From everything I’ve read about Mother Jones, she wasn’t a very nice person. That is if by “nice” you mean all smiles and hugs and happy talk. Mary Jones was a hard woman to get along with and she lived a hard life. She was an immigrant from Ireland who came to the United States to escape the deadly Irish famine. She became a teacher and was paid $8 a month – starvation wages even in 1859. She married a union organizer, George Jones, and started her family only to watch her husband and all four of her tiny children die in a yellow fever epidemic. The little dress shop she had opened and everything she owned went up in smoke four years later in the Great Chicago Fire.
No, Mary Jones was not going to waste time with polite happy talk. She saw that after tragedies, while politicians were still trying to pass some too little too late legislation that would inevitably be too little too late to help suffering families, the unions would be organizing to pass out food and clothing the next day. Mary “Mother” Jones decided to dedicate her life to the working families who lived on the edge of poverty and devastation. She decided to be the champion of people like her; people who were exploited, put in danger, and who were kept in line by fear of losing the meager wages they had. She decided to be a union organizer like her husband.
I was thinking of Mother Jones as Labor Day approached. I was thinking of the purposeful life she built for herself through the Union Movement and why she chose the Union Movement to do her work. Many people may have worked for social justice through a church or a political party or a charitable foundation. But unions made sense for Mother Jones. Unions were not about charity. They were about finding the power that lay in collective hands. Unions were about entire communities of workers coming together to improve their lives; to speak truth to power; to have a say in their lives. Unions gave workers a taste of democracy when poverty left them vulnerable and powerless in every other facet of their existence. In a union, people had the collective power to look out for each other.
I’ve seen that power in action so many times over my career as an educator and as a unionist. The first collective act I ever took was to start a petition for a second grade teacher at my elementary school. Our district allowed 5 family sick leave days a year. Mr. Rasmussen’s son had cancer. He had used all his days in one week and faced losing a day’s pay for each day that he was with Danny as he was dying. The district hired his substitute for less than Mr. Rasmussen’s daily pay and was actually making money on this policy. With the support of other teachers, the office staff, and the custodial staff, we petitioned the district and offered all our family sick days to our friend. While we were still fighting for some humane way to help, Mr. Rasmussen’s little boy died.
But we didn’t let the fight die. We didn’t want this to happen to another person. We took it up at the next negotiation of our contract. And we won something better for those who would follow.
Mr. Rasmussen, one of the finest educators I’ve ever met, was moved. He had always been active in the Granite Education Association, but became even more so. He became the local president and encouraged me to be on a negotiation team – even though I knew nothing of contract negotiations. He said to me, “What you need is common sense. What you need is to be a problem solver. You’ve got what you need.”
So here I am, a 6th grade teacher from Utah and president of this nation’s largest union. I think of Mr. Rasmussen, who passed away some years ago, as the father who helped me see how I could take my advocacy for my students and colleagues to a new level. I think of Mother Jones as the grandmother who showed by example that tough times call for tough hearts; and that you’re not going to be popular if you choose to shake up the powerful few and fight to empower the many. I think of the Union Movement that is even now re-inventing itself to help working men and women see economic justice and live with dignity and hope for something better for their children.
I thank the generations that we celebrate this Labor Day. We continue their labor of love.