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Posts Tagged ‘Labor Day’

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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Since it is Labor Day, I thought I would rerun a post from several years back that is one of my favorites that very much has to do with one of the symbols of labor–the hands of the worker:

working-hands-photo-by-tony-smallman-2008I 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.

The hands of our landlord Art, an old farmer, were thick and strong and missing at least one digit down to the knuckle on several fingers, the result of an impatient personality and old farm machinery.  Not a great match.  I saw quite a few farmers with missing fingers.

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.  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 but 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.

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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John-Henry-statueAnother Labor Day weekend.

I usually focus on the labor aspect of this holiday when writing about it, trying to point out how much our country was shaped by both the toil of the workers as well as the labor unions who fought for and won many of the rights that we now take for granted.  But this year I thought I would focus on a folk song that addresses the role and importance of labor in our lives:

John Henry–  that steel driving man who faced off in an epic battle of man against machine, defeating the steam drill that threatened to take away his job.  Well, sort of defeating it.  I guess a victory is still a victory even if you die in the wake of your triumph.

john_henry_by_fw_long_dehtUnfortunately, John Henry’s great efforts ultimately didn’t save the jobs of the workers who would be displaced by the steam drill.  But it did illustrate the importance of  labor and the purpose it adds in our lives.  Labor has always been that thing by which we have provided for ourselves and our families, from the time we were primarily hunter/gatherers and farmers (which was not that long ago) to the present day.  To take away that ability to provide is to strip away one’s pride and definition as a human.

In that aspect, John Henry’s victory  was more than a triumph of blood and bone over steel and gears.  It was a triumph of the human spirit, a crying out of our need to be necessary in some way, to be undiminished.  And despite John Henry paying the ultimate price for his victory, I think that is why this song still strikes a strong chord with us.

So for this Sunday’s music I will play one of my favorite versions (among many) of John Henry.  It’s from Johnny Cash from his 1963 album, Blood, Sweat and Tears, an album which focused on labor.  I think it captures that idea of purpose really well.

Have a great Labor Day weekend but try to remember the idea behind the holiday.

John Henry William Gropper
 

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