Our site will be building stories on West Virginia, stories that move beyond Mother Jones, over time. Do you have a family story that connects to this broad history? We’d love to include it. At this time we have a bibliography page that has a section on West Virginia struggles to organize (under US Coal Wars). We also have numerous sites at the Mapping Mother Jones section. We encourage you to look at other sections, including for example the Music section where you can see links to West Virginia folk singer Nimrod Workman’s song about Mother Jones.
Mother Jones was a key organizer in West Virginia for the United Mine Workers of America. There she showed fearlessness in confronting the “medieval” corporate control that kept miners in a kind of bondage. Hired mercenaries, including the Baldwin-Felts agents, used modern weaponry and terror to prevent unionization. They would never have been successful without political and legal controls on workers civil rights. It’s a little known and dramatic part of history, a story intentionally kept out of history textbooks. The real story involves a dramatic record of bravery, of ordinary and extraordinary people shaping history.
In West Virginia, Jones contributed significantly to the United Mine Workers of America formal commitment to bridging racial and ethnic divisions. This interracial union drive preceded her involvement, and workers had attempted to organize there since the 1880s. While the UMWA union constitution opened its ranks and pledged non-discrimination, the union leadership was northern European whites. Jones condemned white supremacists in the union, and argued that the black miners of West Virginia were the best trade unionists. She worked with radical Italians and other ethnic groups who were firmly committed to building a union that lived up to its constitution. When an African-American woman, impressed with Mother Jones commitment to the cause, suggested she would kiss Jones’ skirt hem in gratitude for her contributions, Jones refused: “Not in the dust, sister, to me, but here on my breast, heart to heart.” A friend observed that Jones “is above and beyond all, one of the working class. . . Wherever she goes she enters into the lives of the toilers and becomes a part of them.”
Jones sought to implement community-centered strategies, which had helped her to create a new style of unionism in Pennsylvania coal fields, which amplified women and children’s involvement, when she went to West Virginia in 1900. Other strikes deterred her from focusing there fully until 1902.
But West Virginia coal companies had been observing her and the UMWA success in Pennsylvania and Illinois and other Midwestern states, and they sought to use the law more effectively. Mine owner Justus Collins developed an approach that combined legal restraints with armed mercenaries against her and the miners; Collins set up armed camps with spotlights and a “shock and awe” approach to the unionization, and this became standard practice in coal strikes across the country.
Jones encouraged open defiance of injunctions and non-violent civil disobedience through mass action whenever possible, but these met their match in the collusion between law and mercenaries in West Virginia.
When she violated an injunction in 1902 in West Virginia, refusing to be silenced and continued to speak out for justice, a prosecuting attorney arrested her and Judge Jackson renewed an injunction originally issued in 1897. The prosecuting attorney calling her the “most dangerous woman in America” during the proceedings.
In the struggles to organize that were renewed in 1912-1913, Jones was court-martialed along with other union activists by a military court that took control of the strike zone. Aided by sympathetic supporters and the socialist movement, Jones sent word of her imprisonment, and the conditions of the miners. Her efforts led Senator Kern of Indiana to set up investigations into abridgement of civil rights and liberties in West Virginia.
For the battle of Blair Mountain and its aftermath, see West Virginia Mine Wars Museum.
We’ll be posting more information here soon.