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article imagePresident’s Day: Labor's status to Abraham, Martin and John

By Carol Forsloff     Feb 21, 2011 in Politics
“Our labor unions are not narrow, self-seeking groups. They have raised wages, shortened hours and provide supplemental benefits. Through collective bargaining and grievance procedures, they have brought justice and democracy to the shop floor.”
Kennedy continued his famous quote, reminding us of what he considered to be the value of labor in American history, “But their work goes beyond their own job, and even beyond our borders. For the labor movement is people. Our unions have brought millions of men and women together ... and given them common tools for common goals.
We remember our great American leaders on President Day’s and as the nation faces employment crises and labor demonstrating in Wisconsin, who was labor and what did it represent in the lives of Abraham, Martin and John? What would they think about the labor unions today and the demonstrations in Wisconsin? Their lives and words speak for themselves about their beliefs about the working man.
Abraham Lincoln, our 16th President, was born in a small town called Hardin, Kentucky, the son of a working man in 1809. His father Thomas, was a carpenter, who took on a hard life when just a boy, when Lincoln’s grandfather was killed by Indians. The family left Kentucky, to move first to Illinois when Abraham was only seven years old because the Lincolns belonged to a faction of Baptists that did not believe in slavery. Eventually the Lincolns moved on to Illinois.
For the Lincolns, early life was less of advocacy, however, than the quiet lives folks lead as working poor, until the family acquired some land and began to prosper some. The young Abe struggled, eventually separating from his father, for reasons history cannot tell, working at odd jobs as a working man.
Lincoln was recorded to have never forgotten his humble origins and therefore saw the working man as a valuable contributor to America, making statements that underlined that belief humble origins as he reflected on their status. A biographer tells us, “ Unlike most successful American politicians, Lincoln was unsentimental about agriculture, calling farmers in 1859 "neither better nor worse than any other people." He remained conscious of his humble origins and was therefore sympathetic to labor as "prior to, and independent of, capital." He bore no antagonism to capital, however, admiring the American system of economic opportunity in which the "man who labored for another last year, this year labors for himself, and next year he will hire others to labor for him.
John F. Kennedy, who won the Presidency in 1960, is said by history, and the Democrats who give thunderous applause to his accomplishments, to be a friend to labor. These are some of the highlights of those accomplishments according to one website that refers to him as the Champion of Labor and gives an accounting of the major parameters of Kennedy’s achievements . They included raising the minimum wage and unemployment compensation, broadening Federal housing, bringing about safer working conditions and protecting responsible unions by rooting out racketeers.
Martin Luther King was never President but moved the nation, according to many historians, in ways that national leaders did. He led the great marches for civil rights and rallied people of all ages and races for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 . He saw a great alliance with the cause of labor and had this to say about it at an AFL-CIO Convention in December 1961:
I look forward confidently to the day when all who work for a living will be one with no thought to their separateness as Negroes, Jews, Italians or any other distinctions. This will be the day when we bring into full realization the American dream—a dream yet unfulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few; a dream of a land where men will not argue that the color of a man's skin determines the content of his character; a dream of a nation where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone, but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity; the dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worth of the human personality. That is the dream..
The goals of labor, the workers say, have been fought for hard and should not be overlooked. Unions have been part of America’s colorful past in both achievements and continuing struggles, even as they remain in the lives and words of Abraham, Martin and John.
More about Abraham Lincoln, John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Labor, labor movement
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