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Celebrating Labor Day

Labor Day weekend approaches. As we take this holiday to visit the outdoors or enjoy picnics, we see little mention of why we have this holiday in the first place.

President Grover Cleveland signed Labor Day into law as a federal holiday in 1894 to acknowledge the role of the organized labor movement in our society. We owe them our 8-hour workday, among other things.

Yet Labor Day never meant much in my family except as a paid day off. Few of us entered a trade. We were originally farmers and ranchers whose children left the homesteads and often went to college or joined the military.

As I grew up, I was oblivious to any labor activities that may have taken place around me. Unions had little clout. I lived in a right-to-work state where an employee need not join a union even if the workplace is unionized.

I my later years, I have wondered whether any of my ancestors ever belonged to a labor union. I can think of only a handful who may have had the opportunity:

  1. My maternal grandfather, Bjarne Bentsen (1906-1986) worked in a couple of industries that are often unionized today. He was an electrician for an iron mine and later at a power plant. Between these jobs, he worked as a police officer for several years. He never mentioned union membership to me.
  2. My mother, Joyce Bentsen (1929-2000), and her mother, Martha Mattila Bentsen (1906-1977) both taught school. They served in small town and rural communities, and neither belonged to a teacher’s union as far as I know.
  3. My paternal grandfather, Owen Herbert Reed (1896-1935), worked as a railroad freight agent and later as a trucker. He died long before I was born, and no one ever mentioned any unions in relation to him.
  4. My dad, Earl Reed (1927-2017), worked briefly for the railroad while he was in college. I do not know whether he joined the union during that time.

If any of these people did belong to a labor union, they paid their dues but did not engage in union activities or rhetoric. I never heard of any of them going on strike to get better working conditions or benefits.

Only one relative by marriage was an outlier to this pattern. My grandmother’s brother-in-law, John Kerzie (1915-2012) worked as a mechanic in the U.S. Steel Sherman iron mine near Hibbing, Minnesota. He was a labor leader there and became Vice President of the U.S. Steel Workers Union.

In my family today, no one engages in unionized work. But we owe gratitude to those people who did organize, for they brought us reasonable hours, paid vacations, and safer working conditions. We can be thankful for all those things as we enjoy our barbeques this weekend.




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