• Monument

Unless you are a labor historian, you probably wouldn’t know who Mary “Mother” Jones was. But her legacy in the labor movement is immense.

Mary Mother Jones was born Mary Harris in 1837 in Cork, Ireland. She moved to Toronto, Canada at ten years old due to the potato famine in Ireland. In her early adulthood she moved to the United States, married and had four children. In 1867 yellow fever struck her entire family leaving her a widow. She moved to Chicago where her small dressmaking shop eventually burned in the 1871 Chicago fire.

In her later years, Mary Harris championed against deplorable working conditions, subsistence wages, twelve hour work days and horrifying injuries on the job. She believed that working Americans acting together must free themselves from poverty and powerlessness. As a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Union, she took on the most powerful robber baron industrialists and corrupt politicians of that time. She organized striking coal mine workers in Colorado, garment workers in Chicago and steelworkers in Pittsburg. Because of her age and the antique black dress she wore, she soon became known as Mary “Mother” Jones.

Mother Jones was dubbed by the robber barons industrialists of her time “as the most dangerous woman in America” because of her activism. Her Mary Mother Jones Plaquefamous slogan was “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”

Nearly seventy years later and due in large part to Mother Jones and other activists, Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 and the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Yet millions of Americans suffer workplace-related injury or illness every year and thousands lose their lives. We cannot give up the fight and our work is not done.

In order to increase awareness of the potential perils in our workplace, Workers’ Memorial Day was created by the Canadian Union of Public Employees in 1984 to bring attention to the preventable nature of most workplace accidents and to promote campaigns to improve workplace safety. In 1989 trade unions in North America, Asia, Europe and Africa organized worldwide events in solidarity with their Canadian brothers and sisters. Major trade and industrial unions now observe Worker Memorial Day each year on April 28th.

On April 28, 2015, take a moment to reflect upon those who have come before us and tirelessly championed the cause of a safer workplace, often times being beaten and imprisoned for their advocacy. Every worker deserves to come home safely to their family. It is only when we remember our history, view ourselves (workers) as having a common bond and demand better working conditions that we will prevent tragedy. Observing Workers’ Memorial Day is the first step.

John Spiegelhoff was formerly the Staff Representative of Wisconsin Council 40 AFSCME in Merrill, WI. He now holds a similar position with Minnesota Council 65 AFSCME in Worthington, MN.