Soon Jones focused on organizing coal miners, traveling to West Virginia and Colorado, where miners worked in toxic, dangerous conditions for little pay (often much less than they were promised). Each year, thousands of miners died in cave-ins, explosions and other accidents. Many more suffered from "black lung" and the crippling effects of working in small underground tunnels. They often were forced to buy their own tools and were paid in "scrip," which could only be cashed in at the company-owned store. The miners had no recourse not only because they were poor and the mining companies banned unionization but because private security guards kept them in line with the constant threat of force.
Mother Jones marched into these "company towns" and roused the miners to band together and demand better conditions and higher pay. She was arrested and thrown in jail many times, which she not only endured but used to her advantage. She managed to smuggle letters out from her cell. One began, "From out of the military prison walls, where I have been forced to pass my 81st milestone of life, I plead with you for the honor of this nation." Even though the mining companies sought to demonize her-one prosecutor called her "the most dangerous woman in America"-the spectacle of an old woman behind bars drew media attention to the issue and forced the companies to answer to the public at large. Eventually, her efforts lead to major national reforms, such as the miners' right to organize.
Mother Jones' work with the miners led to her greatest legacy: fighting child labor. She had noticed that young boys were sent to work in the mines and resolved to investigate the proliferating textile mills and factories. She infiltrated several and saw the reality: Children as young as 6 were sent to work long hours in deadening, dangerous conditions. They had no recourse for injuries and no chance of an education.
In May 1903, when workers in hundreds of factories in Kensington Pennsylvania went on strike, Jones seized the opportunity to put the spotlight on child labor. After talking with their parents, she convinced about 100 children to go with her from Kensington to New York in what came to be known as "The Children's March."
On July 15, she sent President Theodore Roosevelt an open letter asking "that the children be taken from the industrial prisons of this nation and given their right of attending schools, so that in years to come better citizens will be given to this republic." The letter questioned whether "commercial greatness has not cost us too much by being built on the quivering hearts of helpless children" and asked for a national law banning child labor.
Although the president did not respond, Mother Jones' message resonated with the public. Soon after, the Pennsylvania legislature passed regulating the age of employment. One year after, the National Child Labor Committee was formed to investigate conditions and advocate for reform. In 1907, a federal bill was drafted, but failed. In 1916, a similar bill passed but was ruled unconstitutional. It was not until 1938, under the leadership of Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, that the federal government would regulate child labor. However, Mother Jones was the catalyst. She lead the way from the outside, with creative and daring tactics, changing our nation for the better.