Mother Jones fearlessly questioned corporate rule and earned the title “the grandmother of all agitators.” She is a figure who lives on because the issues she raised are still of concern to us, still relevant in the twenty-first century.
The son of a British immigrant family, Bradley started working as a slate picker in Devil’s Hole, Collinsville, Illinois, at age 9, the year he came with his family to the United States. His moment of rebellion came when as a 31 year old destitute president of his Mt. Olive union miners local, he launched the 1897 march for a living wage from Mt. Olive to Belleville, a 50 mile trek that was a catalyst for marches across the coalfields that brought the union its first union contract, including the 8 hour day.
In July 1897, Bradley led a crusade that shut down the Illinois mines. He and Mother Jones joined Eugene Debs and others in an effort to bring a general strike. The conservative union officials rejected it. But his marches were a catalyst for marches across the bituminous fields that helped to win the first national contract in the coal fields.. The march was a strike strategy that was part of a marching tradition in the Illinois coal fields.
In 1898, Bradley led another brigade from Mt. Olive 40 miles north to Virden Illinois to defend the union. The Chicago-Virden coal company built a stockade around their mine and announced they would bring in strikebreakers from Alabama to replace unionized workers. This was a mortal threat as far as Bradley and the coal miners were concerned, because for 40 years, they had seen that one employer's refusal would make all agreements collapse. The miners peacefully turned away the first trainload of African-Americans by persuasion in late September. So the company announced the next train would be guarded by gun-toting private guards, and sought to provoke violence in order to bring in the state's militia.
Bradley marched a brigade of 200 men from Mt. Olive to make their stand and defend their union. They sought to do so peacefully, but all of the men who went to Virden knew they were risking their lives, and they came with their own small arms as well. On October 12, 1898 the train pulled into Virden and almost immediately a battle proceeded. After the shooting stopped, Bradley rushed to send a telegram from the field, telling Mt. Olive president Henry Schuette that he should send doctors instead of more men.
Bradley witnessed the bloody battle, and yet he also recognized the victory: The union had prevented the company from their plans, 5 of the armed guards had been killed, and the men had made their stand for unionism. He told a reporter that day that the union had won the mine war. He was right. See more about this story at the Virden Monument. There is also a walking tour for Virden mine war. Bradley became President of the Mt. Olive union local for a short time, but he never held office for long. He became identified with the kind of rebellious rank-and-file leader who defied union leadership, roused the masses of miners, and earned a place in the hearts of the men. The obvious love for Bradley was there for all to see in the large monument the local erected to him when he died at the fairly young age of 47, in 1918.
Listen to Bradley's favorite song performed by Utah Phillips: (lyrics below)
The song was also a favorite of Mother Jones. It is usually associated with the Industrial Workers of the World, the radical rebel labor organization that believed in organizing all the working class along industrial, not skill or racial lines. It was organized in 1905, and in 1908 this was published for the first time. But it goes back much earlier than that.
Bradley's marker also allows us to see where Mother Jones chose to be buried. She wanted to be buried opposite the Virden Martyrs. This is one vantage point.