An Irish immigrant to Chicago, Mother Jones was already well into middle age when she began her fight for safe working conditions for miners in 1897. She continued a fiery advocate for labor right up into her 90s. “I have been in jail more than once and I expect to go again. If you are too cowardly to fight, I will fight.”
In the late 19th Century, Samuel Gompers had to fight for the very legitimacy of labor organizations during an era when strikers were violently assaulted by police, serving as goons of industry.
Joe Hill organized on the charisma of his singing voice. He was framed, tried in kangaroo court, and executed because he was just too good at what he was doing.
In the 1860s and 70s, Pete McGuire brought us the 8-hour day and proposed the holiday we celebrate today as Labor Day, in addition to the Mayday holiday celebrated everywhere else in the world.
Eugene Debs fought in the streets and in the courts and continued to advocate from his jail cell for the union he led.
Nelson Cruikshank fought for social service programs during the New Deal.
Cesar Chavez organized the California grape pickers in the 1960s.
Could it be that our last charismatic labor leader is 25 years dead? In this time of soaring productivity accompanied by falling real wages, we need new leadership. We need social visionaries who are courageous and passionate and eloquent.
At a time when 43% of Americans say that socialism “would be a good thing for our country,” our voice in the media is vanishingly small, and we have no representation in government.