Labor Day: The Day of the Prophets

I grew up in a small coal town in western Pennsylvania. For many years, Colver was a typical company town, reflecting the power differential between miners and mine owners, and reinforcing mining families’ total dependence on the company for income and services. Even the name of the town reminded its citizens of company dominance, deriving as it did from a mash-up of the owners’ names: Coleman and Weaver. But by the time my father returned to his hometown to work in the mines, the industry’s influence over the town and surrounding area was mitigated by another force, the labor union. Once free as “job creators” to dictate the working conditions and living arrangements of their employees, coal companies now had to negotiate with the collective power of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

For most of my childhood, the United Mine Workers were led by Richard Trumka, who passed away recently after a lifetime of advocating for the American laborer, in roles with UMWA and the AFL–CIO. For his part, my father was active in UMWA District 2, Local 860, even after a back injury ended his active employment. Dad hurt his back when I was seven, but by the early eighties his fellow miners found themselves unemployed as well, displaced by the end of workable coal strips underneath our sleepy town. The coal industry remains the centerpiece of Colver’s history, but by the time I became a teenager, the mine’s demise (and the absence of any substitutable prospect of work) was the defining reality of the present.

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