Today I’m teaching my first class of the new academic year. And I’m still thinking about the meaning of work, labor, and the labor movement, which we started discussing yesterday, Labor Day.
I don’t teach about the labor movement, but the subject occasionally comes up in my business school classes. It makes for a spirited discussion. For some, labor unions are anachronisms. Others, especially those whose parents or relatives are labor union members, see the issue quite differently.
I welcome the discussion as an opportunity to talk about the reasons why labor unions came into being—what working conditions were like in the industrial revolution.
I’ve worked my share of jobs as a manual laborer—house painter, factory worker, mill worker—and I’ve seen unsafe working conditions. But none like my father and grandfather experienced. They lived and worked as coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, a wild and remote part of the Appalachians. We grew up on stories of truly hazardous working conditions and the brutal exploitation of labor. Miners were paid in scrip, not cash, usable only at the company store. Lock outs were enforced by machine gun emplacements. My grandmother routinely packed a loaded pistol in my grandfather’s lunch box, sandwiched between the edibles. My grandfather died in middle age from complications brought on by black lung disease.
Those were the strong influences on my values about work and labor. What about you? What are your work values and orientations? Where did they come from?
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