Labor Day, 2021

workin hard, or hardly workin, at the B&N Cafe

After a late night watching the made-for-TV movie that launched Columbo on Tubi, I was finally awakened this morning by the angry buzz of a two-stroke gasoline engine. Chainsaw, I thought, but it turned out to be a string trimmer across the street, one of those yardwork nomads pulling his equipment on a trailer behind a pickup truck.

I grew up on a farm, where there were no holidays beyond the weather being too bad to work outside, or waiting on some part for a broken machine. Still, my grandfather quit mining coal as soon as he could to become a farmer. I assume mining coal must have been worse. Pa Hayes had a blacklung pension, but I don’t honestly know if he was a union member or not. My dad has never told any stories of strikes comparable to the Harlan County storyline in Damnation on Netflix.

We enjoy quite a number of worker protections (the eight-hour workday, the forty-hour work week, overtime pay) that did not just materialize out of hot legislative air or the goodness of the corporate heart. People died. According to some studies, the USA has the bloodiest labor history of any industrialized country in the world, with hundreds of deaths in riots, uprisings, and one pitched battle involving airplanes and bombs. The Army or the National Guard occupied Harlan County, Kentucky, multiple times during the 1930s, trying to keep the mines open.

In between those larger events there were murders. Snipers along the railroad tracks near Somerset, KY, shot and killed multiple railroad employees in 1911. As a kid in the 1970s, I could hear the descendants of those trains from my parents’ house, but I never heard that story. Not the labor aspects, and not the racial aspects, because that particular protest was by white railroad firemen (coal shovelers) who felt threatened by the hiring of black railroad firemen, either because of open racism or because they thought this new development would drive their wages down.

Now I live in Greensboro, NC, site of the much more recent Greensboro Massacre, from 1979 (post Star Wars!) which is remembered here locally as racially motivated violence by the police, the American Nazi Party, and the Ku Klux Klan. People forget that most of the people killed there were labor organizers, trying to start a union at local textile mills (which by that time mostly employed African-Americans). People forget that the Klan and its midwestern offshoot, the Black Legion, harrassed and killed labor activists and union members for decades.

And that Wikipedia article I’ve been pulling my facts from only covers deaths, not beatings, or arson, or firings, or intimidation of a hundred sorts. It’s sort of like Columbo, whose rumpled, blue-collar lieutenant of the title only investigates murders.

The very first one, “Prescription Murder” from 1968, guest-stars a psychiatrist who is not satisfied being married to a rich heiress. He needs a cute young actress on the side, and when his wife finds out, he enlists the actress to help him avoid a messy (and expensive) divorce by impersonating the wife in an elaborate alibi hoax. He also owns a pair of gray strangling gloves, which is a creepy touch.

In reality, the rich rarely get their literal hands even that dirty.