By Jack Jodell, April 25, 2011
This is the sixth in a series dedicated to those who helped shape our labor movement. It was due to their prior struggles that we have achieved for all the types of wages, benefits, and working conditions we now enjoy at our jobs. Today, with ultra-consevative corporatist Republicans and their very misguided Tea Party allies actively trying to take away these gains, we must resist this attempt by voting them out of office as soon as we can! As I write today, voters across WISCONSIN have submitted enough signatures to force recall elections for five of these Republicans, and the recall of their very evil, anti-worker Republican Governor, Scott Walker, is sure to follow next January. We MUST stand together in solidarity to stop this conservative Republican assault on all workers!
Mother Jones [Mary Harris] (1837-1930) most definitely stirred up the labor pot. In her own words, she once said “I’m not a humanitarian, I’m a hell-raiser.” That she most certainly was!
Born in Cork, Ireland, she and her family emigrated to Canada when she was 14 or 15. For several years the family stayed in Toronto before finally moving to the United States. In Monroe, MI, young Mary Harris taught for a time in a convent, but grew tired of that occupation rather quickly. “I preferred sewing to bossing little children,” she said later. So she moved on, first to Chicago, and later to Memphis. In Memphis, she met and married George E. Jones in 1861. Jones was a fpunder of the National Union of Iron Moulders. The couple had four children in quick succession, and then disaster struck. There was a Yellow Fever outbreak in Tennessee, and it claimed the lives of each child (all were younger than 5) and her husband George. Crushed, with her entire family wiped out by the epidemic, Mother Jones decided to go back to Chicago and open a dressmaking shop. She did so, but four years later, she met another disaster: her home, shop, and all her belongings were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Talk about luck of the Irish!
This second disaster left her in a perilous state and caused her to join the Knights of Labor, an early labor movement group which was the precursor to the Industrial Workers of the World. After the 1887 Haymarket Riot helped cause the demise of the Knights of Labor, Jones became affiliated with the United Mine Workers. With the UMW, she often led strikers in picketing and urged them to remain on strike and be steadfast even after management had hired strikebreakers. She soon became known for organizing the wives and children of strikers into demonstrations in their support all over the country. Placed on trial in 1902 for ignoring a court injunction barring strikers from holding meetings, she was characterized by West Virginia district attorney Reese Blizzard as being “the most dangerous woman in America.” (Hmmmm—I wonder if she and Lucy Parsons, the woman the Chicago police saud was “more dangerous than a thousand rioters” ever came in contact with each other? Both seemed cut from the same mold).
Mother Jones was a rousing speaker who earned her nickname by wearing outdated dresses and referring to striking men as “my boys.”
In 1903, Jones, a long time crusader against child labor, organized children to walk in the “Children’s Crusade,” a march from Philadelphia to Oyster Bay, New York, home of then-President Theodore Roosevelt. She equipped them with banners reading “We want to go to school and not to the mines.” She attempted to draw newspaper attention to the fact that many of the children were missing fingers due to accidents received while on the job in the mills, she got no takers. She was told that all the mill owners held stock in all the newspapers and would never allow an expose like that to be printed. She replied indignantly, “Well, I’ve got stock in these little children and I’ll ARRANGE a little publicity!” The march continued, but she and the children were refused an audience with the President by his secretary. The country as a whole was very slow to regulate child labor. Congress passed two regulatory bills, in 1918 and 1922, but the Supreme Court declared both unconstitutional in 1924. (Then, as now, an overly conservative and foolish Supreme Court ridiculously sided with business against the people and against fairness and common sense. In fact, it wasn’t until 1938, with the passage of FDR’s New Deal FAIR LABOR STANDARDS ACT that the minimum age for workers in almost all industries was set at 16 during normal school hours! Unbelievable, and that is why a conservative-dominated Supreme Court is NEVER a good idea for this country!). But Mother Jones’ efforts DID succeed in bringing the issue of child labor to the front of public knowledge and sparked a long and eventually successful battle for its eradication.
In 1913, Mother Jones was placed under house arrest after she and other union organizers had organized another children’s march. This time, the trumped-up charge was murder. This charge caused a public uproar and she was soon freed. The outrage led progressive Senator John Worth Kern to call for an investigation into working conditions in the local coal mines. Several months later, Mother Jones went out to Colorado to organize coal workers there. Again, she soon found herself arrested and even did some prison time. She was escorted from the state just before the Ludlow Massacre, an event in Ludlow, CO where the National Guard attacked 1,200 striking miners which resulted in 19 deaths, one of them an innocent passer-by. After this tragic event, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. met with Mother Jones, inviting her to his Standard Oil headquarters. This meeting prompted Rockefeller to visit the Colorado mines himself, resulting in his proposal for long sought-after reforms.
Mother Jones continued union organizing for the UMW well into the 1920s and spoke on union affairs almost until her death. Known as “the miners’ angel”, when denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate by some reactionary Republican as “grandmother of all agitators”, she replied, “I hope to live long enough to be the GREAT-grandmother of all agitators!” She died at the age of 93, and is buried in the Union Miners Cemetary in Mount Olive, IL, alongside union miners who had died in 1898 whom she had referred to as “her boys.” Her legacy has been one of persistence and dedication to her cause. In 1972 her life inspired the creation of a magazine named after her, titled simply Mother Jones. It has dedicated itself to publishing articles on topics she herself would have pursued, like corporate, government, and media malfeasance,. Her spirit endures in that publication, as well it should!
Jimmy Hoffa (born 1913. Disappeared without a trace July 30, 1975). This very popular, no-nonsense union leader was once described by Robert Kennedy as “…not just the most powerful man in labor. He’s the most powerful man in the country, next to the President.” Kennedy was right. For Hoffa in his heyday had built his beloved Teamsters into the largest and most influential labor union in the entire world.
Born James Riddle Hoffa into a Pennsyvania Dutch German family living in Brazil, Indiana, his father was a coal miner who died in 1920. This led to the family moving to Detroit in a few years, where Hoffa remained the rest of his life. At age 14, he quit school to do manual work to help support his mother and siblings. He began union organizing as a teenager while working for a grocery chain which paid low wages, had poor working conditions, and very little job security. He was in fact fired for trying to organize the store. In 1932, Hoffa took the fateful step of joinig local 299 of the Teamsters in Detroit, and from then on, there was no looking back. He got married in 1936 and bought a modest home right in Detroit. The couple had a girl and then a boy. The time was ripe for Teamsters expansion, and Hoffa was the man for the job.
The union had 75.000 members in 1933. Jimmy Hoffa skillfully negotiated with other union leaders to tie local truckers first into regional groups and then into one large national group. By 1939, Hoffa had expanded membership to 420,000, and the numbers continued to grow through World War II and beyond. By 1951, membership topped the 1,000,000 mark thanks to Hoffa. Along the way, he protected his Teamsters from raids by other unions, especially the CIO. The Teamsters became THE truck drivers’ union throughout the midwest and soon branched outward. He became a master of the secondary strike, an ingenious technique by which he would have his workers call a quickie strike in sympathy with demands being made by other groups of workers within the company. This methodology proved to be a useful tool in leveraging union strength to attract other groups of workers who were not truckers or warehouse workers. It also cemented the notion of Hoffa as the man who could deliver higher wages and better benefits and working conditions for those affiliated with his union.
By 1952, Hoffa’s outstanding efforts netted him an international vice presidency with the union. By 1957, then-Teamster President Dave Beck was called before the U.S. Senate Selwct Committeeon Improper Activities in Labor and Management. In response to questions, Beck pled the fifth an astounding 140 times. Clearly a poor example for the union, he was oisted by Hoffa at that summer’s Teamsters convention, and so Jimmy Hoffa became the new Teamsters President. Immediately the AFL-CIO, led by George Meany, and which had housed the union for many years as one of its subdivisions, voted 5-1 to expel the union from its ranks. Meany saw Hoffa as a disciple of Beck’s and wanted no part of him. The Teamsters were now on their own, with Jimmy Hoffa firmly at the top.
Hoffa continually worked to expand the Teamsters. In 1964, he successfully brought ALL over-the-road truck drivers under a single master freight agreement. He also tried to bring airline workers and other transport employees into the union, but met with limited success in that endeavor.
Always a wheeler-dealer, it wasn’t long before Hoffa came under the scrutiny of the federal government himself. He would do nearly anything to make a deal beneficial to the Teamsters, and this practice led him to develop strong ties to organized crime. Robert Kennedy, as attorney general from 1961-1964, repeatedly tried to nail Hoffa and send him to prison. In 1962, he indicted Hoffa for extorting illegal payments from a firm employing Teamsters. That effort resulted in a hung jury. Hoffa was then accused of trying to bribe a juror. Finally, in 1964, he was successfully prosecuted for having misappropriated $1.7 million in union pension funds to help fund construction of some Las Vegas casinos. He was sentenced to eight years in prison, but, through a myriad of appeals, didn’t begin serving time until 1967. They say absolute power corrupts absolutely, and that may very well have been the case regarding Hoffa. Frank Fitzsimmons took over as Teamsters’ President.
Richard Nixon commuted Hoffa’s sentence in 1971, on the provision that he stay out of union politics for 10 years. Hoffa was released from prison and immediately filed legal papers designed to overturn that stipulation. Never having taken it seriously, he also began to mount a campaign to wrest control of the Teamsters back from Fitzsimmons, who by then had gained a large amount of sympathy from the Mafia. They viewed him as much easier to manipulate than the strong-willed Hoffa.
Fitzsimmons was also welcome at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, whereas Hoffa was not. The mob actually preferred Fitzsimmons, then, and told Hoffa repeatedly to cool it. But he didn’t listen and continued in his bid to unseat Fitzsimmons.
Finally, on July 30, 1975, Hoffa went to a restaurant in suburban Detroit to meet with three men: one, a Detroit labor leader, another a high-ranking member in the New Jersey Teamsters, and a third who was part of the Detroit mob. At 2:45 PM, he was seen getting into a car with three men, and was never seen or heard from again.
There are many theories and rumors about what happened to Jimmy Hoffa, but as of today, nobody knows for sure. Clearly, his desire to cut a deal with anybody to further the Teamsters cause ended up backfiring on him. He did, however, succeed in building the Teamsters into a major institution, and, in the process, made life better by far for a huge number of workers. In that regard, he, like Mother Jones before him, was a true hero of American labor!