” The song concluded: “May the miners all work together/To carry out her plan/And bring back better conditions/For every laboring man.”
Surprising, yes, but as someone pointed out, in his big hit 15 years later, Here Comes Santa Claus, Autry wrote the words: He doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, he loves you just the same.”