Sunday, September 2, 2012

Labor in our Family Tree

Coal miners  - Pennsylvania (Luzerne or Carbon County, Pennsylvania)

Be thankful we live today.  The term "labor" certainly isn't what it used to be.  I come from coal miners and teachers.  My husband from farmers mostly, but also cheese makers, woodworkers, and my father-in-law was a truck driver.

To be a coal miner...well, I don't really like thinking about it too much.  Always wondering if your husband and sons come home that night?  If they came home, would they be broken and able to continue working?  I can't imagine sending my young sons off to work in the coal mines, but that's what my ancestors did.  Boys went to work in the mines as soon as they were able.  Girls helped mom raise the babies and do the housework (which was a LOT harder than today).  They had gardens and chickens in their yards to help feed their families.  They made their own clothes and had few tech-gadgets to make their lives easier.

Feeding her birds
I know my ancestors worked hard and hoped that some day their children wouldn't have to work in the mines. Around the turn of the century that started to happen and my grandparents and great aunts and uncles more often became teachers.

One room schoolhouses.  Teaching all grade levels at once, but eventually schools changed and became more what I remember as a child and teenager.  Teaching though is still a thankless job more often than not.  Where would we be without our teachers?  I get emails and comments about my grandfather and what a wonderful teacher  and role model he was (and strict).  I have obituaries that show how much my great aunt achieved in her lifetime and how respected she was (you can read about her here).

My father-in-law, like many truck drivers today spent the week driving and would come home on the weekends to see his family.  His wife took care of their 5 children while he was away.  Sacrifice and a strong and loving family.  He worked for Schneider United.  The "United" meant it was unionized.  Schneider busted that union by hiring new truck drivers that would work for a little more money up front, no pensions and diminished benefits.  They didn't fire the unionized drivers, they merely waited for them to retire.  Now Schneider National stands in its place.  Same company...less security for the drivers and their families.  My father-in-law was able to retire comfortably and when he passed my mother-in-law was able to receive his pension and continue to live well.

As for the farmers in our family, well I can only imagine how difficult working on a farm must have been.  I am so not a morning person and I can only imagine having to rise early to tend the crops and animals.

Feeding the chickens
My ancestors (and yours as well, if they held many of these occupations) had something that helped them make ends meet.  Helped them fight for better working conditions and to keep their children out of the dangerous mines.  Had someone to speak for them so they weren't driving truck longer than was safe for them and others on the road.  Someone that made sure that the teachers got the benefits they deserved for the hard work that they did...they had unions.

Labor Day hardly means what it once did.  What it must have meant to our ancestors.  Our ancestors that just wanted an honest day's wage for an honest day's labor.  To be able to live in dignity and raise their families from what was frequently an impoverished and brutally hard life.  Labor Unions fought for:

-Overtime pay
-A tolerable length for the work week and workday
-Minimum wage
-Paid vacation and sick days
-Safety standards
-Child Labor Laws
-Health benefits
-Retirement security
-Unemployment compensation

You would not have had Labor Day if there had not been unions.  Unions pushed for a day to celebrate America's laborers.  States passed laws marking the holiday, but it wasn't until August 28, 1893 that Labor Day became a National holiday.

Schoolhouse from an old family album
The word "union" and "unionized" seems to be the equivalent of a swear word today, but why?  Some unions were corrupt, but it's up to the members to fix that.  Not up to the employers and politicians to bust the unions that help keep our union workers safe and earning a decent wage.

I would not dishonor my ancestors to disparage what is a wonderful part of our American history.  The Labor Union and Labor Day will always be connected.  Even if people sometimes refuse to acknowledge the connection.  Our ancestors changed this country so that their children and grandchildren would be able to live a better life than they did.  Not a life of sloth as many wrongfully think of unionized labor, but an honest day's wage.  An honest day's work.

Today I celebrate Labor Day and my ancestors that helped make working in America better for everyone.  I will keep their hard work and intentions alive and I thank them for their sacrifices so that my life was better than theirs.  May we always be a country that values it's workers.