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The Arts of Labor Day

Nadine Bloch Sep 3, 2012

Happy Labor Day… and, oh, for that matter, hope you had a great weekend too. Perhaps you even got off work on Friday after eight hours, and managed to have a lunch break as well — thank you, organized labor!

You might know that this holiday, traditionally the first Monday in September, became a U.S. national holiday following the contentious Pullman Strike. At the time, President Grover Cleveland was anxious to move past the bloody confrontations in the rail yards — and the first time a federal injunction and force had been used to break up a strike — to make amends with organized labor. The declaration was signed into law by Congress less than a week after the strike was resolved. The strike was not successful in many ways, but it did advance the general understanding in the United States of workers’ need for unions. But all has not been well on the union front since then; the rate of membership in labor unions in the United States today is just 12 percent of the workforce, and only 7 percent in the private sector — the lowest rate since 1932.

This Labor Day weekend has me thinking about the varied contributions of labor unions to U.S. culture. One could even argue that the history of organized labor is a history of defining culture — both in a traditional sense of how we live our lives and relate to each other, as well as in the form of contributions in arts and crafts.

In addition to the many improvements to our collective quality of life that we owe to unions — paid holidays, the eight-hour workday, the 40-hour work week, equal pay for equal work, the right to a healthy and safe workplace — we also can point to songs, cartoons, theater, graphics and more that have blossomed from the labor movement.

The spectrum is wildly diverse over the past several centuries of workers organizing, formally and informally, in the United States. Some of the most noteworthy examples include the street theater of the United Farm Workers, depicting evil bosses and workers rising up against them, followed by immediate offers of involvement in the struggle. There are the compelling graphic narratives of National Maritime Union, whose education department hired illustrators to tell the story of abusive and segregated conditions onboard ships. And, of course, songs of resistance everywhere.

One of labor’s most renowned and straight-talking troubadours would have turned 100 this year. Woody Guthrie knew in his very bones the power of music paired with crafted words, and he penned songs that have riled people up for generations. He sung the praises of laborers and glorified work — “Roll On, Colombia, Roll On” is one that comes to mind. His songs held corrupt people accountable — as in “1913 Massacre”:

The copper boss’ thugs stuck their heads in the door,
One of them yelled and he screamed, “there’s a fire,”
A lady she hollered, “there’s no such a thing.
Keep on with your party, there’s no such thing.”

Courage came with singing “Union Maid.” Lessons in history and morals came from “Deportee” and “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done.” His many children’s songs peppered laughter with plain truth, such as in “Why Oh Why.” Don’t forget that the original (and often sanitized) lyrics of what is surely his most well-known song, “This Land Is Your Land” cry out for justice, love of country, courage and compassion:

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

So, In honor of Labor Day and the cultural work wrought by unions and workers and the artists who have always been among them: Happy Labor Day!

This article was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

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