Mother Jones would be glad that the workers in southern Indiana keep labor traditions going and embrace and tell history as they do so. The union activists of Indiana’s Labor Day Association have a proud tradition that goes back 130 years. Mother Jones participated in several of these events. They have celebrated Labor Day there before there was even an official labor day, a history you can learn about at the link above. It started with the Knights of Labor in 1886 during what was known as the Great Upheaval for the 8 hours day. Communities including Princeton, Evansville, Booneville and others have traded the responsibilities for holding a 3-4 day series of events.
Since 2005 they have revived the history talk at the celebration. That’s why when I came to speak on the subject of “Limiting Workers Rights through Right to Work” this year, I reminded listeners that this class struggle against the 2012 Indiana Right to Work law goes back farther than even the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 (the enabling legislation that allows states to opt out of paying union dues) and even before their event started. The term “right to work” was actually first used by employers fighting against workers collective rights in the Civil War, against marching and picketing strikers (and women marchers, supporters dubbed dangerous “amazons”). Employers claimed they were defending the “right to work” for scabs who needed to be protected from being reminded that they were scabbing.
Employers claimed that workers’ collective rights were illegitimate–even as they organized themselves collectively into employers associations in order to fight back unions. They found a lexicon that could prevail and the courts and police forces including the militia helped them fight back against the labor movement. I argued that understanding this pairing (of marching, of the streets and of employers use of this term “right to work”) helps us to understand the long-term perspective that workers rights are human rights. And that we need to understand that winning collective rights needs to be a broad based campaign.
Mother Jones was named in many a “right to work” injunction intended to protect strikebreakers delicate needs, and she recognized the need to defy those injunctions and to claim a broad idea of collective rights. Mother Jones spoke at the Labor Day Celebrations. In 1897 she came through Evansville, staying at the Ruston House where she reminded workers that they had to take power and that streets and marching were an essential part of their means to gain collective rights. At the time the Socialist Party was getting organized. She told the audience that many great movements were born in a prison cell, and that Indiana’s Eugene Debs‘ plan for the new party had been born in the Woodstock, Illinois jail after he was imprisoned for defying the Pullman injunction. She invoked the folk image of the poor child who started the French Revolution. “If it requires a revolution to secure reform let us have a revolution. It may be averted, it may come by degrees, it may come suddenly as it did in France when the little girl walked the streets of Paris crying for bread. The same thing may cause a revolution in this country.”
So I thought it important to bring the Museum and Heritage Project “stand up Jones” along with me. Here she is photographed with some of the organizers of the event. Their stories are threaded through with insights and connections to the Mother Jones project.
Pictured here are two former miners involved with the association whose stories connect directly to Mother Jones. Gary Fritz chose the sign that quoted Mother Jones on the need for a 6 hour day and remembered how much the miners dreamed of achieving this goal. (Of course, with 8 hours pay.) Gary was the miner who researched and found much old footage and has a sweeping knowledge of union history. He recovered the live footage of Mother Jones’ 100th birthday and her comments that we used in the 24 minute film, Mother Jones, America’s Most Dangerous Woman. After leaving the Mine Workers Union he was an organizer for the National Nurses Union, but he came back to his hometown to take care of his father.
Steve Bottoms, on the right in the photo above, was vitally involved in the last great miners strike in US history, in 1977-78. He remembers the solidarity built by the “roving pickets” and the blood and tears and deaths of that strike connect him to that vital history. He also became a National Nurses union organizer before coming back to the area. But throughout all this, he has trained as a labor historian and carries forward so much of the history of many unions of the area. He has recovered the story of blacklisted trade unionists who lived with the fear til they died.
Then there’s Bil Musgrave, who embodies Mother Jones’ quote that “Nature did not put that coal there for a bunch of looters and burglars to hold.” He would go further, and argue that nature should not be despoiled by a bunch of looters and burglars. Bill got cancer from what he believes was poisoning by ALCOA of the area where he lived and worked. He was one of the few people on earth who was able to beat bile duct liver cancer, and he has devoted his life to connecting labor and environmental issues. The people he worked with, he says, all have bad health that he attributes to the mine workers bad conditions. He’s exposed this poisoning and the collusion between Peabody and ALCOA in the Squaw Creek area, where toxic materials were dumped. With his wife Kim Musgrave, a local IBEW official (and Labor Association officer) this former miner follows in the defiant tradition of the area and of Mother Jones. Bil still dreams of establishing a May Day event in the area.
How sad it is that Bil has to march (and perhaps be arrested) this week in Washington, D.C. to defend his rights to basic health care and pension coverage that was won in 1946 that supposedly ensured that the government would guarantee premium medical insurance to the miners and a pension for them and their families. In 1946, 400,000 miners struck and won this major achievement. There was a tax on coal to set up a health and welfare fund. That was one of the main issues in the 1977-78 strike that Steve remembers so well. In 1989 the great strike against Pittston (which involved the occupation of the processing plant) reclaimed the right once again. But in the great collective effort of corrupt bankruptcy and reorganization proceedings, the corporations that are destroying the earth get their golden parachutes and come out with millions while denying the miners their rights.
These miners keep fighting for collective rights even after they seem to be won. They have a long-term perspective. We can help them honor this history by learning about this campaign and supporting them in their efforts.