Legend tells of a time in Ireland where the supernatural was commonplace—bargains struck with gods, all earth’s wisdom contained within a single fish, entire armies lulled to sleep by the power of song. In this great period, known as the Mythological Cycle, three brothers (Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht, and Mac Greine) became kings of Ireland after killing Lug, a god of war and the arts, to avenge their father, whom Lug had killed. The three brothers rotated the title of King annually for three decades, ruling wisely and well. Mac Cuill was so called for the god he worshiped, the god of the hazel; Mac Cecht for the god of the plowshare; Mac Greine for…look, you’re probably falling asleep already. I’ve seen an uncharacteristic amount of my own two painfully Irish brothers in the last few weeks, the older of whom has a baby fittingly named Hazel.
The actual point here is that these stories are confined to myth for a reason. There’s the issue of giants and leprechauns and fairies, of course. But equally removed from reality is the notion of a fair, just, and desirable system of power concentrated in the hands of so few.
Some of you had the day off on Monday; others of you doubtless did not. Both outcomes are tied up with the fate of the labor movement: the vacation day a vestige of an era where unions were ubiquitous and ascendant, the work day a result of labor’s gains being chipped away over the past 40 years.
It’s funny—I don’t recall ever learning about Labor Day in school. To me it was only ever a placeholder, The Last Weekend before I had to go back and be a student again. Priorities change as you get older, certainly, and now I’m on the other side of the teacher’s desk, but Labor Day has become one of my favorite holidays in recent years. From my perspective its actually kind of a paltry thing, to only have one day set aside to celebrate the working class, when just about all of us—say, 99%—belong to it.
A poem, courtesy of Bertolt Brecht:
Who built Thebes of the 7 gates ?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock ?
And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times ?
In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live ?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?
Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them ?
Over whom did the Caesars triumph ?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants ?
Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone ?
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him ?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep ?
Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it ?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors ?
Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill ?
So many reports.
So many questions.
I love this poem; the line about Atlantis really does me in. I also find it lacking, I suppose, in that so few now probably can identify their own labor in the workers Brecht names. But even if you build nothing and swing no heavy tools, if you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly working class. (If for some reason a billionaire is reading this—is it self-loathing?—then please give me some money.)
What makes someone working class is simply that they must depend on a wage in order to get the things they need to survive. Not earning a wage, due to disability or retirement or joblessness, does not separate one from this class; the lack illustrates the need even more starkly. As a friend so succinctly put it: “Do you get the money you need to live from owning things? No? You're in the club.”
It is that small group of people who don’t belong in this category—who get the money they need to live simply from owning things that make them money—that plants the stories of the beneficent Irish kings so firmly in the realm of fiction. To claim control over the water or the land or the hospitals or the forests or the factories is to claim control of the lives of countless others. When things such as these are no longer held in common, there can’t be true democracy or fairness. Do you really think your vote, in any system, counts the same as the guy who decides whether or not you and your family have enough to eat?
It turns out that one of the only ways to exercise any control over your life in such a broken system is through collective action. In the workplace, this likely means unionizing. However talented you might be, however well you might get along with your boss, you should assume at all times that they’re taking the Beyoncé view of your employment: Don’t you ever for a second get to thinking you’re irreplaceable. And as unions have declined precipitously thanks to 40 years of neoliberal engineering, the power of workers (and how much of the fruits of their labor they get to keep) has gone with it.
The good news is that things are on the uptick, at least as far as American attitudes toward unions are concerned. Approval ratings for unions are at their highest point in 50 years, thanks in part to the wildly successful teacher strike wave of 2018. That energy can be sustained if we are smart enough and willing enough. As Meagan Day writes:
Unions should continue to make themselves visible to the broader public through strikes and seek to foreground class-wide demands that benefit entire communities. Socialists should continue to use electoral politics to agitate against corporations and on behalf of workers and unions, on as big a stage as possible. If enough effort is put into these projects, it’s conceivable that this spike will only mark the beginning of a labor movement resurgence, creating a populace vastly more friendly to unions — and ultimately more likely to join them.
We have all been conditioned in ways large and small to believe that we are lucky to receive a paycheck, that we are recipients of our bosses’ largesse. Until we begin believing otherwise, nothing will get better for us.