Monday, September 5, 2016

Our nation's literature, brought to you by the labor movement

Sewing shirts at the H.D. Bob Company, New York City, 1928

Over coffee this morning, I’ve spent some time reflecting about Labor Day, and how it’s a holiday that writers have reason to be especially grateful for.

Without the labor movement, I’m not so sure that writing would happen today the way that it typically does. I know a lot of writers, but I don’t know anyone who gets by solely on writing.

Oh, certainly, I have a lot of writer friends who don’t work. They are not their family’s breadwinners, though, through their writing. If they are privileged enough not to work, it is because someone has provided for them (or they have provided for themselves) through some other enterprise, and through this tremendous boon, they get to spend their days pursuing their passion.

Although I don’t personally know people who support themselves and their families with their writing, I know of many who fit the bill—bestsellers, usually of genre fiction. Other financially successful writers I can think of supplement their publishing revenue with activities like motivational speaking or being the President of the United States, and they could arguably get by on just the writing, were they to choose to live simply.

But most of us write AND. We write and wait tables; we’re barista-writers. Many of us write and teach or write and edit or write and work in bookstores. The writers in my life do their writing on the side, officially—although their writing may come first in their hearts, and writing and its associated activities, like submitting, may actually take up more time than their regular work.

And we couldn’t do this without the labor movement.

The labor movement gave us eight-hour workdays and forty-hour workweeks. Before that, it gave us childhood and the right to an education within it. It gave us minimum wage so that we could (in theory) work our one job and then come home to our regular lives. It gave us safe working conditions, which helps to ensure that when we do come home, our digits are intact and our health is not impaired.

It’s certainly popular to denigrate the labor movement these days—to think of union members as lazy, unproductive shovel-leaners. But behind the idea of unionization is the idea that we have individual worth, and that we can join forces collectively for our common good.

In recent years, businesses have consolidated a lot of power, and we’ve seen our jobs reduced through automation or shipped off to places where people work for pennies on the dollar. We’ve been pressured to work longer hours, to show ourselves to be committed team players, to take on more hours or students or responsibilities. We’ve lost some of our personal time by being forced to remain connected to our worklife when we’re home with our families or even when we’re on vacation.

Writers continue to suffer for their art—to fit it in alongside and often after other parts of their lives. But try to imagine unlimited workdays and unbroken workweeks—imagine what America’s literature would look like without the sacrifices, and sometimes the ultimate sacrifices, of those who stood up to say that our private lives matter, and that they deserve time and space and health for us to pursue wholeness and happiness and, yes, expression.

Happy Labor Day, friends.


  1. Happy Labor Day to you, too, Karen. Your perspective is always spot on. You make "suffering for art" less lonely.

    1. Thank you so much! Much to be thankful for today.

  2. Great post. I really like the object. When i was a 17 years old child I always go o my 3 km far school on my Gold Coast Longboards. I saw many labor are also use longboard as their daily commuter.