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 1898 Virden mine war was an epic in the history of struggle for union rights. It became a miners union triumph in Illinois after almost 40 years of effort to secure a union contract. You can imagine the time when coal barons and miners and their families engaged in a war over workers rights. Mine operators built a stockade to break unions. They hired gun thugs to provoke violence. We start the tour at the memorial to introduce some of the key protagonists in our tour story. This artist's depiction was created by artist David Seagraves in 2006, in a project led by John Alexander and Wayne Joplin. It shows the conflict in one panoramic. Some of the protagonists of the drama are identifiable.
The instigators of what became an epic conflict were coal operators who sought to roll back the union contract achieved after the famous marching strike of 1897.
At top left side are 4 people representing the company. They are Fred Lukins, manager of the Chicago-Virden Coal Company. He is depicted with his wife, Nina, who was known as the prettiest woman in Streator, IL when she married him in 1884 in one of the most "brilliant" weddings of the year among the fashionable set. Both came from prosperous families, remote from the lives of the miners even though they lived in their midst. The Lukins house, one of the grandest in Virden, with servants, is depicted by the artist in its glory days. It is now the Calvert & Ferry Funeral Home at 521 N. Springfield St. By the time of this conflict, Nina left town with their young children and they shut down the residence. Lukins lived inside the mine stockade.
Lukins and T. C. Loucks, President of the Company, were both around 41 years old in 1898, not the more mature looking figures in the memorial. Lukins and Loucks had become mine owners at an even younger age in Streator, where ruthless treatment of miners was legend. They argued that union control would make it impossible to make a profit, and claimed to be victims of a system that tried to standardize wages through controlling the rate of pay per ton of coal. But in 1898, they were the largest producers of coal in the state. More importantly, they were acting together with two other linchpins of anti-unionism in the state: the Pana coal operators and the St. Louis Big Muddy coal company in Carterville. If these three prevailed, the union contract won in 1897 would be effectively nullified.
The fourth man in the quartet on the left side was a bit of artistic license, according to the artist. He might be intended to represent William S. York, the other principle of the company, sometimes referred to as treasurer (though he denied that was his position at one point.) We have no image or sketch of him, but we do know that he was a young man. There are hints that this was a family affair, and that York was related to Loucks through marriage. York's role in these events was as strikebreaker recruiter. Perhaps this other figure might better represent C. Peterson, the balding manager of the St. Louis-based Thiel Detective agencies, the hired guns depicted in the scene just below him in the memorial.
The union protagonists are on the other side at the top. Mother Jones, at the center, the beloved labor agitator, was not present during any of these events. We'll explain why she's depicted here at the end of the tour when we return to this memorial.
Alexander Bradley is to the right of Mother Jones. He was the flamboyant young (32) rebel miner from Mt. Olive who dressed a burlesque of the mine operator. In 1897, he led the miners in a march that shut down all of the mines in Illinois, a crusade that brought about the first major union contract, including the 8 hour day, more uniform wages, and a means to weigh coal fairly. He earned the title General when he led the miners' marching army in a mostly peaceful strike against cruel conditions. It was also a hat tip to General Coxey, who led the peaceful march to Washington, D.C., called Coxey's army, in 1894, to demand jobs for the unemployed. Bradley had been a part of that army. Miners had a tradition of the marching strike since the 1860s in Illinois.
Next to Bradley in the bas relief is Ed Cahill, the local union leader from Virden and John Hunter, the head of District 12, the Illinois district, of the United Mine Workers of America.
Cahill was a 34 year old miner who had come to the union movement in nearby Gillespie, Illinois, and was determined to bring the company into a system that would provide decent standards, and to stop the relentless cheating on weights that the men who mined for the company hated the most. Cahill knew t knew that the struggle was not a dispute about tonnage rates, as Lukins and the company claimed, but about the issue of union power itself. Lukins was notorious for using coal screens to cheat miners out of a percentage of the coal they produced. It's how they had made their profits in the past, and that system was ended with the 1897 contract. It was a kind of wage theft that miners had sought to stop for 40 years in Illinois and across the United States. They believed the time had come to finally put an end to this.
The romantic vision of miners with traditional picks in this artwork should be replaced with a vision of massive blasting and wide coal screens that robbed the miner--that's what it was like in the Virden mines under Lukins' management.
The traditional song below, composed in the U.S. in 1875, gained popularity among union miners across the country, and was likely sung by many a miner in the 1890s in Illinois. The scale in the verse and chorus refers to this practice of everyday wage theft that motivated many a miner to join the union.
Lukins, Loucks and their allies were taken by surprise when the union won in 1897. More importantly, they and many of the other operators were appalled that Illinois Republican Governor Tanner had not sent in the militia. In 1898, Tanner became a major protagonist in the battle over whether troops should be called in. He is depicted next to the state militia in the memorial.