Gov Career

By Phil Piemonte

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Labor of love

Most people don't give second thought to the reason for the three-day weekend that comes at the beginning of September. Labor Day, what's that?

Simple answer: A federal holiday created by Congress and signed into law by President Grover Cleveland in 1894.

More detailed answer: A federal holiday created to placate the labor movement, which remained a bit miffed at the powers that be in the wake of the Pullman Strike of 1893.

Pullman, as you may or may not know, manufactured passenger cars used on railroads all across the country. During a severe economic downturn in 1893, Pullman cut its workers' wages, but not the rents it charged those workers for Pullman company housing. The fellow who owned the company that was named after him refused to negotiate with workers or cut rents, so workers called for a strike.

Many workers joined a labor union. Other labor groups sympathetic to the cause pitched in. Railroad workers walked off the job, for example, paralyzing the railroads.

Strikebreakers were brought in, the government sent in U.S. marshals and the military, and so on. Those on both sides of the issue became more violent.

Long story short, by the end of the strike, which affected the entire country, 30 strikers had been killed and 57 wounded. That's not to mention the tens of millions of dollars in property damage.

When the dust cleared, the government quickly created the holiday as a peace offering to labor.

While government workers today are the most unionized part of the U.S. workforce, overall the nation's labor movement ain't quite what it used to be.

Still, whatever one's opinion of unions, one does have to admit one thing: Labor organizations serve an important purpose in addition to negotiating wages, benefits and working conditions for their members—they remind the rest of us.

Through their activities, dwindling in many sectors as they may be, they remind us of who does what, and how we get the goods and services many of us take for granted.

Here's a parable, sort of. And a true one.

I have an uncle. A former union man, he's 89 and still independent. He worked in construction, coal mines and steel mills. Sleeps with an old Ithaca Model 37 16 gauge shotgun leaned against the wall next to his bed. Loaded.

As a hobby, he started to paint landscapes when he was 14 years old. Always a gruff guy, impatient with people, and not particularly easy to get along with, you probably would not take him for someone who would spend hours sitting at an easel.

But he did, in his spare time, for 75 years. Now, after decades of painting portraits of the local scene as he remembered it, his eyes are going. He admits his days as an artist are about over.

A few years ago, my uncle was "discovered" by a former union official who came across some of his paintings, which over the last 20 years or so had shifted to scenes of coal mining and steel mills.

My uncle had never kept a list of what he had done. And frankly, he already had been discovered by local banks, government offices and wealthier neighbors who had begun to buy and display his work.

Anyway, the former union official began to hunt down and catalog hundreds of paintings that my uncle had done throughout his lifetime and had never bothered to track. The fellow published a nice book of paintings that when seen together serve as a visual historical record of the region.

More people started to buy my uncle's paintings. He used to just give most of them away. He told me one guy came to his house and bought 10 right off the wall for an auction.

My uncle had held membership in three unions, so labor loved him. The former union official arranged an exhibit of my uncle's work at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington. The last time I was at his house, my uncle told one of my sons to dig some snapshots from a stack of papers on the couch. In one of the photos was the president of the AFL-CIO, smiling, and holding up one of my uncle's coal mining paintings, which he had just bought.

At my uncle's house, most of the paintings that used to hang on his walls are now gone. A few paintings are still on easels, but they are not his. With what eyesight he has left, he is teaching others to capture what they see.

I have two of his steel mill paintings over my desk right now. One is a blast furnace spewing rusty red smoke, a mountain in the background just visible through the haze.

The other is the interior of something called a blooming mill. Large, red-hot blooms—monstrous ingots—of hot steel are lined up on small rail cars rolling toward the viewer. Everything in the whole painting is awash in the glow of the reddish-orange heat of the steel.

And I swear I just noticed it today—there are small two figures in the background, way off to the side, one bending at the back of the last rail car, and one standing behind the other, both of them barely visible, both almost a footnote in the painting.

Two of the workers who made it all happen in the first place.

Posted by Phil Piemonte on Aug 30, 2013 at 4:02 PM

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