It is Labor Day, a holiday in the United States to honor the contributions of working people to society.
Labor Day makes me think of two people in particular, John L. Lewis and my father-in-law, Thomas William Britton.
I first learned about John L Lewis when I visited my future mother-in-law’s apartment in Nitro, West Virginia. She had a bust of John L. Lewis carved in coal in a place of honor on her end table. Her husband was a working man who venerated Lewis’s leadership in the United Mine Workers of America. Here’s a quotation from a Lewis speech before the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA), an important part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. His thoughts still resonate:
“The political stability of the republic is imperiled. In excess of twelve million wage earning are unemployed. In certain industrial states the percentage of unemployed equals 40 percent of the enrolled workers. Of the remaining 60 percent a large number are employed on a part-time basis, and are the victims of a continuous schedule of wage cutting. Those who are employed, directly or indirectly, must inevitably bear the burden of supporting the millions to whom employment is unavailable. The cost of maintenance of government, and the support of non-productive institutions, is, therefore, day by day being passed to the continuously decreasing number of citizens who are privileged to work.” John L. Lewis, speaking to the Senate Finance Committee, February 1933. For the entire speech, see “The Republic is Imperiled.”
I never met my father-in-law, one of my deep regrets. He died of black lung about 4 months before my first date with my husband. But my husband is an outstanding storyteller, a skill he exercised repeatedly with my children when they were little and and requested at bedtime, “Tell me a secret.”
There were stories about his father working as a coal miner, getting up early to drive 40 miles from the city, where he’d moved to raise his son, to the mines, picking up other other miners along the way. There were stories about him finishing supper and then mixing up butter and Karo syrup on his plate to get the calories he needed for his hard physical labor. He liked mining, and that’s what he did during WW II — it was war work as much as being a soldier. He was frequently on strike for better working conditions, pay, and mine safety. When he was, he had other ways to earn a living, such as driving a hearse long distances to bring bodies home for burial or stocking shelves in the grocery store owned by a friend.
He liked coon hunting — I always had him in mind when I read Where the Red Fern Grows out loud to my children. My husband sometimes went along, learning how to move through the woods in the dark. He was a very sociable man, visiting family and friends up various ‘hollers’ in the West Virginia mountains. There’s a story about the old man in a nursing home who yearned for the taste of ground hog. My father-in-law went hunting for one for his wife to cook up for the old man. It apparently stank everyone out of the house while it was cooking, but it made the old man happy. He also liked trading things. He once swapped a particularly good coon hound for an old car that he needed since he’d just been called back to the mines.
I never met him, but I’ve always imagined him as a happy man whose days were filled with vigorous work that he enjoyed and whose spare time was filled with time in the woods, visiting, and family. I truly wish that I’d had a chance to know him, and that he’d had the chance to enjoy his grandchildren.