A tiny piece of metal from the railroad track he was hammering broke off and stuck in his eye. Dirty and sweaty from the work, he went home to clean up, because he would not go to the hospital in that condition. He had to be clean.

My father ended up losing his eye that day. Dad was a hard and loyal worker who always did as he was asked. He took a great deal of pride in his work and his ability to provide for his family. He never complained.

As a laborer for the Rio Grande railroad, he worked all day in the summer, often in 100-degree heat, over iron rails, black-oiled ties and concretelike clay dirt. He hauled 10- to 20-foot rails, pulled out old ties and replaced them with new ones. Each worker had to change eight ties a day, and that usually entailed wearing out two pickaxes a day. In the winters, there would often be a knock at the door as there were no phones then, and he would be called in the middle of the night to go clean frozen tracks in freezing temperatures.

There are laborers today who, like my father, come home physically drained, yet find time for their family. These are the men and women who built our nation's communities, roads, railroads, mines, farms, picked our fruits and vegetables, hauled our garbage — and they still do. They are the service workers who make deliveries; maintain our clean communities; care for our children, the infirm, the elderly; in order to feed their families. They are the backbone of our communities. They dignify work and deserve our deepest respect and a living wage.

Utahns have always valued hard work, and our state symbol, the beehive, represents those values of industry, hard work, and perseverance. There was dignity in hard work. That's the pioneer spirit. Historically, America has honored working men and women by establishing Labor Day as an official holiday. Now, the day seems more to mark the end of summer vacation, filled with picnics in the park, hot dogs, games and the beginning of school and the kickoff of political campaigns.

Today, we celebrate Labor Day more as a day off, but not necessarily to honor the workers. Matter of fact, while we say we value labor, the work ethic, perseverance, industry, we no longer give workers the respect, pay and protection unions worked hard to get. Now they are a forgotten group; the faceless, who no longer seem to be as valued. The labor laws that were passed are no longer vigorously enforced and have not kept up with changes in the workplace and the economy. Many workers now must hold two jobs to earn a living wage to provide for their families.

It seems labor unions are now content to be part of the establishment and live on the accomplishments of past leaders who were not afraid to speak out for workers. We also have those who demean labor by saying everyone has to have a college education, and we have a political party that keeps saying it is for the working people, yet its elected leaders only give lip service in fighting for raising the minimum wage, collective bargaining, discrimination, and worker health and safety.

Our labor policies must be renewed to reflect the new problems we face in today's workplace by ensuring the health and safety of our workers, and that allows them to earn a living for themselves and their families. As we celebrate Labor Day, let's recommit ourselves to the values that built this nation and this valley, and to men and women who, as my father did, take pride in their work and supporting their families — the foundation of our society.


A Utah native, John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations; been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards; and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and as a member of the commission on Hispanic education. E-mail: jdflorez@comcast.net