I belong to the culture of labor

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.

Huber final cover
My grandparents are the two people at the center. My grandmother Friedchen has her arm around my grandfather Heina’s neck.

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.

Two Eyes Are Never Enough

TwoEyesNeverEnoughMy ebook on direct care workers is now available from SheBooks!

Two Eyes are Never Enough: A minimum-wage memoir
is an ebook that was just released, one in a new series of short ebooks by women, including some writers whose work I follow and love, including Hope Edelman, Susan Ito, Faith Adiele, Marion Winik, and many more forthcoming. Each mini-book is made for any e-reader and at a great price: $2.99.

This piece is the length of a long magazine article, and it explores the world of direct care workers, those who work in nursing homes, residential care centers, and mental health facilities. They are often immigrants, often women of color, usually working for very low pay. I once did that work, which got me interested in the first place. That’s why the piece is called a memoir, though there’s a good chunk of reporting in there too.

How to Support Direct Care Workers

Much of this little e-book is about the physical and emotional labor of caring for others, particularly those in crisis. It’s hard work, sometimes physically dangerous, yet often very low-paying; in fact, home health care workers–one category of direct care workers–are not even covered by minimum wage legislation, which is outrageous. Yet there are many organizations advocating to change this. One huge victory came about late last year, when legislation was passed to cover these workers, which have been left out of wage protection since 1974. This ruling is scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2015, but there are twists and turns ahead: it was just reported last Saturday in the New York Times editorial page (“No Reason to Delay Fair Wages,” 5/17/14) that a group representing state Medicaid officials is asking for a delay in implementation.

As the editorial states:

“Sixteen states already require that home care workers be covered under state wage and hour laws, so there is a template for how to apply the federal rule. The rule change was researched and analyzed for almost two years before being finalized last September… Any delay would further the exploitation of home care workers–mostly women, minorities and immigrants–who bathe, dress, and feed elderly and disabled clients and assist them with other daily activities. For-profit home care agencies that pay subminimum wages or deny overtime and state Medicaid officers accustomed to balancing their budgets on the backs of underpaid labor will have to get used to paying more.”

If you’re interested in getting active on these issues and adding your voice, consider supporting one of these organizations:

Caring Across Generations: A coalition of nonprofits and unions working for legislation and public attention.

Direct Care Alliance: An advocacy group for direct care workers.

National Domestic Workers Alliance

Thoughts on the Writing Process

This piece of writing has been a labor of love, and a tough nut to crack: I started writing this piece about twenty years ago as I worked in direct care, writing journal entries to help me process my experiences. I published a few articles in small magazines that explicitly called for change in the way that mental health was staffed in these centers. Then, I put it aside.

Thirteen years ago, I tried to approach it from a journalistic perspective and delved into this problem for my major project for a master’s thesis in journalism on this topic at Ohio State University as part of the Kiplinger Fellowship Program. I queried many magazines but couldn’t get interest because the topic seemed depressing and completely “unsexy.” This fundamental unsexiness of women and low-wage work was so hard to write into, because it’s a bedrock blind spot in our society. We take the presence of these workers for granted, so much so that this is the fabric of our society, the one we don’t even comment on. We expect low-wage female workers to care for our bodies and our spirits when we falter and when we die.

Then, during my MFA program, I wrote the story again, from the memoir side, which resulted in an essay that was a finalist for an AWP “Intro” award and was later published in Kaleidoscope: A Journal of Disability Studies.

I pretty much gave up on it until last year, at which time I tipped the balance back and forth between memoir and journalism. The challenge was that I couldn’t find a way to make it “light.” Being less ranty is my cross to bear as a writer, and sometimes I apologize too much for ranting when I should just let it rip with a good old-fashioned harangue. Having done the work and having been a labor activist for a long time, I had lots of commitment to this issue. I wasn’t a journalist who had gone into this as an investigation. I was first a patient, then a worker, then an activist, then a writer. Writing on subjects I care the most about–especially political subjects–has been a challenge when it comes to voice and tone.

The essay is a flexible form, and I believe the essay can contain not only dispassionate observation but also engagement and multiple emotions including anger. But “the essay” is often thought of as a bit distanced, maybe a bit removed, maybe even a bit arty. I love much of that stuff. I write some of it. However, I read many examples of the form that don’t look like the essays I want to write, which is fine. For balance, and for encouragement, I have found it important to read and re-read to examples of engaged essayists like James Baldwin, Jamaica Kincaid, Joy Williams, Rebecca Solnit, George Orwell, and Cherrie Moraga, as well as my recent favorite Kiese Laymon. I like my essays troubled and even sometimes downright mad.

What is an essay? Can it include hot-button, yell-out, pissed-off? Can it have an agenda? Is it marked only by formal experimentation or reflection on a subject whose sting has faded with the passage of time? We shouldn’t confuse the full breadth of possibilities in an essay with a narrowed sense of the role or voice of the average essay. While distance and perspective are important, it is sometimes impossible in a practical sense to step away from one’s vivid emotions. If your topic itself is a large social problem, that topic and its resultant pain will persist over time. Does this mean you should not be an essayist? No–on the contrary, I think. I believe the world needs more essayists and essays that trouble their subjects–not at the surface level of form or fragmentation (though that is fine too, and all respect to those who do that work), but at the deep level of wrestling with a topic, coming away from that topic changed, acknowledging that the topic itself is bigger than the author.

Update: Here’s a blog post I wrote over at the Direct Care Alliance on this book!

Thanks for reading. And check out all the great titles at

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