By CARL GREEN
Springfield, IL – It would be nice if the great labor leader Mary Harris “Mother Jones” could in some way experience how she is celebrated here every fall, and all year long with the development of the nearby Mother Jones Museum.
If she could come to the annual Mother Jones Dinner, she would see a banquet hall with about 300 union members and supporters gathering to pay their respects, share a meal and pursue some of the current affairs of the Labor Movement.
The Museum, now being pulled together in Mt. Olive, 40 miles to the south, will tell her story and guide visitors a couple of miles over to the tall, graceful monument at her grave in Union Miners Cemetery, the only union-owned cemetery and the place where she asked to be buried.
The dinner is held every year in October, in recent years at Erin’s Pavilion, the community center in Southwind Park on the south side of the city. It has a musical performance by somebody singing old union songs followed by a speech by someone important to the Labor Movement.
This year was no exception. Kari Lydersen was a Midwest reporter for the Washington Post, which is no small potatoes, but then she branched out on her own and has become well-known for her muckraking books and articles, most recently “Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%,” which documents battles between the well-known mayor and labor groups including the Chicago Teachers Union.
NEW ENERGY JOBS
At this dinner, Lydersen described the state of the energy industry and how its evolution, as reliance on coal fades, will create many new jobs. Labor supporters, she said, need to make sure that these are good jobs, and that as many of them as possible are union jobs.
“Energy jobs are more transitional and more temporary than they used to be, and it gives rise to the need for new strategies in terms of organizing, and fighting for these jobs to be good ones,” she said.
Technology is advancing for wind turbines, solar installations and even use of wave action in oceans as future power sources, Lydersen noted.
“It is an opportunity to bring more actual manufacturing back to the Midwest,” she said. “A friend of mine has a solar company in Chicago with about 10 employees, and it’s a worker-owned cooperative. They’re struggling to make it, but it’s a neat example of what you can do with these kinds of jobs.
“There’s a need to be on the ball and continue the struggle to make sure these clean energy jobs are actually good jobs and that they’re unionized where possible.”
While she is excited about the prospects for future energy use, she is disappointed that politicians and corporations continually try to convince energy workers, old and new, to support policies that work against their own best interests.
“When I’ve had the chance to report on coal mining and to meet coal miners, it’s just really so awe-inspiring,” she said. “The work isn’t easy, the conditions, the skills, the bravery, the dedication it takes to do that job.
“So given the proud history of coal mining and coal miners’ labor struggles and victories, it’s really frustrating and infuriating to see how this supposed war on coal has been used by politicians to cynically try to divide people and contribute to this toxic polarization that we have right now and convince people to align against their own interests.
“There are so many examples of politicians who invoke this, Donald Trump being the most immediately relevant one.”
Lydersen also teaches journalism at Northwestern University and co-directs the Social Justice News Nexus, a journalism fellowship program at Northwestern, and her articles are seen in publications nationwide.
The music was provided by Tom Irwin and Theresa O’Hare, who performed some old folk songs and some newer originals, with Irwin on guitar and O’Hare on flute and vocals. They led the group in singing “Solidarity Forever,” the dinner’s traditional closing.
AT THE MUSEUM
The singers also performed at the annual Mother Jones remembrance ceremony at the monument. That was followed by an afternoon open house at the museum.
Museum board chairman Nelson Grman held court, showing some of the plans that have been laid out for the museum. It now occupies a room adjacent to the Mt. Olive City Hall on Illinois Rte. 138, just east of I-255 and about 30 miles north of St. Louis, and is open weekdays.
The museum has a new set of early labor photos looking out from its front window along with a famous quote from Mother Jones: “I am an organizer, an agitator and an aggravator. I act because I love humanity.”
Inside are informational boards that tell Mother Jones’ story. Also new is a life-size cutout photo of three boys working in a coal mine, one smoking a pipe, one a cigar. Much more is planned, and the board is raising money to make it happen. Visit motherjonesmuseum.org to learn more and to help.
Kari Lyderson wrapped up her presentation with a quote from a speech made by a 75-year-old Mother Jones in 1912 to miners on strike in West Virginia. Its words still ring true in this election season:
“You can do it … if men and women will stand together, find out the seed of the disease and pull it up by the roots. Take possession of the Statehouse. That ground is yours! You will not be serfs. You will march, march, march on from milestone to milestone of human freedom.
“You will rise like men in the new day, and slavery will get its death blow, and it’s got to die.”