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Mother Jones played key role in 1917 streetcar strike
Charged with restoring order during the bitter 1917 Bloomington-Normal streetcar strike, Illinois militiamen stand ready at the northwest corner of the old McLean County Courthouse. (Chicago Daily News negatives collection, courtesy of Chicago Historical Society)

BLOOMINGTON - Mother's Day brings to mind famous "mothers," such as Mother Earth and Mother Teresa.

There's also Mother Jones, the "mother" of the United States labor movement who played a pivotal role in the bitter Bloomington streetcar strike of 1917.

Mary Harris Jones was born in 1830 in Cork, Ireland, and her family emigrated to the United States when she was a young child. She became a teacher and dressmaker but lost her husband and four children to the Memphis yellow fever epidemic of 1867.

Eventually, "Mother" Jones, as she came to be called, developed into a battle-hardened union organizer who crisscrossed the nation to rally labor in its often-bloody struggle to earn recognition and concessions from Gilded Age robber barons. She also rallied public opinion against the cruelest abuses of laissez faire capitalism, such as child labor.

Thus it's no surprise that in the summer of 1917, 87-year-old Mother Jones found herself in Bloomington urging striking street railway workers to fight, in the literal sense of the word, for their union rights.

Horse-drawn streetcars first plied Bloomington streets in 1867. The electric era arrived in 1890, and during its heyday, the railway operated an expansive system that not only connected downtown Bloomington to downtown Normal, but also reached deep into residential neighborhoods.

Times, though, were tough for the motormen conductors and other workers of the Bloomington & Normal Railway & Light Co. Back in 1904, a six-month strike ended in defeat. Their last pay raise came in 1914. Now, in 1917, Superintendent D.W. Snyder refused to collectively negotiate with the disgruntled employees frustrated over long workdays and low pay.

The strike began in late May, and Snyder responded by bringing in out-of-town "detectives" to prevent strikers and their supporters from vandalizing company property or intimidating "scab" hires and veteran employees who remained on the job.

As the strike dragged on, the dispute narrowed to one of union recognition. With the implicit and explicit blessing of city leaders, including the local courts, Snyder remained obstinate in his refusal to meet, let alone negotiate with, union representatives.

On July 5, Mother Jones delivered her fiery call-to-arms at the old Turner Hall on South Main Street. The Pantagraph sent cub reporter James D. Foster to cover the speech. "What are you going to do?" Foster recalled Mother Jones shouting to the crowd. "Are you a damn lot of yellow dogs? Go out and get 'em."

The crowd poured out of the hall and, by happenstance, came upon the Park St.-S. Main St. car. The conductor and a hired detective were "beaten about the face, head and shoulders." Brandishing a gun, motorman Frank Hart fled to a nearby shanty. Once disarmed, he was kicked and stoned by the mob.

During the long night, the strikers and their supporters broke the windows of the railway's powerhouse and headquarters and ransacked a second streetcar. Remarkably, no one was killed; six people were injured.

The next day, some 1,400 Illinois militiamen from Peoria and Chicago arrived to restore order. Most of them encamped on the old courthouse lawn.

The unrest, typical of the era's rough-and-tumble clashes between labor and capital, drove management to the negotiating table. The railway company soon agreed to accept a unionized work force, a wage increase of about 35 cents a day and a reduction in the workday.

Mother Jones passed away on Nov. 30, 1930, at the age of 100. She is buried at the Union Miners' Cemetery in Mount Olive.

Several days after her passing, Foster, the former cub reporter who was by then was an editor for the Associated Press, recalled that summer night in 1917. "I have not always agreed with her, nor her fights," he wrote. "But her passing takes from life and from the news columns one of the most picturesque and noble women this country ever had. She was honest in her beliefs and right or wrong, she knew how to 'go out and get 'em.' "

Happy Mother's Day!

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