Thursday, September 9, 2010

Laboring for Justice


By Rev. Gary Kowalski

Americans are more likely barbecuing this Labor Day weekend than singing “Which Side Are You On?” We’ve forgotten the workers who were our own forebears.

My wife’s family, for instance, came from Nanticoke, Pennsylvania. Today it’s an unremarkable crossroads, but a century ago, it saw a titanic contest between labor organizers and the Reading Railroad, which ran the nation’s coal mines. The union wanted an eight hour day and took 100,000 men out on strike. The walk-out finally ended six months later when Teddy Roosevelt established a commission for binding arbitration. In his closing argument to that commission, the railroad CEO testified that “These men don't suffer. Why, hell, half of them don't even speak English.”

Three years after the strike, a government report found thousands of children still picking chunks of coal by hand from the mountains of slag. And this was my wife’s hometown.  Her great-grandfather Balliet died of black lung, as did great uncle Ellis. Grandmother Jeanette told stories of her brother Evan, who was so small when he trudged off to the pit that his lunch bucket dragged the ground; he perished in an accident at age 14. So the history of labor in this country is our family history. It’s a story whose repercussions are still felt.

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