Outside the spotlight of fortune and glory reserved for athletes, musicians, and actors are millions of hard workers doing the jobs our country can’t do without. These professionals came to be known as Essential Workers once the COVID-19 crap hit the fan, and their long-unsung contributions to society quickly rose to the forefront once we collectively acknowledged that they were the vanguard putting their bodies at risk to keep the gears of the economy turning.
Global pandemics aside, there are a subset of Essential Workers who have always performed high-risk jobs that remain mostly hidden from view, but that underpin the very fabric of civilization.
If every one of the big tech giants in Silicon Valley suddenly left the planet to colonize a new world, we would surely face some massive inconveniences, but our society would still function – as evidenced by life before the Internet or the mobile phone.
By contrast, if every mining worker, on the planet were to suddenly go on strike, the world would be left without the ability to make anything new that uses electrical conduit, pipes, or plastic. We would also lose every type of transportation aside from walking, every structure more sophisticated than a wooden cabin, and all surgical tools.
It’s common to hear the phrase “if you can’t grow it, it must be mined”, but even growing things is difficult without mining. Mined products like phosphate and potash are key ingredients in the fertilizers that enable the levels of crop yield that keep up with global demand. Without fertilizers, there would be massive food shortages around the world.
American professional culture with its modern focus on high-tech hero worship has increasingly marginalized the skilled trades that underpin society. Long gone are the days when Rosie the Riveter, and her bicep graced ubiquitous posters around the country, championing the industrial elbow grease required to overcome Hitler’s fascist army of darkness.
On Memorial Day, the United States honors those who lost their lives marching headlong into danger in order to preserve our way of life. This Labor Day, we want to bring focus to the fact that our way of life also depends on working men and women around the world who brave harsh and dangerous conditions every day on the job.
Miners face the risks of cave-ins, explosions, and exposure to deadly gasses as they extract the copper, silver, gold, palladium, and platinum required for our cell phones, light bulbs, and airplanes to function. Globally, more than 10,000 mining workers die in job-related accidents every year, making it one of the most dangerous occupations on the planet. To put that into perspective, more miners have died at work since 2001 than all troops in all nations in all global conflicts combined.
And that annual number may be low. Generally, it’s difficult to get accurate numbers about mining-related deaths, injuries, and casualties around the world due to differing standards of reporting from country to country. In most developed nations, worker protections keep the numbers of accidents relatively low compared to developing nations, whose lax safety standards can be largely attributed to a lack of union presence. Labor movements in developed nations fought long and sometimes bloody battles, to secure basic worker protections like workday length limits, elimination of child labour, living wages, labor organization rights, and the government’s obligation to enforce safety regulations.
We have labor movements to thank for eight-hour workdays and weekends, especially the long weekend associated with Labor Day in the United States. Unions like the Knights of Labor and the Central Labor Union organized the first Labor Day celebrations in New York in 1882 to celebrate those from whom all economic value flows – the workers. In 1887, Oregon made Labor Day an official public holiday, and it’s now recognized in all US States, territories, and the District of Columbia.
Let’s take some time on September 7th to remember the seminal sacrifices of the labor movements around the world, many of them driven largely by industrial workers like miners, who helped usher in a new era of dignity for the working class. These Essential Workers not only helped to deliver us from the gross exploitation wrought by the early excesses of the Industrial Revolution, but they also continue to deliver the raw materials we all require in order to live in the modern world.