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About 60 years ago, in a magic moment seemingly lost in time, someone took this photograph of my maternal grandfather and three-year-old me.

bob letcher poppy

For decades, I have embraced this photo of Poppy and me as capturing what to me is the most formative influence on my own life. But what, you may be wondering, might the photo have to do with Labor Rights; and, how might it matter to you?

Well… My grandfather was an immigrant. He came here during the first decade of the 20th century, leaving his native Zagreb, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In time, he became an accomplished bricklayer, and developed many handyman skills common among people who “work for a living”.

In my mind’s eye, I can still see him and me laying new telephone lines and repairing downed lines ones after storms had passed through the area. Sometime after his arrival in a Croatian community in eastern Ohio and before my Mother had grown up enough to developed her own memory, Poppy was working a job site.

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As part of his job, as it was defined back then, he had to check the wetness of his “mud”—that is, his cement. That was a job done by hand, back then: the mixer operator and the bricklayer had to communicate about when to stop the mixer, whether the mud was properly wet and if not, what to do about it. And one last thing: they had to communicate something to the effect of: “ready to restart”.

Now, to a native English speaker, that much communication might not seem to introduce much of a problem. But remember: those were times when this country truly was a “Land of Immigrants” [ignoring First Nation People, of course]. And per Carnegie’s post-Homewood strategy of constraining unionizing by controlling who immigrated here, and when, even if my grandfather and the mixer operator could nominally speak “English”, they may have done so with accents still thick with their old country accents.

In other words, they might have had an entirely predictable failure to communicate. Anyway, that last step was where misfortune struck. The two had a failure to communicate, which led to the operator starting up the mixer while Poppy’s hand was still in there amongst all the blades, feeling how wet his mud was. The immediate result was that Pop lost nearly all of all five digits on his left hand to the mixer. If you know what to look for in the photo, you can make out his “paw”, as we affectionately called it.

robert letcher

Fortunately, Pop could still hold a brick in his paw and break it with his brick hammer; and he could still grab mud with his trowel. So, he could still work. Which is where he was walking home from, on that magical day, back in the early 1950s—and I felt so proud of him. I have long thought that, if labor rights had been recognized back then, there might have been an OSHA to enforce safety standards, and Pop might have been able to hold me with either hand. Not to make light of this accident, I’ve tried to be worthy of being Pop’s “lefty”. So, of course, labor rights are personal!!Bob Letcher Posted: Friday, 1 June 2012