By CARL GREEN
Mt. Olive, IL – One of the rising stars in the American Labor Movement says Mary Harris “Mother Jones” brought the American Dream of getting a chance to make a better life to workers everywhere.
United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) Secretary-Treasurer Levi Daniel Allen highlighted Mother Jones Weekend events here on Oct. 15 that also included the first Union Miners Cemetery Walk, following the annual Mother Jones Dinner on Oct. 14.
Speaking passionately, in forceful terms reminiscent of UMWA International President Cecil Roberts, Allen made the case that we all owe a debt to Mother Jones, the great union organizer, for helping establish the idea that we all are entitled to a fair chance at building better lives.
“I still believe the American Dream is starting with nothing but opportunity and having something at the end of your life,” Allen said. “But for her, the American dream was making sure everybody had the chance to get that.
“In this country, you can only be free if you have opportunity. You can only have opportunity if you have power, and you only have power in this country if you have votes,” he added. “That’s where all our power comes from.”
Allen, just 36, spoke to about 300 people gathered at the Mother Jones’ Monument at Union Miners Cemetery. The annual memorial is held by the Union Miners Cemetery Committee.
“What Mothers Jones told us is that when you come together as a collective, you have those votes, you have that power, and you can change the world,” he said. “Her legacy is in our ability to share in collective bargaining – and in the collective rights of mankind.”
A SWIFT RISE
Allen has risen swiftly to the top ranks of the UMWA. He grew up in a West Virginia family of coal miners including his grandfather and stepfather.
As a young man, Allen was $25,000 in debt for college tuition but didn’t know what he wanted to do. “I cut ties. I left. I went looking for work and found out there were no good jobs,” he said. “I tried to get on at the mine but they wouldn’t hire me.”
Allen’s fortunes turned in 2007 when he was hired as a laborer at the McElroy Mine and joined the union. He moved from laborer to belt man, earned his electrician’s card and worked as a mechanic-electrician. He became his local’s recording secretary in 2010 and was elected its president in 2014 and fought off a company effort to strip miners of seniority.
“They wanted us to strike, they wanted to take us to court, they wanted to destroy us,” he recalled.
Cecil Roberts hired Allen for the international union’s staff in 2015. He took over as international secretary-treasurer in July.
Allen, a father of five, said he was most impressed with how Mother Jones began her campaign for human rights and dignity only after suffering an unimaginable loss of her husband and children to yellow fever in Memphis in 1867, then losing her dress-making business and livelihood in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
“Can you imagine losing everything you hold dear in your life and finding the strength within yourself to start over again, working yourself back up for what most of us consider the American Dream, and then having it all stripped away from you again?” Allen asked the crowd. “I think what happened to Mary Harris Jones at that time is that she had a repurposing of her soul.”
SOMETHING TO DIE FOR: THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES
Allen borrowed a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “If a man doesn’t have something he would die for, he’s not fit to live.
“Mother Jones spent 30 years of her life, after the worst tragedy anyone could imagine, living for the Labor Movement. I don’t know if you can die for something unless you live for it first.”
The Mine Workers have had a somewhat similar experience in recent years as the coal industry has maneuvered in court and with lawmakers to shirk its health care and pension obligations.
“The struggle that the mine workers have been through over the past five years has been the most monumental struggle in modern labor history,” he said. “These companies used laws that were built to wait until people were at the most vulnerable points of their lives and then strip away everything they had worked for.”
The Mine Workers have fought to prevent that. In May, the union secured $2 billion in health care benefits for some 22,600 retirees. It was a major victory in an ongoing battle.
Roberts’ response to the health care victory was to say, “It’s time to get to work on pensions.”
So the fight goes on, and Allen says he is ready to keep waging it.
“I’m tired of them taking advantage of us,” he said. “We are the ones who bleed for this country. We are the ones who build this country. We are the ones who need to take this country back, because the vision that we had was freedom, and it’s our freedom, and it gets trampled on every single day.”
And Allen said Mother Jones will continue to provide him with deep inspiration.
“Our pensioners are still alive,” he said, paraphrasing Mother Jones. “You can pray for the dead, but you’d better fight like hell for the living.”
The Virden Massacre and the creation of Union Miners Cemetery
The “Virden Massacre,” also known as the “Virden Riot” or “Battle of Virden” occurred in 1898, leading to creation of Union Miners Cemetery, were Mother Jones is buried in Mt. Olive, and provided a signal moment in the growth of the American Labor Movement, Virden, IL, historian and bookstore owner John Alexander said.
In 1897, after the Illinois coal industry cut wages during an economic downturn, the Mine Workers went on strike and won a raise from 32 cents to 42 cents a ton, Alexander said.
But the Chicago-Virden Coal Co. refused to pay the new rate. The company locked out its miners and arranged for scab workers to be brought from Alabama, protected by armed guards from St. Louis.
Their train was met by a force of about 2,000 armed miners and their supporters, resulting in a deadly shootout that left eight miners and five guards dead. It was an unprecedented show of unity and resolve that Alexander believes gave the entire Labor Movement an important push forward.
Illinois’ Republican governor, John Riley Tanner, in his only term, shocked his backers by siding with the union, refusing to order the National Guard to attack the miners and declaring martial law to disarm both sides and end the shooting. The scab workers were kept on the train, and the strike was settled a month later in the workers’ favor.
MOURNING THE DEAD
Three of the miners killed in the gun battle were from Mt. Olive, but town leaders did not want them buried in the town’s cemetery.
“The union said, ‘Well, the hell with you, we’ll have our own cemetery,’” Alexander said.
Thus, Union Miners Cemetery, the only union-owned cemetery was created adjacent to the town cemetery. It now holds many hundreds of workers and their families.
When Mother Jones heard about it, she asked to be buried there “in the same clay that shelters the miners who gave up their lives on the hills of Virden.” Her wish was honored when she died in 1930 at the age of 100.
To Alexander, Oct. 12 – the day of the battle – remains a special time for the Labor Movement.
“In my mind, it’s kind of like Mother Jones Day,” he said.
The first Union Miners Cemetery Walk on Oct. 15, featured costumed actors portraying people the buried in the cemetery.
Mother Jones was portrayed by Loretta Williams, a regular performer with the Alton Little Theatre.
She was squired by coal miner retiree Jim Alderson, portraying “General” Alexander Bradley, the well-dressed Mine Workers organizer who was at the Battle of Virden and sent a famous telegraph – “Don’t send more men, send doctors!”
Other actors portrayed an immigrant coal-mining family, the Beruttis, and a World World I soldier, Sam Yurkovich.
Labor songs were performed by the duo Wildflower Conspiracy made up of Dale Hannah and Erin O’Toole.