Labor Day: In honor of those who struggled on our behalf

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Today is the Labor Day holiday in the United States. This post originally appeared on 4 September 2006 at the ScienceBlogs home of my original blog, Terra Sigillata. I’ve updated a bit over the years but the discussion of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre seems particularly poignant due to this year’s coal mining mishaps around the world.

My high school history teacher, Carl Cassella, originally got me interested in the US labor movement. That interest led me to pick up this 60-year-old badge at a flea market in the early 1980s. At high school graduation, I didn't win a single science award. I did, however, receive the history medal.

“Labor Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year in any country,” said Samuel Gompers, founder and longtime president of the American Federation of Labor. “All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man’s prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day…is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation.”

Put simply, the struggles of the American labor movement have given me the luxury of being a scientist, having such a thing as “leisure time” that allows me to write a blog and complain about how tough it is for scientists these days.

Thank God I don’t have to actually work for a living.

I come from a long line of Eastern European laborers (or labourers, for my colleagues in the Commonwealth countries). When the various arms of my family came through Ellis Island in the mid- to late-1800s, they all settled in New Jersey, within a stone’s throw of New York City and in the midst of the Industrial Revolution.

From the US Department of Labor website:

More than 100 years after the first Labor Day observance, there is still some doubt as to who first proposed the holiday for workers.

Some records show that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, was first in suggesting a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”

But Peter McGuire’s place in Labor Day history has not gone unchallenged. Many believe that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, not Peter McGuire, founded the holiday. Recent research seems to support the contention that Matthew Maguire, later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, N.J., proposed the holiday in 1882 while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. What is clear is that the Central Labor Union adopted a Labor Day proposal and appointed a committee to plan a demonstration and picnic.

Through to my generation, my family was solidly blue collar and my DNA was carried through the factories of Passaic, NJ, and the coal mines of northeastern Pennsylvania.

My Dad, a printing press maintenance worker who left this life 13 years ago, always aimed to see that I would never have to labor as hard as he, with machines that could take away a finger or limb or in the deafening noise of a factory.

“I want you to use your brains, not your brawn,” he’d say.

Being short on brawn, and with only modest brains, I went to graduate school at a state land-grant university and now spend most of my day behind a computer, bitching and moaning about little more than the carpal tunnel syndrome I am fighting off, something I am sure has developed over 20 years of pipetting…a “labor” that I now have the luxury of delegating to others 95% of the time.

Yes, I had student loans, now paid off. But much of my Ph.D. training was underwritten by the American taxpayers through grant funds from the US Dept of Health and Human Services and the state of Florida.

Today, with sufficient smarts, you can be actively recruited into a Ph.D. training program and earn a yearly stipend of around $25,000 (USD) while conducting your Ph.D. studies, and then make $37,500 or more in an advanced apprenticeship we call the “postdoc,” short for postdoctoral research fellowship.

And while we do complain and express considerable concern about today’s job market for biomedical Ph.D.s and the academic biomedical enterprise, even being a postdoc for life doesn’t sound quite that horrible when one reflects on what life could be like.

Take, for example, The Ludlow Massacre, where in April 1914 on the day after Greek Orthodox Easter, 20 men, women, and children were killed in a Colorado coalfield by agents supported by the Rockefellers, the then-governor of Colorado (“our little cowboy governor,” the Rockefellers called him), and the Colorado National Guard, all for refusing to work under the harsh, company town conditions so prevalent during their day. (For more information, I wrote this post last year on the 95th anniversary of the massacre).

Rarely discussed today outside of Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States, some mineworkers advocates and Woody Guthrie enthusiasts, the Ludlow Massacre was a watershed in labor relations that brought national attention to the price being paid in the West to heat our homes in the East.

I never will forget the look on the faces
Of the men and women that awful day,
When we stood around to preach their funerals,
And lay the corpses of the dead away.

We told the Colorado Governor to call the President,
Tell him to call off his National Guard,
But the National Guard belonged to the Governor,
So he didn’t try so very hard.
- Woody Guthrie, Ludlow Massacre (1944)

Thanks to the labors of my Dad and the retirement funds he never got to use, we keep a little piece of heaven in southern Colorado, only about 25 miles north of the massacre site. I always try to go down to Ludlow once a year to reflect on how good I have it and think about the poor women and children who perished in underground bunkers as their kerosene-soaked tents collapsed upon them.

Being a parent
does this sort of thing to even the most hardened scientist.

Of course, in 2003 some geniuses vandalized the beautiful statues and plaques put up by the UMWA shortly after the massacre. Now re-dedicated in 2005, I encourage you to pull off at Exit 27 of I-25 to check out the monument next time you’re in Colorado. Smack dab in the middle of nowhere, many of you have passed it a hundred times in traveling between Denver and vacation destinations in northern New Mexico.

“Because of (the Ludlow miners’) sacrifices, we can ask for a decent wage, we can expect health care and pensions, Social Security and Medicare, a vacation and expect to send our kids to the schools of our choice,” [United Mine Workers Association president Cecil] Roberts said, calling those who died at Ludlow “American freedom fighters.” “We can expect equal treatment under the law because they gave their lives here.”

So, as I go off for a run or to the faculty club pool, I’m a little embarrassed today to stand on the shoulders of those who labored before me.

But, thank you to my family, ancestors, and all who came before me, in the US and around the world, to enable for me a life where I have the time to write this silly little blog.

——————-
Labor quotes taken from the US Department of Labor website.

This article
from the 26 June 2003 issue of the Colorado Springs Independent on the vandalism of the Ludlow Massacre monument gives one of the nicest recent treatments of this sad chapter in American labor relations.

Doing some post-posting surfing, I was reminded by writer Gary Massaro and Colorado history professor, Dr Tom Noel, that son John D Rockefeller, Jr, visited the Ludlow site shortly after the massacre, apologized for his family’s indirect role, and began a campaign to improve his father’s company’s image that some today consider the birth of the field of public relations.

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