An economic depression hit the United States in 1893, leading to greater levels unemployment and homelessness. Organized by a man named Jacob Coxey, an "army" of unemployed men marched to Washington D.C. to demand the creation of a federal jobs program. One of the march's volunteers and participants was Mary Harris, who helped raise money for food and transportation. Although only a few hundred of the marchers actually reached their destination, the march was successful in calling national attention to the plight of the unemployed. In addition, strikes began to occur across the country. Organized by the newly created United Mine Workers, 125,000 mine workers went on strike in April of 1894, and in traditionally racist Alabama, black and white miners marched against convict labor. Eugene Debs led the American Railway Union on a strike, but that was quickly stopped and Debs was sent to prison.

When Debs was released in 1896, Mary Harris greeted him in Alabama with thousands of cheering workers. Debs welcomed his impromptu reception as an opportunity to begin explaining socialism, which he had discovered in prison, to the workers. In journals like the Appeal to Reason, which became a popular left-wing periodical, activists Debs were able to put forth their political ideals. Although Jones helped to produce this journal, she spent most of her time organizing workers. At this time, Mary Harris began to emerge as Mother Jones, traveling around to help the workers who needed her.

In the late nineteenth century, West Virginia was overrun by corporations, which were able to override local laws and more or less follow their own rules. With companies controlling all aspects of their workers' lives, unionization in these isolated mine towns was difficult. The Knights of Labor had attempted to unionize miners, but their policies of arbitration rather than striking were unsuccessful. In 1890, the United Mine Workers used direct strategies, such as strikes and confrontations, to ensure that the needs of the workers were addressed. Mother Jones devoted herself to unionizing mine-workers as part of the UMW. As a result of her efforts such as hers, the UMW soon became a powerful labor union.

One of the first major victories for the UMW was a strike in the Central Competitive Field strike of 1897, which included mines in western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. Facing a pay cut, thousands of miners walked out of work and began a prolonged strike. In western Pennsylvania, Mother Jones applied her organizing skills to supply food for the mine-workers' families, and convinced large numbers of women to join the strike. The UMW efforts were successful, and the miners eventually won the right to a raise.

After this success, the UMW began an organizing drive in eastern Pennsylvania, in what was called "Anthracite Country." After nineteen strikers were killed by guards at the Lattimer mines, workers rallied to the union. During the many walkouts and strikes that occurred in Anthracite Country, Mother Jones played an instrumental role, especially in motivating women to prevent scabs from entering the mines. These "broom and mop" brigades of mothers and wives succeeded in distracting guards, scaring away scabs or strikebreakers, and were generally so intimidating that the other union leaders worried they might insight violence. In recognition of Mother Jones's work, John Mitchell, president of the UMW, appointed her to the position of International Organizer. Jones continued to rally farmers to supply food for the strikers. Her oratorical skills, uplifting humor, and her motherly devotion to all workers succeeded in gaining support. Eventually, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the notorious mogul J.P. Morgan, who owned the anthracite mines, to take the dispute to a commission, and to set up an arbitration board that would give equal leverage to the union.

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