Contact Us

Use the form on the right to contact us.

You can edit the text in this area, and change where the contact form on the right submits to, by entering edit mode using the modes on the bottom right. 

450 S Michigan Ave, AUD 1851
Chicago IL 60605
United States


Illinois Labor History Society

Labor History Articles

Live Off Work, Not Off Workers

Webtrax Admin

A serious Labor Day Address made by the President of Southwest Missouri State University, Dr. John Keiser.

For five hundred years America has depended on and glorified work. The United States was built by the farmers, the itinerant craftsmen, the indentured servants and the slaves who settled the frontier, by the tradesmen who constructed the cities, the gandy dancers who laid the railroad tracks, and their brothers who operated the trains, the miners who provided the fuel and metals, the teamsters and sailors who opened the doors of national and international commerce, the men and women who turned the wheels of major industries, the clerks in the nationwide retail establishments, the providers in the service industries, and the technicians who facilitate the information highway.

Their work was valued by all elements of society, rich and poor alike, as a necessary ingredient to settling a continent, to making the capitalist free enterprise system strong and profitable, to winning wars, and to making peace civilized and comfortable. They came first from Europe, then Africa, and more recently from South America and Asia, to work and to mix t heir sweat, their dreams, and their genes to create an ever-new nation. It was their work and the Constitution of the United States that united each generation of newcomers to America with those already here.

Work has been emphasized and praised by our finest leaders and authors. Abraham Lincoln put it simply when he said, "All that serves labor serves the union. All that harms labor is treason to America. No line can be drawn between these two." And when W alt Whitman, America's best poet, wrote, "I hear America Singing," he wrote only of workers. It is worth recalling on Labor Day. It goes like this:

"I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be, blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The woodcutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else..."

The problem, of course, was that while nearly everyone was stressing the virtue and the significance of work, too many forgot the worker. Lincoln regretted the spirit and said (ironically), "You toil and earn bread and I'll eat it." In the first steel mills the process seemed to be to grind up a load of ore, a load of coke, and a load of workers to produce a ton of steel. Labor became a factor of production, and too many forgot that one of the essential industrial elements was human, and deserved to be treated that way.

It was, of course, the failure to do so that led to the establishment of organized labor. The message of the early 19th century craft unions and workingmen's political parties, the inclusive Knights of Labor, the skilled crafts of the American Federation of Labor, and the industrial unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, was that work (praised and valued by all), cannot be separated from the treatment, reward, and respect accorded the worker. Their efforts and those of the men and women who led them to achieve a fair share of what their work produced is what Labor Day is about.

It was the organized worker who registered gains in reasonable hours and wages, safety, and sufficient security and benefits to lead dignified lives. They campaigned to broaden the franchise, for universal public education, and for equitable treatment before the law.

Through apprenticeship programs skills were passed down to young workers. Neighborhoods and communities were formed to meet the needs of those who shared their workday with one another. American presidents praised those who made the tools to win the nation's wars. SMSU is proud to have the labor history archives, which records that story in the Ozarks, on its campus. I urge you to help us make it complete and accessible.

Since the mid-1970s, the challenges of the modern world have made explaining the importance of work and representing the worker more difficult than at any time in this century. In my hometown where everyone once was a coal miner and dependent on a sing le industry, work was easily understood by young people. In Springfield, Missouri, today, with forty or fifty different manufacturing establishments, a bewildering number of service industry jobs, many close to the minimum wage, and the cynicism and temptations of everyday life, work is much tougher to explain to young people than it once was.

In the face of multi-wage earner families, new immigrants, competitive employer-sponsored assistance programs, increasing numbers of part-time employees, stagflation, foreign competition and a global market, deregulation and new forms of competition, and occasional leaders who live off the organization instead of for it, effectively representing workers is much more complex than it once was. In a society where individual behavior of the most extreme fashion seems to command greatest attention, "Solidarity Forever," is not a compelling rallying cry.

What all citizens must understand, however, is that a democratic America in the 21st Century depends upon the importance of work, as well as upon the dignity of and respect for the worker. Those commitments have rarely been more important, and Labor Day is the time to make that point.

Delivering that message is not a task for the labor leader alone, for those who will make the greatest contribution will learn how to work with many groups. As a person whose family is buried in the only labor-owned cemetery in America, in graves whose deed says they do not own the coal beneath them, I wish our present and future leaders well.

Thank you for asking me to be with you today.

John H. Keiser
Labor Day Address
September 4, 1995

Note: Dr. Keiser gave the above address at the 1995 Labor Day Parade and Picnic in Springfield, Mo. He shared the platform, at that time, with Governor Mel Carnahan and IBEW International Secretary Jack Moore. Dr. Keiser is the President of Southwest Missouri State University which houses the Ozark Labor Union Archives. The university campus is located in Springfield, Mo.

A former professor of history, Dr. Keiser is a native of Mount Olive, Illinois, the location of the Union Miners' Cemetery where Mother Jones is buried "among my boys." Mount Olive lies between Springfield, Ill. and St. Louis, Mo. A visit to the Cemetery and its impressive monument is well worth a short detour to the east from I-55. It lies on the western edge of the town, and can be easily found; or just ask anyone for directions.

Note: You can find the extraordinary story of how the Union Miners Cemetery came to be, and that of some fascinating characters who are buried there, in the pages of The Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Autumn, 1969. Look for "The Union Miners Cemetery at Mt. Olive, Illinois: A Spirit Thread of Labor History." The author? Dr. John Keiser! Perhaps, your local library can acquire it for you.