Archive for Labor Day

Strike!

As American fast food workers strike for a living wage, it’s worth remembering that this struggle has a long history. It’s also worth teaching some of this history to children, so that they can learn about collective action, and fighting back against the powerful.  Julia Mickenberg and I collect some of these stories in the “Work” and “Organize” sections of our anthology, Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature (2007), but there are many more such stories out there.  Michelle Markel and Melissa Sweet‘s Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 (2013) is one of those.

Michelle Markel and Melissa Sweet, Brave GirlA picture book published earlier this year, Brave Girl tells of newly arrived immigrant Clara Lemlich, who — as Markel’s text tells us — “knows in her bones what is right and what is wrong.”  When “no one will hire Clara’s father,” she gets a job as a garment worker to support her family, and quickly discovers what is wrong: companies hire immigrant girls to make clothing, paying them just a few dollars a month. Markel effectively dramatizes the cruel working conditions: “locked up in a factory,” she and the other young women are “stitching collars, sleeves, and cuffs as fast as they can. ‘Hurry up, hurry up,’ the bosses yell. The sunless room is stuffy from all the bodies crammed inside. There are two filthy toilets, on sink and three towels for three hundred girls to share.”  They’re also fined a half day’s pay for being a few minutes late, fined if they prick a finger and bleed on the cloth, and fired if that happens twice.  With just a few vivid details, Markel’s words and Sweet’s images gives us a sense of the oppressive, stifling working conditions.

“But Clara is uncrushable,” Markel tells us.  That’s one of the key messages of the book.  Clara is a fighter.  Hungry and exhausted, she goes to the library to learn, getting by on a few hours of sleep a night. When the men don’t think that the women are tough enough to join a union and strike, Clara (the book always calls her by her first name, perhaps to create greater intimacy between character and reader) leads them out on strike.  Police arrest her, hired thugs beat her: “They break six of her ribs, but they can’t break her spirit. It’s shatterproof.”

Another key message is that collective action creates change. At the book’s climax, Clara calls for a general strike, and in the winter of 1909 leads 20,000 garment workers out on a general strike.

Michelle Markel and Melissa Sweet, Brave Girl

The third important lesson young readers will take away here is that progress is hard-won and imperfect. The garment workers win the right to unionize, gaining better pay and a shorter workweek. However, getting there required them to walk the picket lines in the dead of winter, where they faced police brutality, backed by a legal system indifferent to their cause. In the end, though 339 dress manufacturers agreed to unions, the Triangle Waist Factory — where Clara herself worked — did not. Indeed, two years after this strike, the Triangle Waist Factory’s business practices (such as locking the workers in) killed 146 when a fire broke out in the building.

Amplified by Melissa Sweet’s watercolors and fabric-themed collages, Markel offers a history that should inspire a new generation of activists.  So, as you celebrate Labor Day today, remember the unions that made it possible.

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The Company Owns the Tools

Henry Vicar, The Company Owns the ToolsIt’s Labor Day.  Looking for a pro-labor novel for older children/young adults?  Thanks to Archive.org, you can download (for free) the full text of The Company Owns the Tools, a 1942 novel written by Henry Gregor Felsen (1916-1995) under the pseudonym Henry Vicar.

Here’s what Julia Mickenberg has to say about the book in her excellent Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States (Oxford UP, 2006), which (not incidentally) introduced me to this novel:

One of the few texts for children from this period that deals very explicitly with the conflict between capital and labor is Henry Gregor Felsen’s story for young adults The Company Owns the Tools (1942), which he wrote under the pseudonym Henry Vicar. In this story, an honest young mechanic from a small town in Iowa gets a job in Motor City (Detroit), building cars for the war effort. There he receives a humbling lesson in assembly-line mass production, quickly deciding that the only way to maintain any dignity in his work as an individual is to band together with the other workers, despite the company’s harassment of the union and its efforts to divide works along racial lines. The logic of the union is dictated by the logic of mass production, in which each individual unit is essentially the same as any other. As one of the men puts it: “They can do without any one of us, but they can’t do without all of us.” (Learning from the Left, pp. 102-103).

Or, if you prefer a harder sell, here’s what the interior flaps of the dust jacket have to say.  The front flap:

You’ll want a front seat at the gigantic struggle between Capital and Labor which young Hollis McEachron finds when he comes up from the country byroads face to face with Big Business — strikes, riots, company police, and union meetings.

If you are employed — if you are an employer — if you are just a spectator on the side lines watching this important development in the functioning of democracy — you’ll want to read this book!

Every man and woman in America today is vitally concerned with this question.  Treated as it is here, from a neutral and unbiased viewpoint, each side is focused in its true perspective.  Here are characters you will long remember, action you will not forget — a story which concerns you.

The back flap:

BORN on a farm, Henry Vicar, too, finally came to the city to live.  So it is not just from his extensive research that he writes the story of Hollis McEachron; it is partly from his own experience.  Mr. Vicar traveled widely in this country, Canada, and South America, gathering material and getting opinions from which to write this book.  Authoritative in its details, it is also well-balanced in its treatment of the whole problem of relationships between Capital and Labor.

Keenly interested in all of the social problems which affect the functioning of our system of government, Mr. Vicar has made a contribution in THE COMPANY OWNS THE TOOLS which will be appreciated by every thinking American, no matter what his position may be.  It is full of keen observations and good, hard-headed American straight thinking from start to finish.

During a research trip some years ago, I copied down both of those jacket-flap descriptions from the copy held by the Special Collections Research Center, E.S. Bird Library, Syracuse University.  Thanks to Kathleen Manwaring for bringing it out to show me!

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Source of image: the what what Tumblr.

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Labor Poem

Philip Levine, What Work Is (1991)Yesterday, songs.  Today, a poem.  There are many poets to whom we might turn (Whitman and Sandburg rush to mind) for Labor Day, but I’ve opted for the title poem from What Work Is (1991) by America’s new Poet Laureate Philip Levine (b. 1928).  When you hear him read, he often shares a story about the poem — indeed, these succinct autobiographical narratives would make for a great collection of prose (were he so inclined).  So, here’s a recording of him reading “What Work Is,” including one of those introductions (he starts speaking at around 12 seconds in):

He’s a wonderful reader of his own work.  And here is the poem itself:

We stand in the rain in a long line

waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.

You know what work is—if you’re

old enough to read this you know what

work is, although you may not do it.

Forget you. This is about waiting,

shifting from one foot to another.

Feeling the light rain falling like mist

into your hair, blurring your vision

until you think you see your own brother

ahead of you, maybe ten places.

You rub your glasses with your fingers,

and of course it’s someone else’s brother,

narrower across the shoulders than

yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin

that does not hide the stubbornness,

the sad refusal to give in to

rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,

to the knowledge that somewhere ahead

a man is waiting who will say, “No,

we’re not hiring today,” for any

reason he wants. You love your brother,

now suddenly you can hardly stand

the love flooding you for your brother,

who’s not beside you or behind or

ahead because he’s home trying to

sleep off a miserable night shift

at Cadillac so he can get up

before noon to study his German.

Works eight hours a night so he can sing

Wagner, the opera you hate most,

the worst music ever invented.

How long has it been since you told him

you loved him, held his wide shoulders,

opened your eyes wide and said those words,

and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never

done something so simple, so obvious,

not because you’re too young or too dumb,

not because you’re jealous or even mean

or incapable of crying in

the presence of another man, no,

just because you don’t know what work is.

Levine’s third line says “You know what work is,” and his final line says “you don’t know what work is.”  Between those two statements, the poem proves that we don’t know what work is… by giving us a deeper knowledge of what work is.  It educates us in order to expose the depths of our ignorance.

Offering a nuanced examination of “work,” labor of the type celebrated by Labor Day oscillates between background and foreground.  The speaker is at “Ford Highland Park,” his brother “Works eight hours a night,” and “somewhere ahead” a man can deny them work “for any / reason he wants.”  This sort of physical labor creates the setting for and underwrites the intensity of feeling behind the emotional labor the poem’s speaker works through — the necessary, vulnerable act of expressing love for another person.  “How long has it been since you told him / you loved him,” the speaker asks, before admitting to himself “You’ve never / done something so simple, so obvious” because he doesn’t know “what work is.”  The work of loving a brother, he suggests, is not just the harder work, but the far more important work, and a work that we do not, cannot, fully understand.

I like, too, how the tonal shifts create not distance from the brother, but intimacy — both by conveying the speaker’s feelings, and by offering specific details about the brother’s life.  In the first shift, the speaker changes the reference of the pronoun “you,” moving from his audience to himself: “Forget you. This is about waiting,” he says, returning to a different “you” a few lines later.  The deliberate affront of “Forget you” evokes an emotion from the reader, setting the stage for another tonal shift later on.  After describing his brother in sympathetic terms, our speaker reports that he “Works eight hours a night so he can sing / Wagner, the opera you hate most, / the worst music ever invented.” The frank rejection of his brother’s taste in music suggests both that perhaps the two have argued about it, and that the speaker dislikes Wagner with a comparable passion to his brother’s love for Wagner. This abrupt criticism’s context — expressing admiration and love for the brother — drains the remark of any animosity, suggesting instead that the speaker’s love is that much deeper because he dislikes his brother’s favorite composer, and admires the brother for singing it anyway.

Though the referent of the pronoun “you” shifts from audience to speaker, it also does not shift.  With each invocation of that pronoun “you,” the speaker interpellates the reader into his second-person subjecthood.  When he says, “suddenly you can hardly stand / the love flooding you for your brother,” he asks us to experience that intense love for our brother (or sister or mother or cousin or best friend).  When he says “you don’t know what work is,” he is not just accusing himself; he is accusing us, too.  And he makes a convincing case.  The work for which we are paid robs us of the time to be with, and sometimes to be loving towards, the people who are most important to us.  How much of our daily life do we spend away from the people we love the most?  When will we next see that sibling, parent, old friend, niece, uncle again?  (Indeed, will we see them again?)

It’s a powerful poem.  And Levine is one of our great poets.  I recommend What Work Is, The Simple Truth (1994), and — if you’d like a larger collection of earlier work — New Selected Poems (1991).  I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve not read his most recent collection, News of the World (2009).  But I’ve just ordered myself a copy.

Sources: “What Work Is” © 1992 by Philip Levine; appears in What Work Is (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).  Copied here from the Poetry Foundation, which also has a nice biographical piece on Levine.  I’m honestly not sure where I got this recording (the mp3 has been in my iTunes for a little while); a different recording is on the Poetry Foundation‘s page. 

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Labor Songs

This One's for the Workers: Labor Songs, 1929-2010Today, the first of three Labor-Day-themed posts.  Here’s a mix of songs about work.  And, yes, I’m aware that many other songs that could be included here — I came up with enough additional songs to fill a second CD, and then some.  Since much of this blog is devoted to children’s literature, I should also note here that a couple of the songs later in this mix have lyrics that include obscenity (mostly f-bombs): I’m thinking specifically of Cake’s “Nugget” and Cam’ron’s “My Job.”  To begin the mix, here’s a song from the start of the Great Depression….

This One’s for the Workers: Labor Songs, 1929-2010

1)     How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?  Blind Alfred Reed (1929)      3:12

Probably the best-known song by West Virginia singer, songwriter and fiddler Blind Alfred Reed (1880-1956).  Ry Cooder recorded it on his self-titled debut album (1970), and Bruce Spingsteen recorded a revised version of it for the reissue of his We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (subtitled American Land Edition in this version).  Springsteen retained only the first verse from Reed’s original; new verses address the failed government response to Hurricane Katrina.

2)     Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?  Bing Crosby (1932)      3:15

To give you a sense of how popular this song was, two versions were hit singles in 1932 — one recorded by Crosby and the other by Rudy Vallee.  With music by Jay Gorney, E. Y. “Yip” Harburg’s lyrics tell of working people abandoned by the country they helped to build, and for which they fought.  During the third year of the Great Depression, the message resonated with the public. Harburg may be better-remembered today for “Over the Rainbow” (and other songs from the 1939 MGM Wizard of Oz), “Old Devil Moon” (and other songs from the musical Finian’s Rainbow), or for “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” but this is one of his most powerful lyrics.

3)     Talking Union  The Almanac Singers (1941)      3:06

Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell — the Almanac Singers — recorded this song for their second record, Talking Union (1941; re-released with additional songs, 1955).  Written by Seeger, Hays, and Lampell, the song uses a “talking blues” style later adopted by Bob Dylan.

4)     Farmer-Labor Train  Woody Guthrie (1948)      2:51

An idol of Bob Dylan and sometime member of the Almanac Singers, Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) here sings in support of Henry Wallace, Progressive Party candidate for President in 1948.  As the liner notes to Hard Travelin’: The Asch Recordings Vol. 3 (on which this song appears) tell us, Guthrie “was certain that if farmers and laborers joined together they could elect Wallace; they didn’t.”  Guthrie is best-remembered today for his “This Land Is Your Land.”  Of songwriting, he once said:

I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built. I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.

5)     Get a Job  The Silhouettes (1958)      2:27

A #1 hit in 1958, the Silhouettes‘ “Get a Job” has an upbeat sound that masks the more serious subject matter — unemployment.  As the song’s protagonist says, his girl is “tellin’ me that I’m lyin’ about a job that I never could find.”  The band Sha Na Na took its name from the backing vocal.

6)     Chain Gang  Sam Cooke (1960)      2:34

Another pop hit (#2 on the U.S. pop charts), this one about prison labor.  Written by Cooke (1931-1964), the song is said to be inspired by his encounter with a chain gang.  Cooke’s biggest hits — “Wonderful World,” “Cupid,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” “You Send Me” — tend to address more conventional pop-music subjects.  But “Chain Gang” and the posthumously released “A Change Is Gonna Come” display Cooke’s social conscience.

7)     Them That Got  Ray Charles (1960)      2:50

Co-written by Ray Charles and Ricci Harper, “Them That Got” features a tenor sax solo by David “Fathead” Newman.  The song reached #10 on the R&B charts and #58 on the pop charts.

8)     Maggie’s Farm  Bob Dylan (1965)      3:54

“He hands you a nickel, he hands you a dime. / He asks you with a grin if you’re having a good time. / And he fines you every time you slam the door.”  From Dylan‘s album Bringing It All Back Home.

9)     Working in the Coal Mine  Lee Dorsey (1966)      2:51

Co-written by Dorsey and Alvin Toussaint, “Working in a Coal Mine” was Dorsey’s second top-10 hit and remains his best-known song.

10)  When Will We Be Paid  The Staple Singers (1970)      2:39

The Staple Singers ask when African-Americans will be paid for their contributions to the United States.  From the group’s We’ll Get Over.

11)  Gonna Be an Engineer  Peggy Seeger (1970)      4:31

The half-sister of Pete Seeger and an accomplished folksinger and songwriter herself, Peggy Seeger sings of how gender discrimination prevents women from getting the jobs (and salaries) they seek.  Compelling narrative, strong message.

12)  Career Opportunities  The Clash (1977)      1:55

Joe Strummer sings about jobs he doesn’t want to do.  “Career opportunities are the ones that never knock. / Every job they offer you is to keep you out the dock.”  Co-written by Strummer and Mick Jones (who actually had worked a government job opening letters to make sure they didn’t contain bombs), the song appears on the Clash’s self-titled debut album.

13)  9 to 5  Dolly Parton (1980)      3:01

One of Dolly Parton’s three #1 country hits in 1980, this was also a #1 pop hit that year.  It inspired the successful film of the same name — which starred Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin.

14)  The World Turned Upside Down  Billy Bragg (1985)      2:34

Bragg covers Leon Rosselson’s song about the Diggers, English agrarians (1649-1650) who sought to establish a more egalitarian society whose members could farm the common land for their mutual benefit.

15)  Heigh-Ho (The Dwarfs’ Marching Song)  Tom Waits (1988)      3:36

In his cover version, Waits recasts the song as a minor-key lament, reminding us that those dwarves in Snow White were in fact miners. And mining is a tough job.  From Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films.

16)  More Than a Paycheck  Sweet Honey in the Rock (1988)      3:57

The African-American a cappella group delivers a beautiful, incisive song about jobs that endanger the worker’s health.  From Sweet Honey in the Rock’s Breaths.

17)  I Love My Boss  Moxy Früvous (1990)      3:04

One of the greatest bands of the 1990s perform a song from their The B Album (1996), a collection of b-sides & rarities.  These guys were truly fantastic live.

18)  Job Application  Meryn Cadell (1992)      1:25

From Cadell’s Angel Food for Thought, which featured “The Sweater” — a top-40 hit in Canada, and a college radio hit in the U.S.

19)  The Ghost of Tom Joad  Bruce Springsteen (1995)      4:27

Inspired by John Ford’s film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (novel, 1939; film, 1940), Springsteen‘s song paraphrases Tom Joad’s speech near the end of the film.  Joad, played by Henry Fonda, says:  “I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build, I’ll be there, too.”

20)  Nugget  Cake (1996)      3:58

“They cut you from their bloated budgets like sharpened knives through Chicken McNuggets.”  From Cake‘s Fashion Nugget.

21)  We Do the Work  Jon Fromer (2000)      2:46

According to Classic Labor Songs (Smithsonian Folkways, on which this song appears), “Californian Jon Fromer has spent a career working in television and radio.  He is an active officer of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Communications Workers of America…. He is a member of the Freedom Song Network, an organization of San-Francisco-area musicians dedicated to social change.”

22)  Worker’s Song  Dropkick Murphys (2003)      3:32

The song from which this mix takes its title.  Appears on the Dropkick Murphys’ Blackout.

23)  My Job  Cam’ron (2009)      3:47

From Cam’ron’s Crime Pays.

24)  Low Light Low Life  P.O.S. feat. Dessa (2009)      3:15

“It’s the flight of the salesman, death of the bumblebee, nothing left for the attorneys and the tumbleweeds.” A song about the Great Recession, featuring a rap from one of the best lyricists working today: Dessa.

25)  Money  Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings (2010)      3:22

“Money. Where have you gone?”  On I Learned the Hard Way, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings contribute another song to the music of the Great Recession.

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