Ioften think about the old Knights of Labor on Labor Day.
Okay, I’m a retired history teacher who still packs a union card.
The Knights “tried to teach the American wage-earner that he was a wage-earner first and a bricklayer, carpenter, miner, shoemaker, after; that he was a wage-earner first and a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, white, black, Democrat, Republican, after,” historian Norman Ware wrote.
The Knights stressed that whatever else divided working people, work itself was what they all had in common. Work was, by far, the most important factor in their lives. Thus, workers should unite as members of the working class, the Knights urged.
Active in the late 19th-century, the Knights were among the pioneers in our union movement. There were even Knights in western Kentucky, where I was born, reared and still live. The Fulton, Kentucky, group published a newspaper called The Toiler.
The paper and the Knights are long gone.
But the union’s basic principle is still relevant: Working people, no matter what jobs we have, are wage earners first. “An injury to one is the concern of all,” was the Knights’ famous motto. It still rings true.
Anyway, I spent twenty-four years as a teacher. I was a newspaper reporter for almost 13 years before that.
But I was always a wage-earner and a worker first. I belong to the working class just like a factory worker, construction worker, dock worker, miner, truck driver, carpenter, painter, plumber, electrician, firefighter, garbage collector, grocery clerk, secretary and every other worker. We all belong to the working class.
History is plain about what has most benefited the working class: unions and New Deal-style government action on our behalf. A big part of the New Deal guaranteed our right to organize unions and bargain collectively for better wages, hours, working conditions and benefits.
My maternal grandparents, Susie and Diehl Vest of Mayfield, Kentucky, remembered how the union and the New Deal made their lives better.
“Bobo” belonged to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers at the old Merit Clothing Co. “Grandadden” worked out of Paducah Painters Local 500, which is still around.
The Vests voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt all four times he ran. (FDR and Abraham Lincoln tie as their grandson’s favorite presidents.)
Senator and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey was one of my favorite politicians. Molly Ivins was one of my favorite newspaper columnists. Both of them also knew what helped the working class the most.
“America is a living testimonial to what free men and women, organized in free democratic trade unions, can do to make a better life,” said HHH, who I voted for in 1968, the first year I was eligible to cast a ballot.
Said Ivins: “Although it is true that only about 20 percent of American workers (sadly, that percentage has shrunk as so many of our good union jobs have been shipped out of the country) are in unions, that 20 percent sets the standards across the board in salaries, benefits and working conditions. If you are making a decent salary in a non-union company, you owe that to the unions. One thing that corporations do not do is give out money out of the goodness of their hearts.”
Happy Labor Day!
Berry Craig taught history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College for 24 years. He is a charter member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, the recording secretary for the Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council and the 2013 recipient of the council’s highest honor, the W.C. Young Award, named for the late civil rights and union leader from Paducah.
Friday, 30 August 2013