by Rick Smith
Holidays are about more than three day weekends, barbeques, and beer fests. They are supposed to be about remembering the past while looking forward to the future. As we move toward Labor Day 2011, I am spending time remembering my grandfather. Remembering the struggles, triumphs, and legacy he and his “Greatest Generation” left for their children and grandchildren.
My grandfather, Frederick “Pop” Smith, grew up in a world of poverty that a scant few of us today can fathom. Their house – with its dirt floors, void of indoor plumbing, heated with coal the kids “found” by the railroad tracks – hardened him to the cold realities of the world. His father died at a young age from what he called “a curable illness of the day” which left his mother with five young mouths to feed and no one to turn to for help. I remember his stories of what it was like being poor during the heart of the Great Depression. At the age of 12, he quit school, having not yet completed the eighth grade, to work on a coal delivery truck to help support his brothers and sister. At 17, he joined the US Army to fight for freedom and defeat fascism. And like many men like him returning from World War II, he met his future bride at a USO event and they were married in short order. ”Had to” according to my grandmother. A few months after the wedding day my aunt was born – “the first one always comes early you know.” My grandmother remembers the early days of their marriage. “No home, no money, but excited with naive young love and a life together.”
Their story is not all that different from the majority of young people of that era. That generation understood sacrifice. They understood pulling together and fighting for a cause, and that showed in the kind of society they built, and the economy that dominated their working, family rearing lives, as well as their golden years. When I became a union member and activist my grandfather told me of the “good old days.” The “good old days” were not all that good. He talked of deplorable working conditions, meager wages and no future, and how, through the union movement, his generation was able to create opportunity for themselves, to earn a small portion of the wealth they created, and to give their children the lives they never had and a future worth looking forward to. In the process, they created the largest “middle class” in the history of the world. He believed, as did the majority of his generation, that if man (or woman) worked hard they should be able to support themselves and their family. But beyond survival they wanted a few of the good things in life. To take an old labor quote, “bread yes, but roses too.”
Before his death we talked about the attack on workers that had started in the 1980′s and, as was his way, he zeroed in on the fact that the “elite don’t want us working people around their clubs, their theaters, or their fancy restaurants. Sure they want us to build and maintain those club and theaters and serve them at their restaurants but they don’t want to have to see or talk to us.” He understood that none of the gains on the job (weekends, breaks, minimum wage, overtime, safety, unemployment, workers compensation, Social Security, Medicare, and the list goes on) that he enjoyed were given freely by a benevolent force – he and his follow workers had to fight for them.
Pop was full of one-liner wisdom and the one I think of this Labor Day is, “if a rich guy takes a buck out of his pocket to convince you that you don’t need something, you better spend two to get it because he didn’t get rich being a fool, there is something in it for him.” That sort of sums up all of the moneyed messaging aimed at dividing workers this Labor Day. Wealth has always figured out how to divide working people and keep us at each other instead with each other. Railroad Magnate Joy Gould is famously quoted saying, “I could pay half the working class to kill the other half.” Pop’s generation understood that simple truth and stood together and worked toward that better tomorrow. With hindsight as my guide, I wonder what it will take put the fight back into today’s workers and I ask how we have let things get so out of hand. So as we honor Labor Day, take a moment and think of all the things we take for granted, and then ask what it took to get those things. And Pops, where ever you are, your family misses you, and this generation of workers could use your wisdom and fight.
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