Three Irish-American Women Labor Leaders: Mother Jones, My Mom, and Me
by Sheila Ives
Throughout the history of organized labor in the United States, Irish-Americans have played a significant leadership role. Many of the Irish immigrants who arrived in this country to escape the devastation of the potato famine were poor and uneducated. Some were listed as common laborers, farmers or domestic servants in the census, while others with some manual skills may have been listed as blacksmiths or carpenters. Over the years the Irish began to acquire the education and training necessary to move into better paying jobs. Still it wasn’t easy, as there was prejudice against the Irish. Labor unions offered these immigrant workers and their descendants the chance to negotiate for their pay, benefits, and working conditions, thus affording them a better way of life. Now Irish-Americans may be found in every occupation and are influential in many realms.
Of all the Irish-American national labor leaders I have studied, the one that I found most inspiring is Mary Harris Jones, an Irish immigrant from County Cork. I didn’t know about Mary Harris Jones until one day during my lunch break at the Lorain Public Library, I came across the magazine Mother Jones. When I found out that the magazine was named for an Irish immigrant woman from the same county in Ireland as my father’s mother, Mary Ann Quinn, I was intrigued and wanted to know more about her.
Mary Harris was born in County Cork in 1837. She came to Canada as a small child with her family. Prior to her marriage to George Jones in Memphis, Tennessee in 1861, she worked as a teacher in Michigan and as a seamstress in Chicago. She and George, a member of the Iron Molders Union, had 4 children.
Tragically in 1867 George Jones and all of their children died in a yellow fever epidemic. Mary then returned to Chicago to work as a seamstress, but tragedy struck again when she lost everything in the Great Fire in 1871. Mary then began attending the Knights of Labor meetings, and in 1877 she began working to help the poor whose lives were being adversely affected by industrialization. She traveled throughout the country, stopping at different towns to help workers, and she participated in countless strikes.
In 1900 she began to work on behalf of the United Mine Workers, helping organize miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Because she was loved by the workers she helped organize, she was given the name “Mother Jones.” While in her 90s she still continued to organize miners. Mother Jones was known for her oratory skills and fearless nature.
She fought corporations and politicians and was jailed numerous times. She advocated for poor children to be educated and not be exploited as workers. Although she organized the wives of workers to help their husband during strikes, she was not a suffragette. Mother Jones, once called “The Most Dangerous Woman in America,” died on November 30, 1930.
Although we may look up to leaders such as Mother Jones who accomplish things on a grand scale, it often those who are closer to us that prove to be more influential. For me, that would be my mother born Mary Virginia Lynch in Painesville, Ohio, the granddaughter of Irish immigrants from Counties Limerick and Offaly.
When I was growing up in Oberlin, my mother always worked outside the home. My father had only a 10th grade education and had spent many years of his life doing such physical work as harvesting crops, cutting sandstone in the quarries in South Amherst, and working various factory jobs that didn’t last. At the age of 37 he got the stable job he needed as a janitor in the Oberlin Post Office.
Still, money was always a concern. When my older sister Eileen broke her arm, my parents took out a bank loan to pay for treating the break. When my father was hospitalized for 6 weeks with a serious lung condition, he had to borrow money from his sister to help pay for the hospital and surgery costs.
My mother finally got a full-time job working as an administrative assistant in the Oberlin College Library. It was a job she loved, but in the late 1960s, the administrative assistants believed that they were being treated unfairly and began to explore union affiliation. My mother was one of the eight women who formed an exploratory committee.
I remember her bringing home piles of documents that she spent hours studying. She attended countless meetings with her group and attorneys. A decision was made to hold a vote for unionization in 1970 and it was successful. In 1971, the union, OCOPE/OPEIU Local 502, achieved its first contract.
This contract addressed sick leave, health insurance, and vacation benefits. There was now a formalized grievance procedure and a salary scale. I was so impressed by what these eight middle-aged women had accomplished, and I was proud of my mother for her courage in standing up for what she believed in.
Little did I realize that about 20 years later, I would be involved in unionizing the non-supervisory employees at the Lorain Public Library. Just like my mother, I was part of an organizing committee. There were endless hours of meeting with employees in order to answer their questions and concerns.
Our union drive was successful and we affiliated with SEIU District 925 (now SEIU 1199). Shortly after the election, the woman who was president took a job in a different library. It then fell to me to assume the presidency. Although I found the prospect daunting, I couldn’t let these employees down.
Negotiating our first contract was nerve wracking and tiring, but we did it. With each subsequent contract, we tried to improve salaries, benefits and working conditions. I spent much of my time outside work talking to my union field representative, preparing for grievances, or writing informational leaflets and newsletters. I mobilized the staff to take actions such as informational picketing, and I attended Library Board of Trustees’ meetings, addressing the board when there was a concern with the library administration.
I took my union position seriously and tried to treat each employee’s concern with the attention and respect it deserved. When I helped the maintenance employees, I thought of my father. When I helped the working mothers who checked out or processed books, I thought of my own mother. When I helped the bookmobile driver, I thought of my brother-in-law, a truck driver.
Since the library bargaining unit was small, I realized that I needed some leverage if our chapter faced problems. I also wanted to become more involved in the local organized labor community. I become a delegate to the Lorain County AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization representing affiliated unions. There were delegates from the building trades, healthcare field, steelworkers, machinists, government employees, and retail/grocery workers.
I learned of the issues facing organized labor, heard heart-breaking stories of layoffs and lost pensions, downsizings and companies shutting or relocating, and sometimes the good news of a successful organizing drive. I attended steak fries and spaghetti dinner fundraisers, candidates’ nights and political rallies. I held various executive board positions including seven years as recording secretary.
I was then encouraged to run for the presidency. I wondered if I was up for it, but I thought of all that Mother Jones had gone through and accomplished, and decided to run. In 2002 I was elected the first woman president of the Lorain County AFL-CIO, one of the few women in the state of Ohio to hold that position at that time.
Leading an organization comprised of representatives from various unions was demanding and challenging. Conflicting opinions had to be resolved and sometimes tensions were high. We came together though and worked things out. I spoke at rallies in support of our affiliated locals when they were facing contract troubles, attended community and political meetings, wrote letters urging elected officials to support legislation favorable to labor, and worked with other labor unions in the county such as the UAW to hold candidate/issue nights and our annual Labor Day Festival in Lorain.
There were so many union leaders who worked tirelessly to protect their members’ interests. These leaders were among the most informed, engaged people I have ever met. They made countless personal sacrifices and sometimes their work wasn’t appreciated enough. Looking back on my term in office, I was so grateful for all the support I had received. Over the years I have tried to acknowledge that support with personal notes and words of thanks. I try to do this with everyone who has showed me support or a kindness.
Sometimes when I am introduced to someone and it becomes known that I was a proud union member, I will be greeted with the dismissive observation, “Unions served their purpose in the past, but we don’t need them now.”
Although I know I won’t change their minds, I firmly but politely counter with the observation that when union membership was high, wages and benefits were better. There was a strong middle class. Now that we are in the midst of a pandemic, the reality of what workers face every day is exposed.
Our essential workers, among them those who work in healthcare, drive trucks, ship items from the warehouses, cut and package meat in processing plants, and cashiers in grocery stores don’t always have the protective gear they need. These workers, many who are women and people of color, are poorly paid, lack benefits but have no choice but to go to work.
The inequalities in our society are glaringly exposed. Many employees have no avenue to have their concerns addressed or to demand better pay and working conditions. Labor and workplace safety laws have been weakened over the years. Too many workers aren’t treated with dignity and respect or paid a decent wage. Corporate interests that put profits before people now rule.
On March 18, 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech to striking sanitation workers called “All Labor Has Dignity” in the Bishop Charles Mason Temple of the Church of God in Christ in Memphis, Tennessee. He recognized the value of labor unions in helping to achieve economic justice.
Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown also has stressed “the dignity of work”: “No job is menial if you make an adequate wage. You really start with that. One job should be enough.” More of our political leaders need to focus on these words and take action on dealing with income inequality and strengthening labor laws and unions. We need to change our country’s priorities.
So, my narrative began with the poor Irish immigrants who came to the United States after An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger. The conditions they faced are similar to what immigrants coming to the United States more recently have faced. The Irish immigrants often turned to unions to help improve their lives.
I drew inspiration from their stories and from union pioneers such as Mother Jones and more recently my own mother. Mother Jones was known for her pithy comments. Her most famous quote still rings true today, “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”