Before she became famous as Mother Jones, Mary Harris was one of the many Irish immigrants who braved the dangerous trans-Atlantic voyage to escape the poverty and famine of Ireland and seek a better life in America. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Irish population had become destitute and landless. When a fungus destroyed the Irish potato crops in the middle of the nineteenth century, famine spread throughout the country, and the Irish population became even more destitute. Even in the early years of her life, therefore, Mary Harris was already a witness to the ravages of poverty and famine.
The influx of Irish immigrants to the United States provided U.S. industrial expansion with thousands of cheap workers. Immigrants were usually the most desperate workers, and company owners used this desperation to their advantage. In addition, although immigrants were a vital part of America's industrial expansion in the late nineteenth century, many Americans felt economically threatened by the influx of foreign workers. Despite this exploitation and hostility, more immigrants came to the United States, and the industrial expansion continued with the construction of the railroads, the mining of coal, and the production of steel. Corporations formed and controlled vast areas of production, and business interests manipulated the government.
As a result, competition between companies decreased, as they did not have to worry about offering competitive wages. Consequently, the conditions for miners and other workers worsened, and they felt an increasing helplessness when attempting to demand better working conditions or increased wages. Mining was a dangerous occupation, and accidents killed many people, but if a worker complained, he would be fired and blacklisted, so that no other company would hire him. These were typical occurrences in the mine towns across the United States.
Mary Harris and her family were also desperate immigrants, most of them laborers. At this time, women were becoming a greater part of the industrial workforce and providing extra income for their families. Eventually, children were also put to work in factories. Mary Harris worked, first as a teacher, then as a dressmaker. She lived an independent life, but was not at all wealthy. As a dressmaker, Harris worked primarily for the wealthier classes, and she witnessed firsthand the frivolity and wealth of the rich.
While wealthy businessmen such as Andrew Carnegie and John Davidson Rockefeller, Jr. built their empires, poor workers saw their living conditions decline. Practices such as child labor were pervasive. This was America's Gilded Age, a time of great prosperity for some, but great destitution for many more. Many members of the working class rebelled against the extreme inequalities of wealth. In the late nineteenth century, anarchist and socialist organizations had large followings, and some even demanded the overthrow of capitalism. Despite violent opposition, workers began to organize successfully, and employers began to fear the strength and unity of labor unions. Mary Harris's husband had been an active member of a union, and she saw from this experience the power and importance of union organization. Later, while working in Chicago, Harris attended numerous political meetings and eventually became an organizer of labor unions and strikes.
In the face of numerous strikes, company owners slowly and begrudgingly agreed to improve working conditions, and eventually recognized the unions. By the early twentieth century, public opinion was skeptical of the excesses of the industrial era. The reformists of the "Progressive Era" sought solutions to the problems of poverty, public health, corruption, and other issues. Theodore Roosevelt, who was President of the United States of America, made an important gesture when he agreed to see John Mitchell, President of the UMW, during an anthracite strike. Business was beginning to feel pressure from the government, which brought anti-trust lawsuits against corporations that had become so large that they inhibited competition.
The battle for labor and better working conditions continued, even throughout World War I. Unions gained more power, even though they still had to struggle to obtain these concessions. Mother Jones worked with miners and other workers. She took on the most difficult issues and went to the most remote places to support workers. She campaigned on their behalf and rallied them at a time when workers had few public supporters.
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