In his fantastic book, Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America, Elliott Gorn tells the story of a labor leader from the beginning of the 20th century, before women could vote and at a time when “labor leader” was another name for “American subversive.” Mother Jones led the struggle for the rights of workers back when unions were seen as un-American. To demand rights for the worker was akin to forfeiting your belief in capitalism. Yeah, not a heck of a lot has changed.
Reading this book reminds me that we cannot forget the movements for justice that have brought us where we are today, though we are tempted to. Mother Jones was not perfect, but she led the fight against child labor. She was also part of movements for the 6 day work week (which ultimately became the 5 day work week), the right to unionize and collectively bargain, and the right for a minimum wage (now a right to a livable wage). All of these things were fought for with peoples’ lives – and they continue to be. Ownership in the United States will give up nothing without a fight. Reading about Mother Jones and her struggle for the worker recaptures our own history as the social creeds of most our denominations were created during her lifetime (the UMC Social Creed was developed in 1908) and were rooted in the struggle for the rights of laborers. Though, as you will see she was no fan of the Church, I pray we will recover our struggle for the rights of workers as part of our identity and a major part of our mission moving forward.
Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living. (p. 282)
The enemy seeks to conquer by dividing your ranks, by making distinctions between North and South, between American and foreign. You are all miners, fighting a common cause, a common master. The iron heel feels the same to all flesh. Hunger and suffering and the cause of your children bind more closely than a common tongue…I know of no East or West, North or South when it comes to my class fighting the battle for justice. (p. 106)
How sad it is the earth filled with wealth! So many of God’s children suffering! What is it to us if the church bell tolls each Easter morning and announces the resurrection of the Christ? It has never yet tolled for the resurrection of Christ’s children from their long dark tomb of slavery. (p. 147)
The employment of children is doing more to fill prisons, insane asylums, almshouses, reformatories, slums, and gin shops than all the efforts reformers are doing to improve society…I am going to show Wall Street and the flesh and blood from which it squeezes its wealth. (p. 132)
We don’t want sympathy, we want to stand up straight before the world that we are fighting the battle for your own cause. (p. 216)
During the past seventy years of my life I have been subject to the authority of the capitalist class and for the last thirty five years…I have learned that there is an irrepressible conflict that will never end between the working class and the capitalist class, until these two classes disappear and the worker alone remains the producer and owner of the capital produced. (p. 149)
I long ago quit praying and took to swearing. If I pray I will have to wait until I am dead to get anything; but when I swear I get things here. (p. 158)
When I know I am right fighting for these children of mine, there is no governor, no court, no president will terrify or muzzle me. (p. 178)
You men have come over the mountains, twelve, sixteen miles. Your clothes are thin. Your shoes are out at the toes. Your wives and little ones are cold and hungry! You have been robbed and enslaved for years! And now [evangelist] Billy Sunday comes to you and tells you to be good and patient and trust to justice! What silly trash to tell men whose goodness and patience has cried out to a deaf world! (p. 182)
On the impotence of political parties impacting workers’ lives: “Money prostitutes them all.” (p. 231)