Benjamin Franklin Hough was born in 1892 on a coal patch in Windber, Pa., and as a young man found himself mining coal.
He lived in a company home, shopped at a company store where he was forced to use company money, and was not allowed to join a union despite working in dirty, dangerous conditions.
In 1917, Hough went off to Europe to fight in the trenches of World War I, where he witnessed death and destruction on a scale never before witnessed in history. Yet, upon returning home, he went back to his mining job facing virtually the same abysmal working conditions as when he left.
“When you’ve fought for your country and you’ve seen the horrific things he did, he wasn’t going to take that, and he didn’t,” said Joe Knupsky. “Basically, he had one of the first union cards in the coal fields of Western Pennsylvania.”
Knupsky, a copy editor striking the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, told the story of his grandfather “Frank” Hough, to a small group at a storytelling event organized by the Thomas Merton Center Wednesday at Mixtape in Garfield.
The Thomas Merton Center invited Knupsky and his fellow striker PG photojournalist Steve Mellon to its monthly storytelling hour where activists share their stories, experiences and triumphs in activism and organizing.
“We invited different organizers and activists of different ages and backgrounds to tell the story of what spurred their activism,” said Rachel Nunes, executive director of the Thomas Merton Center. “A story when you changed your approach, a story of when you rethought things.”
Knupsky and Mellon, both members of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, walked off the job on Oct. 18 joining more than 100 other workers from five different unions who had struck over unfair labor practices committed by the company.
“It felt great to take a stand, finally, against an employer that had been abusive to us and so many of our colleagues,” said Mellon, who has worked for the Post-Gazette since 1997.
Mellon recounted some moments of the strike that were most significant to him.
He remembered going to the first guild picket at noon on Oct. 18 and being heartened to see so many of his colleagues — both younger and older — holding the line.
“[Striker] Jon Moss had worked for the company for, what, three weeks?” Mellon said.
He talked about a cold rainy Saturday night in April when he stood in front of a scab delivery truck that was attempting to drop off copies of the Post-Gazette for distribution at an industrial park in Monroeville, where he was joined by supporters from Starbucks Workers United, United Steelworkers, members of the Pittsburgh Labor Choir and other community allies.
“It’s uncomfortable to stand in front of a Mack truck, and you don’t know what’s going through the truck driver’s head,” he said.
He was appalled at the arrogance and disrespect that the company’s attorney, Richard Lowe, showed members of the guild bargaining committee in the first negotiation session during the strike.
“He wouldn’t acknowledge anyone but [guild attorney] Joe Pass,” Mellon said. “It was so infuriating to just be so casually dismissed by someone with so much authority.”
And he spoke about the joy he felt when he heard the news from Ed Blazina, first vice president of the guild, that an administrative law judge at the National Labor Relations Board had ruled overwhelmingly in January that the Post-Gazette had violated numerous labor laws in its dealings with the guild.
“I called Ed and said, ‘Hey, Ed, I need to ask you a question so I can finish this story about something that happened earlier in the day,’” Mellon said. “And he said, ‘Steve, be quiet. I don’t know what you have to tell me, but what I have to tell you is a lot more important.’”
Knupsky took a different approach to the storytelling hour, opting to tell his grandfather’s story rather than describe his experience of being on strike. (For Knupsky, the strike is old hat, anyway. Before entering journalism, he had been on strike three times as a steelworker and coal miner.)
After the Great War, when Benjamin Franklin Hough returned to the mines with his union card, a co-worker ratted him out, and he was promptly fired.
Company police came to Hough’s home and evicted him, his wife and their five kids. They went to live in a tent city until Hough changed his name and took a job in another town.
But things were changing in the country, and, soon, miners and other workers began to form unions and collectively bargain for some of the same rights that Post-Gazette workers are fighting for today.
As a child, Knupsky lived in the same house as his grandfather, who would tell him stories of the war and his union activism until his death at the age of 93.
“As a young kid, that made me think that that was how you should live your life,” Knupsky said. “You shouldn’t have to be subservient to anybody. You can have a boss, but you don’t let them own your life.
“From all the stuff that he went through, and to still to have that attitude in his 90s, he became my hero,“ Knupsky added. “He always has been my hero.”