UNION MOTHER presents the life of Mary “Mother” Jones, an unlikely labor activist during the formative years of the American labor union movement (1865-1911). Mother Jones struggles to improve the conditions for workers in various jobs:
Men who work in northern Illinois coal mines (Act 1) and Albany (NY) cotton mills (Act 2),
and Women who work as bottle washers in Milwaukee beer breweries (Act 1)
and as garment workers in the Triangle Shirt-Waist factory of New York City (Act 2).
Mother’s arch nemesis is the Operator, who represents H.C. Haugan, the real-life owner of the Cherry (Illinois) coal mine in Act 1, and Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the real-life owners of the Triangle Shirt-Waist Company (NYC), in Act 2. He is quite single-minded. Anything that helps his business is good. Anything that hurts his business is bad. He perceives Mother Jones as one who will hurt his business and is, therefore, someone to be violently opposed. At every turn, he attempts to thwart the efforts of Mother Jones to unionize his workers.
The Operator’s Wife represents real-life society women Anne Morgan (daughter of J.P. Morgan) and Alva Vanderbilt Belmont. At the start of the show, her family wealth and social status insulate her from real-world considerations. As the show progresses, she gradually learns the social costs of her lifestyle and attempts to make amends by supporting striking workers in her own halting manner.
Although most people today think that the primary goal of labor unions is wage increases, the unions served a very different function 100+ years ago—they had to lobby the government and pressure employers for basic health and safety regulations that were nonexistent in industry at the time.
Fire provides the beginning-middle-end “mile markers” for UNION MOTHER: • The 1871 Chicago Fire at the beginning of Act 1 • The 1909 Cherry coal mine fire in Illinois at the end of Act 1 • The 1911 Triangle Shirt-Waist garment factory fire in New York City at the end of Act 2
The mine fire and factory fire happen quite by surprise, while Mother and the unionizing workers are distracted by dealing with other issues.
All songs were written between 1865 and 1911.
Dialogue comes from primary source publications of the era.