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August 29, 2012


Today’s Labor Day is celebrated by “back to school” sales, “last holiday of summer” festivities and other such activities which have little or no connection with the Labor Day I can recall in the 1930s. My father was a coal miner and a member of the United Mine Workers of America. Each Labor Day the union miners from the various mines where I was born and raised would march on the morning of that day, each group dressed in working clothes of a different color, usually a drab brown or gray. We eight and ten year olds and our mothers stood on the sidewalks as the different miners marched by, all eager to see our dad’s mine and our dad marching as men of labor. We were incredibly proud of our dad and the dangerous and dirty occupation he endured to support his family.

Many of the miners of that day and age were one-eyed, one-legged, one-armed or otherwise incapacitated as a result of mine owner negligence. Some were dead. I well remember one miner whose nickname was “Lefty.” The name fit since he lost his right arm in a mining accident.

It was a rough existence around those coal mining towns. There were many other ways to die in a pre-antibiotic and pre-social security society. There was a poorly-funded county “poor farm” for the indigent, and there were plenty of customers during the depression with those who were poverty stricken, sick, old and/or disabled. FDR’s New Deal initiatives had yet to kick in.

Though there was little work for miners during the depression, the miners in and around my little town in southern Indiana were stalwart union members. They remembered well the earlier confrontations with mine operators and their machine gun nests, strike-breaking “scabs” and other attempts of the owners to prevent their miners from organizing a union to collectively bargain for wages and working conditions. It was a time for FDR’s Wagner Act to show its teeth in protecting labor from the excesses of the mine owners, and it worked.

 If there ever was an industry that needed rules and regulations in re “working conditions,” the coal mining industry qualifies. It is dangerous and dirty work. It is almost like going to war every day – and hoping to survive. My father was in several cave-ins underground and told us the stories. They were harrowing experiences, to say the least. My father died at age 44 in an unrelated accident shortly after World War II. As stated above, there were many other ways to die in that age and place, and even after one retires (if he survives to retirement), there is always black lung disease waiting for you.

I am glad that Americana is into back to school sales and end of the season picnics this Labor Day. They have been and are being roughed up by the rich and corporate class today as surely as my father and our neighbors were by the mine operators during the depression, and they need a fun break and something to look forward to as their children go back to school and they settle in for football and their other fall routines. America should be both prosperous AND happy.

At age 85, my children have grandchildren and I will not be attending any back to school sales. I will instead this Labor Day be remembering when labor was the central feature of Labor Day. I will be remembering the pain and struggle of the working people of that day to get a fair share of the profits had by their labor in some of the most dangerous and dirty work on the planet. I will be remembering my father and people like Lefty (see above) who gave more than labor to their mine employers; they gave in addition daily risk-taking and exposure to death, disablement and disease.

Most of the people who read the foregoing did not experience the Great Depression and have no idea of the organized mayhem involved in mining coal while poverty-stricken. I do, so perhaps that explains why different perspectives on the meaning of Labor Day are not surprising.

I will be thinking of Labor Day against a background of what I have set forth above. I will attend no sales. I will be thinking of the sacrifices working people make daily on their jobs and will advocate for their rights to a fair shake in this economy. I have been conditioned to conclude that without labor, America stops – so  every day is my Labor Day.

Happy Labor Day!  GERALD  E

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One Comment
  1. William Berlin permalink

    Well said, especially with regard to the safety and working conditions in the mines at those times. I remember, very vividly, sitting with my mother in our old Model “A” nearly all night at the King’s Station deep mine near Princeton, IN, waiting for the survivors of an explosion “on the bottom” to be found and brought to the surface. The explosion occurred about 5 or 6 p.m., early into the 2nd shift’s deployment. We got to the mine some time before midnight. The rescue workers and the shift’s crew started coming up just at daylight. My father was in the 3rd load up. He had been working in a different section from that in which the explosion occurred. About seven had been injured, as I recall. Two drill operators had been killed. One of them was Miller Johnson from our town, GS. You may remember his twin daughters who graduated in ’41.

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