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Mine Workers’ Roberts brings Mother Jones back to the fight

UMWA PRESIDENT CECIL ROBERTS collects a dirt sample from above Mother Jones’ grave and gives it to Joann Condellone, vice president of the Friends of the Mother Jones Museum. – Labor Tribune photo

By CARL GREEN
Illinois Correspondent

Mt. Olive, IL – If the legacy of Mother Jones, the great union organizer, is being overlooked in much of America, at least she is still honored in the town where she is buried, Mt. Olive, IL, which hosted its biggest celebration yet in her honor last month.

An estimated 250 people came from far and near for the annual event at her gravesite at Union Miners Cemetery, the nation’s only union-owned cemetery, and at Mt. Olive City Hall, site of the Mother Jones Museum, on April 29, in preparation for her acknowledged birthday of May Day, May 1. The town is 50 miles north of St. Louis on I-55.

Guests heard one of the greatest  Labor speakers of modern times, United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts, who recalled how Mother Jones inspired him as a young miner and union leader to bring strength and courage to fighting for workers.

“She was an inspiration,” Roberts said. “She traveled the country from West Virginia to Pennsylvania to Ludlow, Colo., and she was always speaking up for people who worked for a living – speaking up for children working in the mills, and speaking up for those who were less fortunate than the rest of us.

“Had it not been for people like Mother Jones in the beginning, we might not have a middle-class, which we’re fighting for here today, we would not have the eight-hour work day, we would not have health care, pensions and all those things we take for granted.”

THE FIGHT GOES ON

Roberts recalled how Mother Jones rallied the miners after 25 workers and family members were shot or burned to death by mining companies and the National Guard during the strike in Ludlow in 1914.

“She gathered all those strikers together after that terrible massacre that took place, and she said, ‘Sure you lost, because they had bayonets and all you had was the Constitution. Any battle between the Constitution and bayonets, the bayonets will win every time. But you must fight. You must fight and lose, you must fight and win, but above all, you must fight!”

The UMWA in recent years has been fighting to protect promised pension and health care benefits against industry attempts to shirk them, he said.

“I’m so proud of the United Mine Workers, because we’ve been doing something people said you cannot do in this day and age,” he said. “We have been fighting since 2013 for our pensions and our health care, and we won the health care fight, and as we stand right here next to Mother Jones’ grave, we will not stop until we’ve won this pension fight.”

The crowd, which included dozens of retired miners, cheered heartily.

JOHN BANOVIC HONORED

The event also honored John J. Banovic, longtime secretary-treasurer of the UMWA, from Illinois, who served with Roberts and is buried about 30 feet from the Mother Jones monument.

Banovic was elected to the post in 1982 on a slate with UMWA President Richard Trumka and Vice President Roberts. Banovic died in 1996, a year after Roberts became president.

Banovic’s widow Marilyn was a special guest at the event and was greeted by Roberts, who spoke warmly of Banovic.

“He used to make me laugh, he used to give me great guidance, he used to lift me up when I was down,” Roberts said. “And Marilyn used to treat me like her son.”

The cemetery was founded in 1899 to provide a suitable burial for four miners killed trying to stop scab workers in the Battle of Virden the year before. Before she died in 1930, Mother Jones asked that she be buried there. The 22-foot monument was built later in her honor.

POWER OF THE BALLOT

Roberts and other speakers reminded the crowd that it’s vital in this election year for workers to bring their fight into the polling places to elect Labor-supporting candidates.

He recalled Miners’ victories such as the Pittston Mine strike in 1990 that restored health care benefits for retirees, widows and disabled miners.

“Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do something about somebody or something,” he said. “If working-class people vote in unison, then nobody can get elected except the people we want. If we stand together, we can beat any corporation. We can keep our health care, we can keep our pensions, we can have a decent lifestyle.”

JOINING IN SOLIDARITY at the Mother Jones monument are (from left to right) Senator Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), Madison County Circuit Clerk Mark Von Nida, event organizer Joann Condellone, UMW District 12 Representative Tim Miller, UMW International President Cecil Roberts and Mt. Olive Mayor John Skertich. – Labor Tribune photo

LONDRIGAN’S MINING ANCESTORS

Congressional nominee Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, Democratic candidate in the Illinois 15th District and a descendant of coal miners, said Labor supporters have to step up in November and help reclaim Congress from anti-union, Republican hands.

“The challenge I issue to you today is that, if it’s worth fighting for, it’s worth voting for,” she said. “If fair pay is worth fighting for, it’s worth voting for. If safe workplaces are worth fighting for, they are worth voting for. If health care and pensions are worth fighting for, vote for them!”

Londrigan, from Springfield, said her great-grandfather’s brother was killed in a mine collapse, and her husband’s ancestor Joseph Londrigan suffered burns in an 1899 mine explosion. He was taken to a hospital, and his wife and 11 children were denied benefits because he was not in the mine when he died. His son, Thomas, became a Mine Workers organizer and his grandson, Joseph, became UMWA District 12 general counsel, she said.

“Our family’s tradition of standing with labor unions and standing with workers goes back a long way,” she said. “I want you to know I stand with my family, with your family, and with our tradition of standing with unions and standing with workers.”

The veteran political campaigner is running against incumbent Rodney Davis, a supporter of President Trump and Republican anti-union proposals.

MOTHER JONES WOULD HAVE FOUGHT FOR $15

Gordon Hayman, business manager for Projectionists (IATSE) Local 143 in St. Louis, said Mother Jones would be a strong supporter of the Fight for $15 campaign to raise the minimum wage in Missouri.

“If Mother Jones were alive today, she would once again see the poverty and the injustice of people young and old who have to work long hours, who have to have their children work for the family to make enough money to get by,” he said. “She would stand up for them. She would speak out, she would lead. She would not be afraid of any obstacle that stood in her path.”

Forty hours a week for $15 would net just $31,000 – a small amount, but enough to raise a family, he said. Instead, restaurant, nursing home and home health care workers are expected to work for a $7.85 minimum wage, which doesn’t even generate enough income to reach the poverty level, he said.

“The reality is that people working 40 hours a week should be able to survive on their wages. They should be able to pay their rent or mortgage, they should be able to feed their family,” he said.

“It’s time for us to follow in Mother Jones’ footsteps. Join in, stand up, speak out, lead! This is the greatest organizing opportunity that we’re going to see in our lifetimes. This is a fight that has to be won.”

(The Mother Jones Museum is no longer affiliated with the Mother Jones Heritage Project nor its website, but it has become a part of the city of Mt. Olive. To support the museum, send checks to Mother Jones Museum at 215 E. Main St., Mt. Olive IL, 62069. The Friends of the Mother Jones Museum has a Facebook page and can be contacted at friendsofthemotherjonesmuseum@gmail.com.)

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