My great-grandparents came to this country in the mid-1800s, escaping the great Hunger in Ireland. They were luckier than many; they lived to get on a ship and get here.
My grandparents, born into poverty in the 1880s, never finished elementary school. My grandmother taught herself to read and write and later taught my grandfather. They left school in second grade to go to work because their families needed their income to survive.
As children, they worked in the textile mills of Rhode Island and Connecticut. The noise of the machines cost them their hearing — both needed hearing aids by the time they were in middle age. They worked seven days a week, 12-hour days.
Mill owners loved having children as employees because they were paid less, and their little hands could reach into the machinery and untangle threads caught up in the works. It didn’t matter that children’s hands were mangled — or even that children died. There were always more to replace the ones who were lost.
My in-laws landed in Pennsylvania when they came to this country from Eastern Europe and they worked the coal mines. My father-in-law lost the tip of his finger in an accident and was sent back to work that same day with the finger bandaged. The men of these northeastern Pennsylvania coal towns didn’t live long. They died in mining accidents and from black lung disease, and their employers didn’t care because there were always more to replace the ones who died.
These horrible working conditions happened just a generation or two before me. I remember the stories from my grandparents. My grandmother couldn’t even vote as a young woman, so she had no power to change things other than to hope the men in her life would vote for people who would make conditions better.
Most of us alive today have no direct connection to those times, and the 1 percent are counting on that as they try to abolish all the gains made by our grandparents, many of whom died in the fight for fair labor laws.
We stand at a crossroads in this election year. We can vote to reaffirm those laws, or we can vote for people who wish to do away with minimum wage laws and crush the few unions that are left.
I plan to vote for the rights of workers to make a living wage and to have the protections my grandparents fought so hard to gain for me.
Enjoy your holiday and remember how it came to be. Remember that our forebears lived in mill towns and were paid in company scrip that couldn’t be spent anywhere but at the company store, where prices were just high enough to keep you in debt and unable to leave.
Remember that people could be fired — or killed — for trying to organize for safer and more humane working conditions.
Our ancestors went through hell to make a better world for us. Let’s not hand it back to the 1 percent.