Needless to say, Labor Day means so much more, especially in these days of high unemployment througout our country. Since the first Labor Day on September 5, 1882 to this Labor Day in 2009, we should reflect on American laborers and the hardships they endured at the hands of sometimes ruthless employers. Employees were forced to work in dangerous situations for long hours. Children were employed for long hours and little pay in mines and mills. Hardly any attention was paid to worker safety. Loss of life and limb was simply a cost of doing business.
One of my heroes was a remarkable woman who changed so many of the working conditions. She was Mary Harris Jones. A diminutive woman who looked like a grandmother, Mary Jones became known as "Mother Jones."
Mother Jones was born in Ireland and her family emigrated to Michigan. She suffered many great losses in her early life. She lost her husband and four children to yellow fever. She started a dress-making business in Chicago and saw it burned to the ground.
Mother Jones did not begin her activism until she was fifty years old. She was fiercely protective of children and organized the "Childrens March" in which children working in the mines and mills marched to the home of President Theodore Roosevelt. The children carried banners saying, "We want to go to school" and brought the problems of child labor to the forefront of the news of the day.
Mother Jones worked with many striking workers and was often jailed and/or fined for her activities. Yet still she persevered. Among other things, she helped the Pullman porters in Alabama in 1894, the Pennsylvania coal miners in 1902, the Ludlow Coal Mine workers in Colorado in 1913, and the steel workers strike in 1919.
Mary Jones helped establish unions for women, especially for domestic servants, silk weavers, shirt waist workers and women bottlers in the breweries. She was a great public speaker and gave us many wonderful quotes. Among my favorites, "Pray for the dead and work like Hell for the living."
She died on November 30, 1930 and left a legacy of better working conditions for all workers, especially women and children.
The following are two photographs from Lewis Hines whose beautiful (and frightening) photographs of children in the workplace were famous in the movement to enact child labor laws in the United States.
So this evening as you grab that hot dog, chicken leg, or yet another rib, give a thought to what this day really means. This is a day (which actually began in Canada) of celebrating workers of all types and of celebrating the early pioneers who risked their lives to make better working conditions. Especially now, think of all the unemployed workers who are desperately looking for jobs. Think about their families in need. And vow to do some little something next week to help them.
HAVE A WONDERFUL AND SAFE LABOR DAY!