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8 Hour Work Day (Sermon)


When I checked out the Anglican lectionary for this Sunday, I just gave my traditional long suffering sigh and decided to replace what I could and include the mandatory gospel and ignore it. The gospel reading did not advance the theme that I had chosen; Workers rights and struggles. After all yesterday was May Day, celebrated all over the world except for the US and Canada. The US chose September and Canada dutifully followed along.

Dick suggested I look for an alternate gospel reading and he then came up with a variety of what I consider anti-labour – pie in the sky when you die rhetoric. Then Alan talked to me about taking a slightly different view. Strong vines and strong branches can produce strong unions. Leadership may need to clip individuals who are not contributing to the good of the whole. Enough said.

In 1886 workers in Chicago went on strike for the 8 hour work day. 8 hours work, 8 hours play, 8 hours sleep for 8 dollars a day. This strike became known as the Haymarket Riots. On a rainy night in the Haymarket area a small group of unionists were listening to union organizers, one man spoke for over an hour. There was a police presence but it was a peaceful small crowd. And then the police arrived in large numbers with guns drawn. A home made bomb was thrown into the police and seven police were killed. Although it was later found out that many were shot by police guns. Seven union organizers were arrested and although there were no links found between them and the bomb all were convicted. For their beliefs rather than their actions. 3 were killed, one committed suicide and 3 were sentenced to life in prison. The trial was called a travesty of justice by the Illinois governor who later pardoned the men who were still in prison.

In 1889 at the 2nd International held in Paris it was decided to declare May 1 as the workers day and the goal was to fight for the 8 hour work day. That was 132 years ago on May 1.

I have been reading a lot this past year, often a book a day or I’ll read 6 books at a time and move between them, depending on my mood. We get the New York Times Review of books and if I read a review that sounds interesting I can put a hold on it through the library app. And it will show up to be read anywhere from 2 weeks to six months later. Long after I have forgotten why I put in the request.

And that is what happened with the book Nomadland. Nomadland is the non fictional account of the current mobile work force in the USA. No longer called hobos or migrant workers. These people are often older people who lost their houses in the 2008 crash, lost their jobs shortly thereafter, lost their partners, children more or less launched. So they took to the road, living in cars, vans, trailers, trucks and they go where the jobs are. Three jobs are focused on in the book. (1) working summers in National Parks, cleaning campsites and toilets, handling tourists all hours of the day and night. Very low pay, but the camp site is free. (2) Working at Amazon for Oct, Nov and December. Twelve hour shifts, running to fill orders and or keep shelves filled, minimum wage of $9 to $15 per hour depending on the state. Sometimes free serviced campsites, sometimes empty fields or parking lots.

(3) Sugar beet harvest – not in the fields but in warehouses or enormous sheds emptying huge trucks in all kinds of weather, outdoors, very muddy, shovelling beets into mountains, hard physical work.

No 8 hours days, no benefits, no paid sick leave, and very bad working conditions.

While I am reading this I come across my copy of the Living Spirit of the Wobblies by Len DeCaux, published in 1978. bathroom reading up till then.

We all have our favourite Wobblies, I am sure: Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, Rambling Jack Elliot, Big Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Mother Jones. Feel free to shout out additional names, as I am sure would happen if we were all together in the church. Or put them in the chat.

In 1905 the International Workers of the World was officially formed. The IWW (or Wobblies) offered the “open union”. Open to all workers without craft, racist or other restrictions of any kind. It particularly appealed to unskilled and other less privileged workers. Most craft unions catered chiefly to white male skilled workers. The IWW proclaimed a revolutionary purpose: That the workers, organized as a class, must eventually take over the machinery of production and abolish the capitalist wage system.

The membership in the early days was mostly men who rode the rails and travelled from mine to mine and to harvests where ever it was rumoured to be hiring. These men were located mostly in the west.

Then in 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusett, women immigrant mill workers went out on strike. Eventually 23,000 workers, 25 different nationalities. It was the first singing strike. On the picket line or peeling potatoes in the soup kitchens, all of a sudden people would start singing the Internationale. Each singing in their own language.

A new state law had been passed that reduced the weekly hours worked from 56 to 54 for women and minors. So of course the mill owners docked the women and children’s pay even as they speeded up production. When the workers at one mill saw their reduced pay packet they walked out. Better to starve fighting than to starve working. Young women were also seen carrying banners reading we want bread and roses. And so the poem was written and put to music. Although the music for the version we are singing today was written much later by Mimi Farina. And this strike, where the wobbly organizers streamed in from all over the usa to help, won concessions, a wage increase. And a much larger membership in the east.

It was in 1915 that Solidarity Forever was written by Ralph Chaplin and adopted as the anthem of the IWW. And later coopted by the AFL-CIO much to the authors chagrin.

We are up to 1915 now only 106 more years to go. And I’ve given the background for my choice of music this Sunday. I was sad to have to leave out Hallelujah I’m a Bum and Which side are you on, maybe next year for MayDay.

But when I read a current non fiction book like Nomadland and then hear that it won an academy award, I can’t help but scratch my head and wonder.

We know the system is broken, the multi-nationals run the world. What can we learn from this brief history lesson? From the inspiration of these songs?

Dick found this interview with Wendell Berry about the nature of work.

“The nearly intolerable irony in our dissatisfaction is that we have removed pleasure from our work in order to remove “drudgery” from our lives. If I could pick any rule of industrial economics to receive a thorough examination by our people, it would be the one that says all hard physical work is “drudgery” and not worth doing. There are of course, many questions surrounding this issue: What is work? In whose interest is it done? Where and in what circumstances is it done? In whose company is it done? HOW LONG DOES IT LAST? And so forth.

But this issue is personal and so needs to be re-examined by everybody. The argument, if it is that, can proceed only by personal testimony.”

I am limping towards the finish line here,

I cannot, in any conscience, recommend that unionization will solve all of societies and workers problems. Although I have been a Teamster and still have my union card.

I also cannot preach that electoral politics, democracy, socialism, Capitalism, or benevolent dictators will solve our problems. I’m not even sure Wendell Berry can.

But I’m not giving up trying. By supporting young people and all who are searching for justice and living my life as if every action I do has an impact on the global future.

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