Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, the fiery Irish-American labor organizer (1837-1930) who has a new museum in Mt. Olive, IL, is a central figure in a new PBS documentary, The Mine Wars.
The two-hour documentary premieres nationally on the acclaimed history series, American Experience, on Jan. 26, and tells the story of the bloody and contentious struggles of miners to organize unions.
Rosemary Feurer, lead scholar for the Mother Jones Museum, is one of the featured historians in the film. She commented, “Beginning in 1900, Mother Jones helped to spark a rebellion, and this documentary shows how ordinary miners led a battle for justice in the workplace and for the right to shape their own communities. These miners fought vigorously to connect labor rights and civil rights.”
“A century ago, coal fueled U.S. industrial development. It was the lifeblood of the economy,” she said. “Miners and their families lived in company towns controlled by armed mercenaries. Illinois and other Midwestern states were able to establish strong unions and eliminate the control of their communities by mine owners.
“But West Virginia and Colorado refused to acknowledge workers’ rights; the mine owners of West Virginia held their ground, hired armed mercenaries, and controlled the life of the towns. This gave way to bloody battles that have largely been left out of history classes.
“Mother Jones was in the thick of this struggle, and seeing this documentary does something that we intend to portray in our exhibits: the way that workers struggles shaped American and global history.”
From 1900-1920, coal miners and coal companies in West Virginia clashed in a series of brutal conflicts over labor conditions and unionization. Known collectively as the “Mine Wars,” the struggle included strikes, marches, Congressional investigations, and the largest civil insurrection in the U.S. since the Civil War.
But much of this history, which shaped Mother Jones and workers across the country, has been forgotten. American Experience Executive producer Mark Samels believes the documentary “is nothing short of a testimony to the indomitable human spirit.