Labor of Love Day

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.

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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.

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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.

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14 Responses to “Labor of Love Day”

  1. kaiulani

    THANK YOU!!!! JUST BACK FROM CORK IRELAND WHERE I PERFORMED MY PLAY ON MOTHER JONES.
    PERFECT SALUTE TO LABOR DAY WILL SHARE YOUR COMMENTS.

    Reply
  2. Valerie Doud

    Thanks for sharing, Lily! Happy Labor Day to you!

    Reply
  3. Riley O'Casey

    Love my Union! Love my Irish heritage! Thanks for sharing, Lily! -Irish ?

    Reply
  4. Sharon Scott

    I love this story!

    Reply
  5. Courtney

    Empowering story to clear the gray away- if only for a moment. Thank you.

    Reply
  6. Linda Crow

    words to live by, thanks you Lily

    Reply
  7. Jacqui Ochoa

    Thank you! I absolutely LOVE reading about Mother Jones. I am learning ways to help strengthen and organize for our local. I needed a fresh reminder about her for this holiday! We need a Mother Jones flag to fly next to the U.S. one for Labor Day!! ?

    Reply
  8. glen

    Solidarity!

    Reply
  9. Fawn DeMurl Carriker

    Lily, I am so proud that you are our NEA President; you have always been a sensible and thoughtful voice for educators and children. I get so frustrated by the conservative rhetoric that blames “the unions” for everything that is wrong with education. The teachers in the classrooms know better, but the public does not. Thank you for bringing Mother Jones’ story to the forefront this Labor Day weekend. Union YES! – Fawn Carriker – retired California teacher

    Reply
  10. Richard Goldfinch

    i always love to hear your interventions at EI meetings. The wonderful thing about this article is that your writing sounds like your speeches. Thanks for sharing
    Be strong be Union
    Richard goldfinch QPAT CTF

    Reply
  11. Anna Smith

    Thanks to the pioneers and the current fighters for workers’ rights. Those workers who consistently put in a hard day’s work every day deserve a living wage.

    Reply
  12. Jessie Muse

    I have never met Lily, but she is carrying on the work of the organization for which I worked for over 25 years. This is a wonderful story of activism.

    Reply
  13. Joanne Zasada

    You are a strong individual who has shared not only your strength but your heart with those you care about. I was fired last year because of organizing the support staff in my school district. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but with the strength and heart of my colleagues, we were able to file a majority interest petition and they are now in negotiations. I now work for my teacher’s union who is also defending my case. We need to always keep the faith!

    Reply

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