Tag Archives: Labor Day

Bread and Roses

8 Sep

Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on September 5, 2010

Read the first few paragraphs of this first:

Ahh summertime, when the living is easy. We kick back, put our feet up, and relax. After a year of working hard, we reward ourselves with a well-deserved vacation, replenishing our emotional stores for the year to come. Even when not on vacation, we relax in the evening heat, take ritual leisurely strolls around the parks, and in general, give ourselves a break.

With the arrival of Labor Day, we find ourselves at the end of summer – in practice if not in reality. We are rejuvenated, and ready to apply ourselves to the tasks at hand. Summer is food for our souls – the time of year we feel an inner beauty that reflects the summer sun. *Sigh*

What, you aren’t rejuvenated? You didn’t take that vacation you were hoping to take? Or you did, but feel guilty for taking those 3 days off when work is so busy, and besides, it just wore you out? You say you never really walked around the parks because it was too hot and you were too tired? You find yourself more exhausted than you did a few months ago? You need a break?

If you are exhausted rather than rejuvenated, then you are in good company. According to recent studies, almost 40% of Americans now work more than 50 hours a week. And to reward ourselves we do…. Nothing! 26% of Americans take no vacation at all, and those who do travel mostly in 2 to 3 day microscopic bits1 — nowhere near the two weeks that are required to cure burnout by regathering our emotional resources.2

U.S. vacations are the shortest in the industrialized world— averaging 8.1 days acrued after a year on the job, compared to 4 to 6 weeks for Europeans. Even the Chinese get three weeks off.3 And don’t make the mistake of thinking we are more productive – we aren’t. We are too exhausted.

But it’s not just our lack of vacation that is beating us down. It extends into the workweek as well. By working more and more, we have less time to do the things that need to get done, the things we think need to get done, much less the things we want to do. We work more, to earn more money, to purchase time saving devices, so we can have more time…to work more! We are EXHAUSTED!

Then our weekend – or whatever time off we regularly have – rolls around and, well, all that stuff that we had been too tired to do during the week demands our attention. We spend most of our time off trying to catch up, and maybe even do some more company work. So by the time Monday rolls around, we are more exhausted than we were on Friday.

Joe Robinson, author of the recent book “Work to Live” and frequent contributor to National Public Radio, puts it this way:

“We put in two to three more MONTHS in total hours on the job each year than the Europeans, 2.5 weeks more than even the Japanese. We’re now working more than we have since the 1920s. Our already paltry vacations are being stalled, cancelled, and shrunk into non-existence. The result is record levels of stress, burnout, depression, divorce and latchkey kids. And what do we get for all the extra hours? Vaporized 401k’s and corporate scandals.”4

This is a horrible way to live. Not to mention the toll this takes on our mental health or on our loved ones. It’s quite depressing.

On the national holiday of Labor Day, it is fitting to take a look at the American work-ethic, or, as I have heard it called, the American over-work ethic. Though there is debate over who first recommended a Labor Day, “the first governmental recognition [of labor day] came through municipal ordinances passed during 1885 and 1886.”5 As Samuel Gompers, founder and longtime president of the American Federation of Labor, pointed out early in the 20th century, in the language of his time:

“Labor Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year…All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man’s prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day…is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation.”6

Put this way, Labor Day seems like such a noble holiday. However, I disagree that Labor Day doesn’t have to do with a “conflict of battles, of man’s prowess over man,” etc. It seems to me that this day, dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers, does uplift such a battle – not in a traditional war, or over another country, but instead is a battle between the benefits of capitalism and the capacity for oppression that comes with it. The Department of Labor website states that it is appropriate for “the nation to pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.” But American workers have had to fight an unending scirmish with employers over hours required, working conditions, pay, and benefits.

“Work to live or live to work” has been a theme in this country for over a hundred years. We took many steps forward during the peak years of the labor movement in this country, but in the past fifteen years have seen these gains slowly erode.

In 1910, President William Howard Taft declared that US workers needed 2-3 MONTHS off per year. In 1936 there was an attempt to get a minimum paid-leave law on the books, and the Department of Labor bemoaned the lack of such a law. However, nothing happened.7

The poetry for the song that we sang a few minutes ago (As we come marching, marching) was arose out of one of these battles. The story goes that James Oppenheim was inspired by a banner during the massive 1912 walkout of textile workers in Lawrence, Mass. The Massachusetts state legislature had passed a law that reduced the weekly hours from 56 to 54 for working women and children. The workers rightly feared that this would mean a reduction in how much money they would make, “and their suspicions were sharpened when the mill corporations sped up the machines and posted notices that, following January 1, the 54-hour work week would be maximum for both men and women operatives.”8

During the strike, the “workers’ demands called for a 15 percent increase in wages on a 54-hour work week (to make up for the loss of hours), double time for overtime work, and no discrimination against any workers for their strike participation.”9 They were only partly sucessful.

As this story illustrates, we have a long history of struggling to reduce working hours, but today, the average middle-income family now works FOUR MONTHS more in total hours than they did in 1979.10 This is insane, and we need to stop it.

The problem is, in part, that changing a cultural attitude is not very easy, even in the world of instant communication and the internet. We are battling norms that are beaten into us from the time we enter the work-force. We want to please and impress our higher-ups, so we emulate what they are doing, just as they emulate their higher-ups. We learn, quite quickly, that “the mere presence of a boss staying late is interpreted as a signal that it would be a good idea if we did, too.”11 So we often do. And of course, our bosses are struggling with the same pressure – to stay as late as their bosses. When we try to break the habit, to break the cycle, when we “Make the slightest move toward doing what we want – or even just think about doing it – and a voice in our heads suddenly sounds the alarm.”12

But there is more to life than work! That song we sang? Bread and Roses? There is dispute that it was inspired by the Lawrence strike. Some believe that Oppenheim heard Mary MacArthur, of the British Women’s Trade Union League, when she visited the US to support the growing women’s labor movement in 1907 – several years before the Lawrence strike. “During her talks in Chicago, she argued that women must work for more than just increased wages. Her message was summed up in a quote she attributed to the Qur’an: “If thou hast two loaves of bread, sell one and buy flowers, for bread is food for the body, but flowers are food for the mind.””13

We need bread, certainly. But we need the roses too. We need food for our mind and for our bodies. And we need to be able to work in places that recognize these needs. We need to be able to afford food for our bodies, but we also need to be able to take time off – to have regular time for play, not just for chores, and vacations that are restful and rejuvenating and longer than 3-4 days.

Along these same lines, we have even found ways to rationalize play. A friend of mine who is a psychology professor at the Unniversity of Minnesota and I took our families to the University Landscape Arboretum. We passed through the sensory garden, beautiful and fragrant and informative, and came to “therapeutic horticulture” classroom. He looked at me with a chagrined expression on his face and said that we have learned to put the word “therapy” in front of anything that is pleasing in order to justify doing it. Horticulture for its own sake is not enough – but when we call it horticulture therapy, it takes on a new level of importance. Music therapy, occupational therapy, aromatherapy, etc. etc. I am not saying these forms of therapy don’t work – of course they do – they are things we used to do for fun, in that thing called free-time that we once had, not so long ago.

What is fascinating is that, according to Joe Robinson and the research he has done, time off and shorter hours would actually increase productivity. The research is clear that the extreme hours don’t increase efficiency, but decrease it. Excessive overtime results in downtime throughout the week, a phenomenon measured by productivity researchers since the early part of the 20th century.14

For the first time, productivity in the US is down. Globally, several European countries are more productive per hour than the U.S is, and companies with three-week vacation plans for employees save money with the practice, because it increases morale and retention. It increases employee morale – a real and measurable occurrence that increases when people feel their company is taking good care of them…appreciating them. Everyone feels more vested in the firm and works harder as a result.15

Columnist Norman Solomon asked if we have “ been conditioned to believe that our most exalted political values — free speech and the right to vote for the leaders of powerful institutions — should not intrude past the workplace door.”16 If actions speak louder than words, I think the answer is an unfortunately clear “Yes.” We somehow came to the conclusion that the quantity of the hours counts more than the quality, and we forget that “if you do a good job at work, no boss worth working for is going to want you to become resentful or burned out.”17 We are so afraid to lose our jobs that we don’t speak up, that we don’t demand treatment that we know would not only benefit us as individuals, but would benefit the company in the long run as well.

But we also need to remember that we need bread and roses on a regular basis, not just once or twice a year. We need to have time to do more than just collapse when we get home from work. We need to have free time to explore our non-work interests – to live the stuff of life that we now all too often put aside.

One thing we can do to combat this livability issue is to join with others at our workplaces. Talk about our lack of time, our need for bread and roses. It may be that a a union, or something similar, might arise out of these conversations – a way to improve the lives of workers at your company. But if we don’t start to talk about it – if we suffer in silence, we may continue to believe we struggle alone.

Another tangible way to move toward this balance is to make different choices. For example, rather than commuting for 2 hours each day, we might choose to live ½ an hour closer to work. This may require sacrifices, such as a smaller living space, but 2 hours a day reduced to 1 hour per day, saves 5 hours a week. This may not sound like much, but in the course of a year, this adds up to over 200 hours! Think of what we can do in this time!

Or maybe we can unplug a bit – realize that much of the instant urgency spawned by 24-7 connectivity is a myth. Contrary to many of our expectations, the world will not fall apart if we don’t answer every single email every single day. If we are working more than we should, we might consider dropping one hour of work per day – usually pretty manageable. But just like reducing our commuting time, 1 hour a day adds up to 200 hours saved in a year.

Finally, another tangible way to put some roses back into life is to follow the ancient tradition of keeping the Sabbath. John Buehrens, former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, wrote about this concept in an article in the UU World. He was bragging to someone about how many UU congregations he had visited, when the person wisely asked “Just how many days do you work?” He took the question seriously, thought about it, looked at his calendar, and came back horrified. His solution was to keep a day of rest, a Sabbath day, “to open life more fully to wholeness and holiness.”18 And who knows, maybe you might find time to climb a mountain on that sacred day of rest.

Vacations, Sabbath, rest, relaxation, fun, play. These are the building blocks to combat our burnout, our disappointment in our lives, our need to buy more because we don’t have time to do more. Work has its rewards, but so do hours of rest, and of love. Until there is a balance between these, until our actions in regards to work match our priorities of family, friends and life we will continue to sing “Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!” And Labor Day will continue to remind us of how much we need a break.

1 Robinson, Joe. Work to Live Website. http://www.worktolive.info/.

2 Robinson, Joe. Minnesota Public Radio: Midmorning. July 16, 2003. Available online at http://news.mpr.org/programs/midmorning/listings/mm20030714.shtml.

3 Robinson, Joe. Work to Live Website. http://www.worktolive.info/.

4 Robinson, Joe. Work to Live Website. http://www.worktolive.info/.

5 US Department of Labor. Labor Day: How it Came About; What it Means. http://www.dol.gov/opa/aboutdol/laborday.htm.

6 ibid

7 Robinson, Joe. Minnesota Public Radio: Midmorning. July 16, 2003. Available online at http://news.mpr.org/programs/midmorning/listings/mm20030714.shtml.

8 Kornbluh, Joyce. Bread and Roses: The 1912 Lawrence textile Strike. http://www.lucyparsonsproject.org/iww/kornbluh_bread_roses.html.

9 ibid

10 Robinson, Joe. Work to Live Website. http://www.worktolive.info/.

11 Robinson, Joe. “Fire your Inner Slave Driver,” UTNE. March-April 2003, p 38-41.

12 ibid.

13 Zwick, Jim. Bread and Roses: The Lost Histories of a Slogan and a Poem. http://www.boondocksnet.com/labor/history/bread_and_roses_history.html.

14 Robinson, Joe. Work to Live Website. http://www.worktolive.info/

15 ibid

16 Solomon, Norman. What if we Didn’t Need Labor Day. Published August 29, 2002. Available online at http://www.fair.org/media-beat/020829.html.

17 Robinson, Joe. “Fire your Inner Slave Driver,” UTNE. March-April 2003, p 38-41

18 Buehrens, John. “When Do You Make Time for the Timeless?” UU World. September 2000. Available online at http://www.uua.org/world/0900horizons.html.

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