Labor day. I have read (in E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class) that the first man who attempted to establish a labor union in England at the end of the 18th century, was arrested, tried for sedition, found guilty, drawn and quartered in a public square by attaching draft horses to each of his arms and legs and pulling him apart. He was then disembowelled and his guts were burned. Then they hanged what was left of him. One gathers from this that the propertied classes were slow to accept the idea of organized labor. I don't know what the first poems and ballads on the subject were. I do know that a poem by William Blake written in the early years of the industrial revolution became a kind of anthem of the labor movement in England in the 19th century. You may have read the poem in school. It goes like this:
And Did Those Feet
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountain green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
Of England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among the dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have seen Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant Land.
This was written around 1804. Whether Blake, when he coined the phrase "Satanic Mills," actually had in mind the new factories that had sprung up in the English countryside is not known, but people interpreted it that way and interpreted the poem as a challenge to the established church and a call for a new social order based on social justice. That time seems remote on a hot Labor Day weekend when the labor struggles in the American industrial economy are mostly forgotten, and when many of the jobs have been exported to developing countries where working people have been undertaking the same struggle more or less out of sight of American consumers. We hardly notice that the holiday itself was conceived, uneasily, perhaps as a kind of wishful thinking, to commemorate the closing of old wounds.
Here's a poem for Labor Day about American work. It's by Debra Allbery and comes from her book Walking Distance, published by University of Pittsburgh Press in 1991. I came across it in an interesting new anthology, Generations: Poems between Fathers, Mothers, Daughters, Sons, edited by Melanie Hart and James Loader and published by Penguin Books. A much quieter thing than the Blake poem, it describes a daughter's summer of work in the plant where her father spent his life. Its ambition seems to be make a record and say what it was like:
My twentieth summer I got a job in Door Locks
at the Ford plant where my father has worked
for twenty years. Five in the morning
we'd stand tired in the glare and old heat
of the kitchen, my father fiddling with
the radio dial, looking for a clear station.
There weren't any women in my department.
At first the men would ask me to lift
what I couldn't, speed up the turntable,
juggling the greasy washer and bolts,
winking at each other, grinning at me.
In the break room they would buy me coffee,
study my check to see if I got shorted.
They were glad I was in school and told me
to finish, they said I'd never regret it.
Once I got loaned to Air Conditioners,
worked three days in a special enclosure,
quiet and cool and my hands stayed clean.
Out the window I could see Door Locks,
the men taking salt pills, 110 degrees.
In rest rooms there were women sleeping
on orange vinyl couches, oven timers ticking
next to their heads.
At lunch, I'd take the long walk to my father.
I'd see him from a distance, wearing safety glasses
like mine, and earphones, bright slivers of brass
in his hair -- him standing alone in strange
amidst machines the size of small buildings.
Every twenty minutes he worked a tumbler,
in between he read from his grocery bag of
He would pour us coffee from a hidden pot,
toast sandwiches on a furnace. We sat
on crates shouting a few things and laughing
over the roar and banging of presses.
Mostly I remember the back-to-back heat waves,
coffee in paper cups that said Safety First,
my father and I hurrying away from the time clocks,
proud of each other. And my last day, moving
their Good Lucks, out into 5:00, shading my eyes.
("Assembler" is from "Walking Distance," by Debra Allbery, 1991. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.)