On Labor Day, we should remember the heroes of labor, the people who gave us weekends, overtime and safe worksites. Yes, people like Joe Hill People like my grandfather, who came to this country from the Ukraine in 1922, where he had trained as a typographer.
He went through Ellis Island, and came ashore in Battery Park. After a life in Czarist Russia, hiding in the Jewish Pale, fleeing from pogroms and Army raiders seeking “recruits,” he was astonished at the scene before him in New York. Men stood on soap boxes, ranting publicly against their government. Criticizing the president in public! Policemen didn’t bother them, people stopped and listened. What a country.
He settled into life in New York, printing Yiddish books and newspapers, and joined the New York Typographical Union, Local 6. The union had been founded in 1850 by Horace “Go West, Young Man” Greeley, and after becoming part of the International Typographical Union, fought for an 8 hour day, for weekends, for overtime, for workers’ safety, and for effective representation of the interests of working people in government.
My grandfather rose through the ranks, and one fine day in about 1947, he spoke in Washington as the Local’s secretary-treasurer. The occasion was the imminent passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, union-busting legislation that Truman vetoed and called a “slave-labor bill.” The bill placed restrictions on how unions could exercise their collective strength, creating the system we now have that blocks union shops from bringing every new employee into their collective agreement. It also restricted the sorts of employees who could join a union, and made the process for creating a new union more complex, as well as creating new procedures before calling a strike. The President was also authorized to order a strike ended in the event of a national emergency – forcing people to work against their will and under conditions they didn’t consent to.
The HUAC hearings were at their peak, with Richard Nixon calling witnesses and making a name for himself. My grandfather, in the footsteps of the men he saw on exiting the boat 30 years before, declared that the people before HUAC weren’t un-American, “Richard Nixon is un-American.”
Later, as he lunched in the Congressional dining room, who should enter but Tricky Dick himself. The future president recognized my grandfather, angrily stormed up to him, wagged his finger and demanded “How dare you call me un-American?”
Every family has a story like that, an immigrant who, by dint of hard work managed to raise children, buy a house, a car, and a good life. Like so many of those immigrants, my family was able to do what it did because of unions. We get a day off today because of men like my grandfather, people ready to stand up to the most powerful men alive and demand that they look out for working people.
That they could speak like that is a testament to America. That they succeeded is a testament to unsung men and women who fought and died for things like a weekend, fair hours, and the right to a fair wage for hard work.
We need that spirit again. Mines are again sites of horror and death, conditions that inspired strikes and bloody riots a century ago. Wages are falling against inflation, health care is out of reach to too many families, and inadequate for those that have it. The laws created to protect unions and union members are skirted or go unenforced.
Our forefathers showed us that things don’t have to be this way.