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Posts Tagged ‘Labor Day’

Another Labor Day has come. Most folks have forgotten that this holiday was first celebrated back in 1894, signed in as a federal holiday as an effort to bring an air of reconciliation to the nation which had just endured the widespread and violent Pullman Strike. It is meant to honor the Labor Movement and the workers it represents.

For me, the day reminds me of the first time I worked outside of our home for someone else as a child, a memory that was recently reawakened at a wedding of an old friend near the fields where I first used my hands and back for labor. There was an old potato farmer on the road where I grew up and a friend of mine would periodically go down there and work, most of the time picking or bagging potatoes. One day he asked if I wanted to come along as the farmer was going to lay irrigation pipe that day and could use some extra help. Being eleven years old and wanting to make some extra cash and having no idea what I was getting myself into, I agreed.

It was hot and dusty work. The long pipes weren’t heavy but were awkward and each time they began to dip towards the ground as you carried them brought a gruff yell from the crusty old farmer, who was not one to wear out his smile from use. He certainly didn’t put much wear and tear on his that day. To make up for it, he did a lot of yelling and cursing at us.

We had just a short break to eat the sandwich each of us had brought with us and after about eight hours in the fields, I was exhausted and covered with alternating layers of sweat and gray, grimy dust. It was the first real day of work I had experienced. It had been a tough for an untested eleven year old but now I would be rewarded.

As my friend and I prepared to mount our bicycles and head tiredly home, the farmer stood before us in his dusty bib overalls, unsmiling, of course.

“Suppose you want to get paid?”

It came out of his mouth not so much like a question but more like a complaint. We silently nodded, eager in our anticipation of our sweet reward. He stuck his thick, strong farmer hand into a pocket and pulled out a handful of change. He counted out three dollars in quarters to each of us and said, “Okay?”

Again, not really a question. More of a dismissal, more like okay, we’re done here, now go.

We were just kids but we knew we had been taken advantage of that day. But we were eleven years old and afraid to death to talk back to the surly old man, to say that this was unfair. We never worked another day for him and I found out later that this was his modus operandi, working the hell out of kids then underpaying them. If they didn’t come back, so what? There were always kids looking  to make some money.

It was a small incident but it shaped how I viewed labor and the way many people are exploited. It was a clear object lesson, in microcosm, on the value of the labor movement in this country as a unifying force for those of us most susceptible to being exploited.

The labor movement is underappreciated now. Our memories are short and we lose sight of the abuse and exploitation of workers that have taken place over the ages. We take for granted many of the rights, rules and protections in the workplace, thinking they have always been in place. But they are there only because people in the labor movement stood up against this exploitation and abuse. These folks willing to stand against injustice deserve our gratitude on this day. We could use a hell of a lot more of them now.

So, as you spend your holiday in a hopefully happy and relaxing manner, remember those who made this day possible. Happy Labor Day.

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This post originally ran on this blog back on Labor Day in 2010.

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The Working Hands

 

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I have always regarded manual labour as creative and looked with respect – and, yes, wonder – at people who work with their hands. It seems to me that their creativity is no less than that of a violinist or painter.

-Pablo Casals

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I came across this shot of working hands and it made me think of how I’ve viewed hands through my life. I’ve always looked at people’s hands since I was a child. The liver spotted hands of my grandmother had thin ivory fingers that seemed like translucent china, for instance.

Growing up, the hands of our landlord Art, an old farmer [and a onetime bootlegger but that’s a story for another day], were thick and strong and missing at least one digit down to the knuckle on several fingers, the result of an ornery, impatient personality and dangerous farm machinery. Not a great match. I saw quite a few farmers with missing fingers and limbs back in the day.

Fat Jack, who I wrote about here a ways back, had hands whose nails were longer than you might expect and permanently rimmed with the black from the oil and grease of the machines on which he was always working. They were similar to the photo above. His hands were round and plump, like Jack himself, but surprisingly soft and nimble, good for manipulating the small nuts and bolts of his world.

There was a manager when I was in the world of automobiles who was a great guy and fantastic salesman who had extremely soft and damp hands. It was like handling a cool dead fish when you shook hands. A mushy, damp, boneless fish.

I admired working hands. They reflected their use so perfectly, the scars and callouses serving as badges of honor and the thick muscularity of the fingers attesting to the time spent at labor. They seemed honest with nothing to hide. They were direct indicators of that person’s life and world.

My own hands have changed over the years. They were once more like working hands, calloused and thickening from many hours spent with a shovel. There are a number of small scars from screwdrivers that jumped from the screwhead and into the flesh time and time again and another on the end of my middle finger from when I cut the very end of it off while trying to cut a leather strap with a hunting knife. Not a great idea but, hey, I never claimed to be Einstein.

I always felt confident when my hands were harder and stronger. Now, I have lost some of that thickness of strength and the fingers are thinner and a bit softer from doing less manual labor. I look at them now and wonder how I would have judged them when I was younger, when I measured a man by his hands, something that  I don’t do  now. I now know there are better ways to measure a life, that the work of the mind is now a possibility– something that seemed a million miles away then.

But when I come across working hands, strong and hard, I find myself admiring them still.

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This post has ran a couple of times over the years, generally around Labor Day. I have always admired hard workers, people who didn’t swerve away from having to use their hands and backs to get something done. I have been a hard worker at times though I have spent as much time, maybe more, as a bone idle slob.

I like myself a lot more when I am the hard worker.

Have a good Labor Day weekend.

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

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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.

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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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There’s a tombstone in a local cemetery that we walk by nearly every day. I look at it nearly every time we pass and it always makes me smile. Below the name and the dates of his lifespan are the words Grade A Milkman. All I can think is what great pride this man took in his job before he passed away at an early age. It reminds me of a post from several years back that I ran for the Labor Day weekend. It fits here for this Grade A Milkman.

A little postscript: After years of walking by this grave, a bit of research revealed that this fellow was my mother’s 3rd cousin. Makes me smile even a little more.

Here’s the post from back in 2013:

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If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.

–Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Another Labor Day weekend is here. On this blog in the past I have bemoaned how the general public has forgot how much it owes to the labor movement, how the middle class that was the pride of this country during the middle of the last century was a direct result of hard fought gains from workers who banded together and stood against social injustice. But today I just want to speak briefly about taking pride in one’s job, the same sentiment reflected in the quote above from Martin Luther King, Jr.

When I was a waiter in a pancake house, even after I had started showing my work in several galleries, I was always a waiter first when I was at my job. Never a painter-slash-waiter, a title which served no purpose. Circumstances had put me in this place at this time and I had determined that if I had to be there I would give it my complete attention and effort. I would make it my own. If I disliked it so much that it made me miserable, I would do something about changing my job when my day there was done and the task before me was complete.

But while I was there, I treated it as though it were my destiny because, who knew, maybe it was. I took great pride in being good at that job and some other jobs that I’ve done that could be classified as menial. What was the cost in doing this? If I had to be there then I would rather be recognized for my excellence than for my displayed misery.

Simply put, take pride in the task before you, however menial you see it. Find pride in the toil and treat it as your destiny because, in that very moment, it is.

Have a great Labor Day weekend and remember what the day stands for.

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Labor Day weekend and I thought I’d share a song from many years back that asks for a little help for working folks from the nation’s chief executive, who normally (an odd word these days) advocates for working class.

History never repeats itself exactly, every time and setting changing the pattern ever so slightly. But there are some parallels in this song from Randy Newman back in 1974. He didn’t name a president in the song but it is implied he was referring to Hoover in the time of the Depression as well as President Nixon , pleading with them to do something about the expanding rate of poverty and wage stagnation for the working classes, something that hasn’t changed in the forty-some years since the song came out.

Some of the lyrics seem eerily prophetic for these times, as well:

Maybe you’re cheatin’
Maybe you’re lyin’
Maybe you have lost your mind
Maybe you only think about yourself

Too late to run, too late to cry now
The time has come for us to say good-bye now
Mr. President, have pity on the working man
Mr. President, have pity on the working man

So, have yourself a good holiday. Here’s Randy Newman and Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man) from 1974.

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Labor Day weekend and I wasn’t planning on posting anything today, figuring that I was due a break because at heart I always considered myself more under the label of worker than artist. Even in my terminology paintings are more often referred to as works or pieces. And when I was starting out I felt my ability to labor, focused and on task, wold provide a big boost in pursuing this path. And it did.

So Labor Day remains a favorite holiday for me in theme. I like the idea of work and the meaning and purpose behind it. I like the history of the holiday, how the growth of  Labor and Unions being celebrated coincided with the growth of this nation and the middle class, how these movements gave us the protections and guarantees that we all too often take for granted these days. We forget that these  things were not given to the workers– they were demanded and fought for.

Bled and died for.

So have a great weekend. Picnic. Parade. To my friends in Texas, you don’t have to be reminded about work– you have much ahead of you. But take a minute and think about the work you do, the life you live and those earlier people who worked and fought hard so that you might have a better life than their own.

Here’s a great piece of classic jazz from Cannonball Adderley. It is titled Work Song. Jazz might not be your thing but you have to admit that these guys are working it. Oh, and the little piece of work at the top is a new small painting, Sound & Silence, that is now at the West End Gallery.

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

Noon hour in the Ewen Breaker, South Pittston, Pennsylvania- Lewis Hines

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.

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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– 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.  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 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.

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 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.

Breaker boys working in Ewen Breaker of Pennsylvania Coal Co.Location: South Pittston, Pennsylvania. Photo: Lewis Hine

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

Group of Breaker boys, Pennsylvania 1911  Photo: Lewis Hine

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