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Remembering Mom, the Labor Organizer

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Remembering Mom, the Labor Organizer

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Remembering Mom, the Labor Organizer

Remembering Mom, the Labor Organizer

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This Labor Day, commentator Clancy Sigal has this appreciation of his mother Jennie, a Depression-era union organizer who led her first strike at age 13. He recalls the first, but not last, time he was locked in a jail cell with her — and the many colorful characters that came in and out of her life, which was spent fighting for the rights of workers and minorities.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And on this Labor Day, commentator Clancy Sigal, has this appreciation for one particular worker.

Mr. CLANCY SIGAL (Commentator): My mother Jenny(ph) and I were locked in a jail cell together when I was five years old. It was the first time that we would share this experience, but not the last time.

It was the Great Depression, the bad old days of racial segregation and labor warfare. Mom was a union organizer sent down South by the textile workers. She was a flaming bohemian redhead, an immigrant garment worker who'd led her first strike at 13 after witnessing the tragic Triangle factory fire. She was the equal, if not the better, of any man at the bargaining table and on the picket line.

Throughout her assignment in Chattanooga, I went to a Baptist school and tried my best to fit in. Mom gave us non-Jewish names to hide our disreputable identity. But eventually, word got out that Jenny was talking union in our kitchen to the mill workers, and to African-Americans who came by our place after sundown.

That was almost a capital crime in the South in 1931. So a very courteous sheriff of Hamilton County ran us out of town. But not before he put us both in his jail, because social workers and childcare didn't exist then. We shared a cell with a black woman. It was the only unsegregated place I ever saw in Chattanooga.

When we returned to the west side of Chicago, mom opened a laundry and of course it failed. The backroom of our store overflowed with hobos, conmen, working street girls, anarchists and radicals, abandoned children, and people on the run from the law. Mom's only house rule was that her guests had to check their weapons at the door.

After a bloody massacre at Republic Steel Works, when cops lost their cool and killed ten strikers, our place became a hospital for the wounded and traumatized. I had my own little corner of the backroom: a card table for my model airplane kit and Little Orphan Annie code ring. Sometimes I crawled under the table and covered my ears against the loud and passionate arguments that went back and forth all day and into the night. But there never was any real violence. My mother could stop a fight before it started by a mere lift of her plucked eyebrow.

Today, mom's buried in the Workmen's Circle Cemetery in Los Angeles. She's surrounded by the modest graves of her union sisters and brothers. The anonymous foot soldiers who made factories safer, banned child labor, and fought for social security for all of us.

INSKEEP: Commentary from Clancy Sigal. He wrote a memoir of his mother's life which is called, A Woman of Uncertain Character.

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