(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023)
It was in the park at a picnic table and the talk was about food and the GTA’s Metro grocers strike. This and record profits for Canada’s largest grocers juxtaposed against thinning pay of staff who help you and me with our daily bread and everything else.
The man made a comment about fair pay and good working conditions at one competing grocer. The woman nodded. And I, just a passerby, was reminded about today’s growing disparities, even as greed has been around since the dawn of commerce.
In its purest sensibilities the labour movement is a counterbalance to corporate and systemic greed. It’s good to think about now, Labour Day weekend, while considering our work lives. It’s also helpful to note that much of the gamesmanship around money and power in the workplace, like in broader life, revolves around the power of words.
Consider how unions were historically attacked. There was the old, brass-knuckle approach: “Don’t organize or we’ll kill you!” Later, it became more effective to attack workers by simply infiltrating workplaces with employee plants to spread rumours and lies. Target certain people. Keep the place divided. Off-balance. Fearful.
We all know how words can kill. Look at your phone and what can be the devil of social blather. We know how families, or communities, or entire nations can be divided, if not destroyed, by deceptive rhetoric.
On the other hand, words have another power, a creative force that’s more unshakable, more aligned with the axiom “In the beginning was the Word.” Why? It’s a question I ask my creative writing students. So, why “the Word?” The “Logos,” as the Greeks called it. Why not, “the i-Phone?” Why not, “In the beginning was the microchip”? Or AI? Or something else?
Or, what if the story of life began with more than “the Word” or “a word,” but an entire song, one sung with a voice so commanding that galaxies not only exploded into being, but are still moving and expanding through time and space in ways that we’re still discovering? And what does this say about work: about divine work, or our own work, or about a job well-done?
A reader recently told me that my own work falls horribly short. She thought that I was a mindless knucklehead for recently writing in this space, and with good fun, about our shabby bare feet. I ignored stories of real, struggling people. So choose better. Be more sensitive. More responsible. Life for many people is no laughing matter. This is what she told me.
And she’s not wrong. More people are struggling. It’s disturbing. Travel to majority world, developing nations and see even wider disparities.
Even so, anyone needs variety in their diet. All work and no play makes Jack (and the newspaper) a dull boy. Also, I wonder if by looking at what’s lowly, like our feet, we better appreciate the great reversal, how, in time, the last will be first, the least-honoured will be the most-honoured, the world’s hungriest, somehow, will be the most-filled and satiated.
So, about labour, maybe at its best, not its most radicalized, the labour movement is a foretaste of this mysterious reversal, an earthly step towards a future eternal satisfaction. And isn’t this what any of us want in our work lives, and in our lives in general? To be deeply satisfied while receiving our daily bread?
“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s great hunger meet,” is how writer Frederick Buechner puts it. Our work is meant to have purpose for the broader community, and give personal satisfaction, both.
This is the nub of it. Good work has a certain spirit to it. A certain nourishment. For you, or me, or any other starving beggar. The body and mind and spirit, after all, are intricately connected. Completely inseparable. They’re meant to work together. For Labour Day it’s helpful to consider this part of our humanity also.