My Grandfather suffered from “Black Lung” disease, but because of the labor movement, he had lifetime healthcare to fight his illness and healthcare coverage for his family when they got sick. His union was the United Mine Workers, led by the legendary John L. Lewis.
Who was John L. Lewis? That’s the question I asked my grandfather during one of my visits to his house as a child. Little did I know that I would remember the conversation nearly thirty years later. I remember the conversation because it was one of the last we shared before dementia took its toll on him. But I also remember what he said, “I love John L. Lewis because he was a tough son-of-a-bitch and he helped us fight for ourselves.”
John L. Lewis was the President of the United Mine Workers and a hero to many who worked hard mining coal in the mountains of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. More importantly, he was my hero’s hero. My grandfather knew that it took hard work to get by, but he also knew from his own experience that without a collective voice, hard work could go unrewarded.
In 1917, at the age of twelve, young Tom Stevens began working in the mines. He had to work because his father died and there was no safety net for kids like him. He worked for scrip, worked without the protections of worker safety laws and he worked hard. He had to spend his hard earned scrip in company stores (so much for free markets) and sacrifice the health of his lungs just to survive.
The union changed the equation for miners and the United Mine Workers changed the world. John L. Lewis spent the 1930s organizing miners across the country and with over 90-percent of miners united in the union gains were made. No longer would companies be able to tell their workers how to spend money they had earned, the union had the strength to ultimately get mine safety rules enacted and pensions and healthcare were a right.
My grandfather began his working years forced to shop at the company store, but because of the union he was able to shop where he wanted and even take me to Don’s General Store to buy all of the candy I wanted (despite my mom’s protests). He didn’t lose his freedom because of the union – he gained it.
My Grandfather fought his battles in his lifetime. He chose to follow a “tough son-of-a-bitch” and he won. Today, we are fighting the same battles – from Hobby Lobby and others attempting to control its employees’ healthcare options to legislatures taking away the right to join a union and conservatives using their office to bully workers trying to organize. If my grandpa were here today he’d have a few choice not-safe-for-work words for conservatives who are attempting to redefine the word freedom to fit their narrow ideology and he’d have a few words for those complaining about it too. I think he’d tell us to find our own “tough son-of-a-bitch” and win our battles in our time.