When I was a boy, my parents taught me the dignity of work. Civilization is not created by a few fat-cats collecting dividends, my father told me, but by every man and woman who builds, repairs, and creates.
My mother talked to me about the world her parents grew up in when working people had few rights and when a worker injured on the job was considered disposable by employers. She spoke of dangerous exposed machinery that lopped off the fingers and hands of factory workers and of the small boys who picked coal in the slag heaps of Pennsylvania.
My dad talked about the joys he found in his work as a teenager, heading out to a farm where he would pitch hay and feed cows to survive during the Great Depression. He ate better than he had since the market crashed and he sent money home to help his parents. It was hard work for a scrawny kid, but it toughened him for a life that was filled with hardships.
Both of my parents raised me to respect folks they called “the people who work for a living.” Wherever they were born and whatever color they were, my mother always told me that the “worker is entitled to his wage.”
They let me know that the world of labor protections that I grew up with was not handed to us from on high. Those protections came because people fought for them. My mother recalled that the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was a tragedy that immigrant workers in New York turned into an achievement for the rights of labor. Unions, factory safety legislation, even fire escapes came out of the deaths of those poor women.
This Labor Day weekend let’s remember our ancestors who worked to build America, who fought for workers rights, and who insisted that the dignity of all labor be respected.