I belong to the culture of labor.
What does that mean? Well, it’s understandable if you don’t know there is a labor culture, both in this country and around the world. This culture is not shown on sitcoms, cable networks, or in most movies–or if it is, it is portrayed as a depressing sliver: working-class people getting screwed, being poor, being depressed, using drugs, and being conservative and isolated.
That is a two-dimensional and offensive portrayal of working-class culture.
I love labor culture not because I should, but because it helps to keep me sane. I receive so many messages from mass culture that say that the only way to live is a very polished wealthy lifestyle, that everything I do is not good enough, that I work too hard, that where I come from is primitive, backward, whatever. Labor culture turns all that on its head and says: work is good. Workers are honorable, and workers can have power. The idea of workers being able to have a say in their own working conditions leads to brainstorming about what change can be possible.
I could tangent off here into economic theories about social change, Marx, etc. but I’m actually not qualified to do that. What’s great is that you can be a part of worker culture and social change without having read all the books about such things. You can read, or you can read articles about those great writers, and whether you do or not you still count as a worker and as someone who can be connected to other workers. You can read great books like this new one about organizing in your workplace. Even people who don’t currently have jobs have organized. People who work in the home and who take care of kids have organized. People who don’t have workplaces and are considered freelancers have joined together in organizations like the National Writers’ Union. Disability access includes the right to get access to the things that make work possible. There are so so so many ways to be a labor activist. Anytime you look at your own work and think about how to support yourself and others, you are doing labor activism.
There is a labor culture, a labor history, and it is glorious and inspiring. This does not mean it is not filled with losses and disappointments.
To me, being a part of the culture of labor means that I have been taught to celebrate work as honorable. I understand that being working class includes manual labor but also often labor at various changing forms of work, including at a keyboard or on a phone or with a circuitboard.
Labor history is almost never taught in schools. Wherever you are, there is a hidden history of labor beneath your feet, struggles that are suppressed or simply not told. If you google “labor history” and your town or state you can find some very cool stuff.
Here are some cool posters and images from the labor movement and labor artists. Labor has its own history of songs around the world. In many places, labor just is a part of the culture. Labor is our culture, all of us. Our cultures have been made by hand, by the hard work of people who came before us.
I was raised in a culture of labor through hard-working people, but I fell into the explicit culture of labor activism and then was educated by other activists. What I learned was that labor culture offers a way to support fellow workers–that if there are struggles going on across the globe, there are things we can do locally to support those workers right here. I learned in the culture of labor that our struggles are all connected.
To me, a culture of labor means that I don’t see working-class manners of speech, dress, movement, cooking, decorating, etc. etc. as “rough edges” to shave off. I see them as legitimate and meaningful expressions of a worldview and way of life. Labor culture includes wisdom and philosophy. Labor culture has helped me understand my family, my body, my habits, even my mind and way of seeing the world. I am a busy, capable person, and I am grateful that being raised by hard-working people has made me that way.
Labor culture includes the generations of history about struggles at work. I had to uncover my own connection to those struggles, and I am very proud that I am a great-grand-daughter of a man who organized coal miners in Germany and the grand-daughter of a man who worked to make sure that labor’s voice was included in the rebuilding of Germany after World War II. I come from socialists who believed that working culture–and the right of workers to have a voice in steering society–was fundamental. This is why my book Opa Nobody is about, everything from the revolutions and Soviet republics in Germany between World War I and World War II to my own labor activism experience. Labor culture was what organized militias to try to oppose the rise of the Nazis. Labor culture means understanding that workers coming together have power.
Being a part of labor culture does not mean romanticizing labor solidarity as the easy answer. It grants a way of analyzing problems to see where one’s power lies in connections to other through where we work together. Labor culture means that I can criticize an individual union’s practices, or its leadership, without making the silly assumption that the Labor Movement as a whole is a terrible thing. The labor movement is a wonderful thing.
Being part of a culture of labor means gathering with other people to see that the things I feel bad about and take personally–debt, stress at work, instability–are actually structures imposed on us that we can change, not things we need to take on as personal failings. Labor culture means thinking about the source of our anxiety problems and knowing that our stress comes from the way work and wealth and healthcare are structured.
To me, a culture of labor is a culture of hope. I have not often been an actual union member, but I have been a labor activist for the majority of my days. This means that I support other workers where I work, I try to organize at work, and I try to connect with organizations that support workers and that make labor culture visible.
Being part of a culture of labor means I see that so many of us are not free to say what we think. We are watched by our employers, and expressing our feelings on or off the clock can result in negative consequences and even job loss.
Being part of labor culture means I know that one of the traditional slogans in European and American labor work was “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what we will.” That means that we should work, and we should sleep, and we should have down-time to connect to each other, to make art, to recharge, to take walks and cook and chill out. Labor culture means fighting hard not to be worked to death. Labor means fighting for healthcare and childcare and pensions and all the other things that workers need to be safe, healthy, and free.
If you want to learn about the culture of labor, you can turn to your own life and think about the working people you come from and what you learned from them. You can also subscribe to Labor Notes, which is a wonderful magazine about current workers’ issues.
I am proud to be a worker, a workplace organizer. And Labor Day is May 1 around the world but it got moved here in the U.S. to disrupt ties to workers’ movements. So today I am puttering around the house thinking about my grandfather, and my great-grandfather, and thinking about all the great union organizers and activists I have known, and humming “Solidarity Forever” under my breath. And I am grateful to be part of this rich legacy.