Marty Walsh, the Department of Labor Nominee, and Mother Jones
Marty Walsh, the Mayor of Boston, has been nominated by President-elect Biden for Secretary of Labor. Marty Walsh is a fan of Mother Jones. He is one of a small number since William B. Wilson, the mineworker who was appointed to that office by Woodrow Wilson, who was from the working class. His letter in support of our sister-project in Cork, Ireland, (below) is a testament to that.
In late 2013, Ger O'Mahony of the Cork Spirit of Mother Festival asked me for ideas for speakers to bring to the festival. They didn't have much available funding, so I knew I had to find someone with a strong commitment to public history. That was James Green.
James Green's work on mine workers and Mother Jones went back to his first major book, Grass-Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895--1943. It extended to his work his then not yet published The Devil is Here in these Hills: West Virginia Coal Miners and their Battle for Freedom, which was later turned into the two-hour documentary The Mine Wars. Jim jumped at the opportunity, and even offered to do it at no cost to the festival, if necessary. He reminded me that since his days in Warwick, England studying with the late great E. P. Thompson, (Making of the English Working Class) he had a deep commitment to the History Workshop style connections between past and present. That was exactly what Cork was trying to do.
Jim came to the festival in the summer of 2014, and gave one of the keynote talks. It was fabulous, but before he began, he presented this letter on behalf of Marty Walsh:
Above: James Green at Shandon during the 2014 Spirit of Mother Jones Festival in Cork. Photo from https://motherjonescork.com/tag/james-green/
Green had a long relationship with Walsh, because of his labor history trade union education programs at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.
At the time Green urged me to write something about the 2014 festival, saying it was a great representation of the kind of commitments he and I shared to public history of labor. I never did, because at the time I was so busy trying to get the Mother Jones Museum going. Jim told me that what Cork was doing was a model for all of us, and better than anything the History Workshop radicals had done in the 1960s and 1970s.
Then Jim Green died in 2015; it was a tragic loss to our labor history community.
I thought of Jim Green today, and know how excited he would have been at Walsh's nomination. He would be wondering if the spirit of Mother Jones and labor history in general might have a small role in a future Department of Labor agenda.
This led me to remember that in 1935, Frances Perkins brought in a bust of Mother Jones to the newly erected Department of Labor building. Amidst discussions of the possibility of new labor law (the Wagner Act) the sculpture, which had been finished in 1923 to great fanfare (I'll do a future story on it) by the famous sculptor, Jo Davidson, was brought to the august entry-ways of the halls of power by Perkins. Frances Perkins had been signally affected by the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, and was among the most progressive appointments ever made by Roosevelt, who we must remember, was not very progressive on issues of labor. FDR had threatened to veto the Wagner Act before it was clear that mass unrest and the most progressive Congress in the history of the US would be able to override the veto.
Above: Department of Labor staffer Agnes Johnson proudly poses with a bust of Mother Jones. Photograph from our collections.
During the administration of Ronald Reagan, the bust went missing. Maybe it was a sign of the times. I tried to track down the bust, and discovered a little of what had happened to it, especially with our board member Saul Schniderman's help. It remains in storage.
With the Wagner Act and workers power through the law at an all-time low, we have, through our collective project with Cork, struggled to remember the past and its resonance with the present. We hope Marty Walsh will remember that, too.