Honor Labor

Sept. 1, 2014

Yesterday my daughter asked what I’d be doing at work tomorrow (i.e., today).   I told her I didn’t have to go to work because it’s a holiday, Labor Day.  She asked what Labor Day is.  We’ve talked about Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day as holidays which commemorate the sacrifices others made so that we could live better, safer, freer lives.  Labor Day hadn’t come up before.  I told her that it’s a day where we remember people who stood up for those who work for a living, people who insisted that when you do your job that you be paid fairly for the work you do so that you can pay for your food and the home that you live in – that it’s a day where we remember people who insisted that you not have to put yourself in danger when you go to your work – that it’s a day where we remember people who insisted that you not have to work all day every day in order to keep your job – that you be allowed to take weekends off and have a vacation.  My wife got her a book from the library last week, Brave Girl:  Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909, so maybe at least some of what I said clicked.

I’ll hazard that the vast majority of people reading this post have paid vacation, employer-subsidized health insurance, and go to work in workplaces which are covered by OSHA safety standards.  We’re pretty damn fortunate to have those things.  We should take a moment today to think of the people who helped make things like 40 hour workweeks, paid vacation, and workplace safety standards a reality.  We should also take a moment to think of the people who are committed to seeing that those things are there for everyone who works for a living, not just the upper-middle class.   Finally, we should also take moment to think of those for whom 40 hour workweeks, paid vacation, and workplace safety standards aren’t in the cards.

With that, Shirt by Robert Pinsky:

The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band

Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze

At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—

The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out

Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.

A third before he dropped her put her arms
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once

He stepped to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers—

Like Hart Crane’s Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.”
Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked

Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord.   Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans

Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,

Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
To wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,

The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:

George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit

And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
Both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,

The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.