Let Labor Unite Us
September 1, 2014
I’ve been looking back over past labor day posts and the one I wrote five years ago really struck me as touching on many of the themes I’ve been thinking about lately. I’m reposting it here in its entirety. Much has changed, and how much has remained constant across these five years. Perhaps most significantly, my mother, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer when I wrote the post in 2009 is now gone. She died in November, 2012, midway between the yesterday of 2009 and the today of 2014. This post also made me think about the recent workshop that Susan Miranda and I offered at the 2014 Sexual Freedom Summit. “Radical Lessons from Sex Work: Meaning, Value and Human Rights” explored the kind of unity-through-labor that I wrote about back in 2009. I wish I’d remembered this post during that workshop! So, here you go. Thoughts from Labor Day 2009, still meaningful and valuable today.
Today, Labor Day, I’m thinking about work. I look around my apartment and am awed by the amount of work required to produce everything in it. The hours of labor represented by just the items sitting on my desk is astonishing. There are about a dozen books, an eye glass case, a tape dispenser, a roll of fishing line (why do I have fishing line on my desk?), a lamp, a bottle of ink, a couple of fountain pens, a wooden top, a few CDs, one DVD (Kill the Artist, by Andreas Troeger), a cup full of pens and pencils, two flash drives, an iPod, a pack of stationery, two notebooks, a date book, a New York Times magazine (“Why women’s rights are the cause of our time”, Aug. 23, 2009), and that is just the layer that is visible! When I add to that the service work involved in my day to day life. And it makes me think about the many paths that lead to all that work.
I’m thinking about people like Jessica DuLong who, after earning a degree in Psychology from Stanford University went on to be content director of a health web site, worked as a journalist, co-founded a queer arts and literature magazine called masque, and then earned her license as a marine engineer and now works the engine room of the John J. Harvey – a retired NYC Fireboat that operates as a floating museum. (In a moment of lovely coincidence, I had lunch on the Harvey yesterday after the 17th Annual NYC Tug Boat Race and Competition, sponsored by the Working Harbor Committee. For some dynamic posts and some thoughtful Labor Day reflections on the Sixth Borough’s workers see Tugster’s Waterblog)
I’m thinking about the nurses’ aide who helped take care of my mother last month and whose compassion and gentleness gave no indication that she was ever frustrated or felt demeaned at her job.
I’m thinking about how interconnected we are through labor. I’m thinking about the sanitation workers, truck drivers, the farm workers and the factory workers on whom depend the doctors, lawyers, bankers and advertisers and about how sad it is that we are such a class-segregated society now that those very interdependent people may never meet socially because of boundaries of privilege and class.
I’m thinking about sex workers and nurses’ aides and massage therapists and about how though they all deal with bodies they do so in the face of very different stereotypes. I’m thinking about how we can have multiple jobs and be forced out of one because of the stigma attached to another.
Moving forward from this Labor Day I’d love to hear from readers: What kind of work do you do now, or have you done before? How do you feel about the status or stigma that goes along with your work? Are you treated with respect by the people you work with? Is there important work you do for free in addition to the work you do for pay and how do you balance those things? Do you have multiple paid jobs? Do you straddle multiple worlds? How do you manage the divisions between segments of your day to day life?
And just as important as all those questions: whose work do you depend on in the course of your day or your week? And how often do class barriers or status barriers keep you from getting to know the people on whose labor you depend?