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Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2006 04:26 pm

Mother's Day

Labor's achievements - and promise - cited at tribute to legendary organizer

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Bert Vancauwelaert mined Illinois coal for 34 years.
Photo by C.D. Stelzer

Bert Vancauwelaert knows the song well. At the end of the verse, he softly sings the refrain. The lyrics ask a question he answered for himself a long time ago, but it’s one that still bears repeating: “Whose side are you on? Whose side are you on?”

The 80-year-old retired coal miner was among the small gathering of organized-labor supporters who made a pilgrimage to the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive on Sunday to pay tribute to Mary Harris Jones, better known as Mother Jones, the legendary labor organizer who is buried there.

A local labor leader who spoke before the singing started said that Vancauwelaert represented the sorts of rank-and-file union members who have been the true champions of organized labor. Because of the infirmities of age, though, the old miner didn’t rise from his folding chair to acknowledge the accolade.

More than one of those who did stand and address the audience Sunday wondered how to best attract younger workers to labor’s side in an era of dwindling membership.

The memorial ceremony culminated a weekend of labor-oriented events. On Saturday, United Mine Workers President Cecil E. Roberts Jr. spoke at the 21st annual Mother Jones Dinner, held at the Knights of Columbus hall on South Meadowbrook Road in Springfield. Earlier that day, the town of Virden dedicated a monument commemorating the “Battle of Virden,” which took place on Oct. 12, 1898.

Violence erupted on that date after mine operators refused to honor a contract with the union, choosing instead to hire African-American replacement workers from Alabama who were unaware of the labor strife. When the union miners tried to stop a train carrying the replacement workers and a crew of armed guards, a gunfight broke out. Several miners, as well as company thugs, died as a result.

Disapproval of the mayhem prompted religiously affiliated local cemeteries to refuse to accept the bodies of some of the slain miners, so in 1899 the UMW bought land in Mount Olive, establishing the only union-owned burial place in the United States.

Unlike the clergy, Mother Jones attached no stigma to the miners who died in Virden. They were martyrs of the labor movement to her and members of her adopted family. After losing her husband and children to a malaria epidemic in Memphis in 1867, the Irish immigrant spent much of her life acting as a matriarch and agitator for coal miners and other union workers in their struggles to improve working conditions and wages. Before her death in 1930, at 100 years of age, she asked that her remains be buried with “her boys” in Mount Olive.

Eleanor Miller, a 77-year-old Mount Olive native, remembers the dedication of the granite monument erected in 1936 at the cemetery to honor both Mother Jones and the miners who died at Virden. “We lived on the east end of town, across the railroad tracks,” she says. “They brought train after trainload of people in. There must have been 50,000 people here.”

For years thereafter, Miller recalls, she marched in the Miners Day parade each Oct. 12. She learned more about local labor history at Mount Olive High School, where students were tested on the subject. But her personal knowledge of labor struggles came from the men in her family, including her father, who were members of the Progressive Miners of America, a radicalized faction that split from the UMW during the Depression.

Bob Sipe, a University of Illinois at Springfield professor and board member of the Mother Jones Foundation, which organizes the annual tribute, says that recognizing the efforts of Mother Jones is only part of the group’s mission. “The United States has had one of the most militant labor histories of any industrialized nation in the world,” says Sipe. “Today, we’ve lost sight that the unions came out of struggle. People got killed. They got beat up. They lost everything they had. The idea of workers’ banding together collectively to improve lives is something we can’t forget.”

After decades of improved working conditions, mine safety is again a prominent issue. Forty-two coal miners have died as a result of work-related accidents so far this year, nearly double the number killed in 2005. Last week, while Congress was in recess, President George W. Bush appointed Richard Stickler, a mining executive, to head the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. The Senate previously blocked Stickler’s nomination twice because of complaints regarding his lax attitude toward safety issues in the past.

For coal miners and their families, the occupational hazards can never be overlooked. In this regard, Vancauwelaert, the octogenarian, shares something in common with 24-year-old Michael T. Bendorf: Both of their fathers died in coal-mining accidents. Vancauwelaert’s father was one of 119 miners who died in an explosion at the Orient No. 1 mine in West Frankfort, Ill., in 1951. Bendorf’s father died in a coal-mining accident in 1994 at the Monterey No. 2 in Albers, Ill., which is owned by ExxonMobil.

The benefits derived from his late father’s union membership have allowed Bendorf to pursue a college education. It’s an opportunity he doesn’t take for granted.

“Within my own family we certainly respect and recognize the need for unions,” he says. “It seems to me, though, the majority of other people I’ve met in college from white-collar families just expect everything to be handed down.”

C.D. Stelzer is a St. Louis-based freelance writer.

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