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Mother Jones ignited passion for coal strike

by Carolyn Newman
TRINIDAD — The grey-haired grandmother with a sweet face stood to speak in the West opera house in Trinidad 100 years ago Sept.14, 1913. But her words were not of the grandmother type.
Some 1,500 persons packed the opera house – miners and their families. The union miner delegates were attending a three-day union convention to discuss a possible strike. Mother Jones used her harshest language as she spoke for two hours, angry with the coal mine operators, the private detective agencies hired by the coal companies, and angry with the Las Animas county sheriff. Later it would be the sheriff of Huerfano County, Jeff Farr, she would ridicule.
Mother Jones, actually Mary Harris Jones, was a labor union representative who came to Colorado after involvement in a mining strike in West Virginia. She was Irish, had lost her husband and children in a yellow fever epidemic, and for the past 25 years had been in the industrial battles across the nation. She claimed to be in southern Colorado “to see if we can ward off a conflict.”
“For generations we have been developing muscle to produce wealth, ” said Mother Jones.
“The day is past and the workers are now developing brains. The time has come to rise up in your strength and shake off the shackles.
“We are yet hopeful of a settlement. But if it is strike or submit, why, for God’s sake, strike – strike, strike, until you win.
“Rise up and strike, ” she screamed. “If you are too cowardly, there are enough women in this country to come in here and beat hell out of you. If it is to be slavery or strike, then I say strike – strike – until the last one of you drop into your graves.”
What were the miners demanding from the mine operators? Seven items.
1. Recognition of the union.
2. Ten percent more on the tonnage rates for digging coal.
3. An eight-hour working day for all.
4. Pay for all ‘dead’ work – the work preparing the mine for actual digging. Work such as timbering to prevent the roof collapsing, handling impurities, etc.
5. A union check-weight man elected by the miners to weigh the coal. Miners were usually paid by the amount of coal mined and were cheated at times.
6. The right to trade at any store, not just the company store, to choose their own boarding place and their own doctor.
7. Enforcement of the Colorado mining laws and abolition of the guard system in the mining camps.
Actually her inflammatory speeches -another was given Sept. 16 – proved to be the spark that convinced the delegates to vote unanimously to go on strike Sept. 23 – just days away. Just days to move out of the company-owned houses, to prepare to be without jobs, to find a place to live and to prepare for a life of poverty not only for themselves but also for their wives and children.
The union for months had quietly been leasing land for tents imported from the West Virginia for the displaced striking mining families. Huerfano county as well as Ludlow and Las Animas county were to have a number of the tent colonies, one on what is now the playground at Walsenburg’s Washington School on East Fifth Street.
Any local strike stories are welcome carlynewmn@aol.com.
Information from the Trinidad Chronicle-News of September 15-17, 1913. Also from the Pueblo Cheiftain of the same period.
Tonight (Thursday) the “Children of Ludlow” exhibit opens at 5 pm at El Pueblo Museum. Saturday, Mother Jones, as portrayed by Carolyn Newman, will again incite miners to go on strike, this time speaking from the porch of the Bloom Mansion in Trinidad 11 am. Sunday is the 11 am commemoration at the Ludlow site of the start of strike. Ludlow is at exit 27 on I-25. The strike exhibit at the Walsenburg Mining Museum closes Sept. 30.