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Mother Jones

Back to the Miners 1911–1913

The Children's Crusade and the Socialist Party 1903–1911

The Colorado Coal War 1913–1915

In 1911, Mother Jones was again hired by the UMW, and started organizing campaigns by working directly among the miners in West Virginia. Conditions for miners were as bad as they had ever been. Because the miners in West Virginia were making so little money, West Virginia coal was relatively cheap, and consequently in high demand. Operators justified their tactics by citing their financial gains, and were obstinately against improving conditions for workers or responding to worker issues.

However, over time, the ethnic and racial divisions that had been obstacles to earlier unionization drives lessened, and a greater worker solidarity arose. Miners at Paint Creek and Cabin Creek went on strike, often coming close to violence against the mine companies' armed guards and scabs. Most of the scabs were unwitting accomplices in the business of ending the strike–they came from distant places, were usually hired without being aware of the strike, and forced to continue working if they did not like the situation when they arrived. The mine operators refused to negotiate with the union, and relied on violence to keep their workers in line. Machine guns defended the company offices, and the mine guards were ordered to shoot, and even to kill. Due to the isolation of the mines, the operators were able to escalate violence and intimidate workers without the risk of public uproar.

Even though Cabin Creek was isolated, Mother Jones found a way to reach the workers. One town in the Cabin Creek district, Eskdale, had been incorporated before the mine companies came to West Virginia. Therefore, it was a "free town" where coal companies did not have the authority to prevent meetings from taking place or to harass people. Mother Jones went to Eskdale and called an organizing meeting of the UMW in August of 1912. Her rhetoric aroused the workers to strike, and her persistence galvanized both the workers and their families.

In response to the violence and conflicts, Governor Glasscock declared martial law in September, and state troops were sent to the strike zone. The military confiscated the weapons of the strikers, but it did not confiscate the powerful machine guns of the mine owners. Furthermore, the military was allowed to court- martial individuals and to try them in military court: as a result, many union organizers were targeted and imprisoned. The Governor ordered a commission to investigate the strike, but its findings, which confirmed that the miners' civil rights had been violated, were hardly acknowledged.

When the Governor withdrew the troops in early January, 1913, fighting broke out between the mine guards and the strikers, who had succeeded in arming themselves even though their weapons had been confiscated during the period of martial law. In February, at the Mucklow tent colony, mine operators drove a train by the colony and fired at the tents, killing one man and injuring a woman. This incident caused an escalation of violence, and Mother Jones decided to personally go to the Governor with a group of supporters. She was quickly arrested by the military, however, and taken back to the strike zone, where she was confined.

The court case against Mother Jones, already an elderly woman, gained much publicity, as the alleged crime of conspiracy to aid killers was punishable by death. However, the evidence for the accusations was scant, and the few transcripts of her speeches demonstrated that she had asked the strikers to defend their families, but also to respect law and property. The case was covered across the country, even in mainstream newspapers such as the The New York Times. Consequently, the state of West Virginia was flooded with protests and criticism, particularly because of the poor state of Mother Jones's health during her three-month incarceration. Eventually, the state ceded, and supported negotiations that led to an agreement calling for a nine-hour work day, among other concessions. Although the workers were not fully satisfied, they went back to work temporarily. Meanwhile, a United States Senate commission exposed the conditions of the West Virginia mines, and the mine owners were forced to a de facto recognition of the union in Paint and Cabin Creeks. Mother Jones was released in May, and she started to address the workers again. This was a success for the union, and a triumphant victory for Mother Jones and her image.

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