Archive for September 3rd, 2018

Noon hour in the Ewen Breaker, Pennsylvania Coal Co. Location: South Pittston, Pennsylvania.


The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.

Martin Luther King, Jr.


Another Labor Day.

If you ask someone what the holiday represents they will no doubt say that it is symbolic end of summer. A last picnic. One last real summer weekend at the lake or shore. If you push them they might finally say that it honors the workers of this country.

But it really was created to celebrate the American Labor Movement, those unions and organizers that brought about all of the changes that Dr. King pointed out in the quote above from his 1965 speech before the AFL-CIO.

Fair wages, a shorter workday, a safer workplace, pensions, unemployment insurance, vacations, maternity leave, paid holidays such as today– all of these things came from the hard and dangerous efforts of union organizers.

As King points out, the owners– the captains of industry— did not agree willingly to these changes. No, they fought with every resource at their disposal including the influence they bought from politicians and the use of violence. The history of the labor movement is littered with bodies of workers killed in skirmishes with the forces of the owners.

Every step of progress throughout our history has been opposed by those in power. But progress and change has always come thanks to the efforts of people like those in the labor movement.

The use of children in the workforce was another thing that was ultimately changed by the labor movement. It’s hard to believe that the scenes shown here in the famed photos of  photographer and social reformer Lewis Hine took place just over a hundred years ago in the coal mines of eastern Pennsylvania. Harder yet to believe is that federal labor laws for child labor were not fully enacted until 1938. Earlier attempts at legislation by congress in 1916 and 1922 had been challenged in court by industry and were deemed unconstitutional.

Lewis Hine -Penn Coal Co Ewen Breaker Pittston 1911Imagine your child (or your nephew or grandchild) at age 12. Imagine them spending 10 or 12 or even 14 hours a day, six days a week in one of the breaker rooms of a coal mine like the one shown here on the right. Hunched over in the gritty dust of the coal, they picked the coal for differing sizes and to sort out impurities. Imagine the men who are shown in the photo with sticks poking your child, perhaps kicking him to speed him up. Imagine all of this for  seven and a half cents per hour.

There was no school books for these kids. No soccer. No violin practices. No college preps. Just a future filled with misery and drudgery and most likely a black lung. Imagine that. And think that it was all taking place less than a hundred years ago and it ended because of the labor unions and the brave and conscientious people who fought for them.

I know there are problems that arose in the unions over time. They are not perfect by any means. But that doesn’t take away from the incredible progress that they provided for our nation’s worker. Despite their shortcomings, the idea of workers uniting to have one strong voice is as important now as it was a century ago. Perhaps even more now that corporate power and political influence is as great as any time in our history.

So celebrate the day at the shore or in a picnic. Have a great day. But take one single moment and think of those kids in that Pennsylvania mine and the people who fought to set them free.

Breaker boys working in Ewen Breaker of Pennsylvania Coal Co. For some of their names see labels 1927 to 1930. Location: South Pittston, Pennsylvania.

Group of Breaker boys. Smallest is Sam Belloma, Pine Street. (See label #1949). Location: Pittston, Pennsylvania.

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