My grandfather sits heavily in his blue la-Z-boy chair as he tells me about an early memory from his childhood,“when my dad came home from the coal mine, he would have to take a bath in a wooden tub in our kitchen. His skin would be black from coal dust, and my brothers and I would draw pictures on his back in the soot while he talked with my mom.” Preparing for my interview, I take a breath and ask him to tell me the story of his father.
Before my interview, all I knew about my great-grandfather was that he was a coal miner and that he died from black lung disease. I also knew that my grandfather has always been very pro-Union. I wanted to hear the whole story.
My great-grandfather Joseph Michael Crnarich was born in 1895 in Croatia. He came to the United States when he was eighteen years old, in order to gain citizenship he would fight for the US in World War I. Smiling, my grandfather told me about the first time his parents met, “This is actually a great story. My dad stayed at a boarding house when he got off the boat from Europe, that was the the first time he met my mom.” He then told me laughing, “He was eighteen, and she was only eight!” My great-grandfather stayed at the boarding house for two months before joining the army. Twelve years past before they reunited. She was twenty and he was thirty, they got married later that year. He took a job at a coal mine in a small city in Pennsylvania but he was not working for the Union yet at that job.
Unions had been around long before my great-grandfather’s time. As far back as the middle ages in Europe, workers joined together to fight for basic rights. In the United States, the Union got organized in 1866 when the National Labor Union was formed. This organization was created to fight unfair and unsafe labor conditions and child labor in our country. At that time, workers had no rights or protection. They were forced to work long hours at dangerous jobs. If they complained, they would be fired and someone else would be happy to take their position. Coal mining was one of the worst jobs to have before Unions. Many of the workers were immigrants like my great-grandfather. They didn’t speak English well and were easy to take advantage of. The owners of the mines were concerned with one thing, getting coal out of the ground as fast as possible. That meant the mine shafts were built poorly and that the workers had to put in long, hard hours.
My great-grandfather’s first coal mining job didn’t last long. He was blacklisted after he was seen carrying an American flag during the Labor Day parade for a local Union group called the Knights of Labor. Blacklisting meant he could no longer work in that city. He had to find work so he moved his wife and their seven kids to small coal mine town in the middle of nowhere called Nanty Glo, Pennsylvania. This is where my grandfather grew up and where my great-grandfather got the Union coal mining job that he worked the rest of his life.
Even with Union representation, coal mining was a tough job. In the winters workers went underground into the mine before the sun came up, and worked all day in a 42 inch high tunnel, never standing up. They came out of the mine when the sun had already set and literally never saw the light of day. Everyone in town knew if the whistle blew during the workday that there was an accident; they dreaded hearing that sound. But the Union was there to make sure the owners of the company weren’t taking any shortcuts on safety and they made sure the workers were treated fairly and paid well. The Union demanded that the owners of the Nanty Glo mine install a hot water shower at the entrance to the mine so the workers could wash up before returning home. The owners would have never built that shower without serious pressure from the Union. That shower meant workers had more time with their families every day, no more nightly baths in the kitchen; It meant a lot to them.
As my grandfather enthusiastically told me the story of his father I couldn’t help but wonder; if Unions ensured workers good pay and fair working conditions, why didn’t everyone want them? When I ask my grandfather he blurts out, “people were scared it was communism.” At first I didn’t quite get how communism and labor unions could be connected but after some research I discovered the reason. According to History.com, Samual Gompers, the founder of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), talked about a worker revolution where the people would take over industry. Marxism taught Samuel Gompers and his fellow socialists that trade unionism was the indispensable instrument for preparing the working class for revolution. This type of talk scared some Americans, especially business owners. During this time there were constant clashes between Union workers and in 1935 another Union organization called the Committee of Industrial Organization (CIO) was formed, and later, in 1938, was officially organized and re-named the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Unions grew throughout World War II. Over 12 million workers joined and organized labor had made its mark throughout the industrial economy.
Union membership hit its highest in the 1950’s when about a third of the workforce were Union members. Today Union membership has fallen below 15%. There are different reasons for the fall in membership rates. The types of jobs have changed so there are fewer concerns about worker safety. The threat of unionization also encourages companies to treat their employees well. Union membership may be declining, but we can thank Unions for fighting for job benefits we take for granted today. The eight hour workday and forty hour workweek, over-time, paid vacation, breaks, and minimum wage are just a few of the things Unions fought for that we all benefit from today.
My great-grandfather worked in that coal mine until he was too sick to carry on. He died from black lung disease when he was 66. If he had not been with a Union, my great-grandmother would have had to struggle to support herself. Since he was in the Unions, she was taken care of. Laughing, my grandfather told me “My mom was actually better off financially after my dad died. The Union’s pension plus the payment for his black lung disease allowed her to live comfortably for the rest of her life.”
My grandfather followed in his dad’s footsteps and also joined a Union. He worked the same job his entire adult life at the steel mills in Gary Indiana. He had a limited education, but the Union helped ensure he would have a safe job with decent pay which allowed him to raise a family with four kids, put two of them through college and retired happily. This might not have been possible without the Union, and my grandfather is grateful that the Union provided that opportunity for him –and I am too.