The Women Who Sang Their Way Out Of Jail
A hundred years ago, Slovaks poured out of Ellis Island and into Pennsylvania, lured there by coal mining companies offering tenement housing in patch towns, free transportation and the promise of jobs. The companies favored the non-English speaking Slavic boys and men who worked hard, put up with despicable work and living conditions and poor pay yet complained little.
Coal mining is again on the rise according to George Will’s article in today’s Washington Post: coal is the fastest growing source of fuel in the world, spurred on mainly by the insatiable need for coal-powered electricity in China.
At the turn of the last century, boys and men mined 10 hours a day, often 7 days a week, for 10 cents an hour. They were paid in “scrip”, a currency that could only be spent at the company-owned store. The children would be sent to the stores to buy the overpriced food, and if the ledger showed they had no money left in their accounts, they were generously given leftover bones. With that, the mothers made “bone” soup, and served the thin broth for lunch, supper and snacks.
After a decade of living like this, the miners had had enough, and attempted to unionize; in the winter of 1910 the “Slovak Strike” began (70% of the miners were Slovak). The coal mining owners retaliated by evicting the miners and their families, and importing more eastern Europeans into the country as strikebreakers. The strikers and their families attempted to fight for their rights with the help of the United Mine Workers, living through the cold winter in tents and facing disease, beatings and other daily torments by police.
That summer the women fought back, attempting to stop the strikebreakers and were arrested for harassment. Along came Mary “Mother” Jones, the 73 year old Irish born activist who fought hard for decades for the rights of miners and garment workers. Called the “most dangerous woman in America” by the Senate, she suggested to the women that they bring their children with them to court. Sentenced to a $30 fine or 30 days in jail, the poor, homeless immigrant women had no choice but to go to jail. Reluctantly, their children were sent too, as there was no one else to look after them. Jones told the women as they were being marched into the jail cells, “You sing the whole night long. You can spell one another if you get tired and hoarse. Sleep all day and sing all night and don’t stop for anyone. Say you’re singing to the babies. I will bring the little ones milk and fruit. Just you all sing and sing.”
And so they sang night and day, for five days in a row. It turns out the jail was located right next door to the sheriff’s home, as well as other homes and hotels and the nonstop Slovak singing was driving people nuts. Tired and angry, the townspeople demanded the release of the women and children, which the sheriff, also tired and fed up by now, did.
In the end, the Slovaks and the union were unable to outlast the coal mining companies financially. Unions eventually did come to Pennsylvania and working conditions improved, although even today the companies are notorious for ignoring government safety warnings.
As Chinese coal demand grows and profits soar, so too will the carbon-dioxide concentration in the world’s atmosphere; this time, however, it won’t be just the Slovaks who pay the price.