August 24, 2010

Labor Day – Thinking About Workers From Our Past

I continue to be fascinated by the workers who helped build America at the turn of the last century and into the 1930s.

On Labor Day my thoughts turn especially to those who fought to bring about unions and fair labor practices.

I know that unions do not enjoy universal admiration these days. Many people feel they have abused their powers, ignored their constituents or simply become obsolete. I can agree or disagree with parts of the assessment, but I can never dismiss the benefits I enjoy as a result of early union activists.

Quite simply, their efforts ensure that I can enjoy a weekend of leisure and that I can go to work anticipating moderate temperatures, regular breaks and safe conditions. I may even be able to credit them with my ergonomic computer station, or at least the concept that I deserve to be comfortable while I sit typing all day.

Just the idea of sitting all day would have amazed these people, but that’s more about the evolution of work. Still, I think of people in my own circle, like my late father-in-law, Hal. He was one of the first employees of a new telephone company in northern Minnesota in the 1920s and his task was to string wire through the forests. A truck would drop him off alone at one edge of the forest with an ax, an enormous spool of wire, and a shotgun. He packed his own sleeping kit and hunted his own meals as he walked clear across the forest hacking a path and stringing wire until he emerged at the other end of the forest days or weeks later. Amazingly, when he took his family on vacations, they went camping.

Hal was not a union member or activist, but I thought of him when reading Pages from a Worker’s Life written by William Z. Foster (1939). Foster writes one of the most compelling descriptions I have ever read of the unbelievably difficult work conditions common to this era of our history.  Rivaling his accounts are the even grittier stories told by George Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London from a few decades earlier.

If you get a chance, read these books online at, and then take a minute to be grateful for your work or even lack of it. It surely couldn’t be worse than what you’ll read here.

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