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Bread Labor and Leisure

It’s a little intimidating to be asked to do a Labor Day sermon for this church. I assume that these wall have heard many sermons on the topic of labor day. The battle for worker’s rights in this country has been of epic proportions, fought in picket lines and folk songs lyrics, and those are the sort of stories that this church likes to tell.


The struggle for labor rights is not over, it is still ongoing in many trenches. There are still welfare dependent masses who are working part-time at Walmart, labeled seasonal labor with no benefits. Corporations are still dropping employee hours to skate under the healthcare mandate limbo bar, clearly treating their worker’s bodies like a game. There are still unmentionable atrocities being committed in the cotton fields of Burkina Faso so that we can wear Victoria’s secret panties. And let’s not contemplate the conditions in the Vietnamese sweatshops where your Old Navy flip flops were produced.


But worker’s rights in the United States have come forward dramatic paces in our country’s short life. We could take a moment, on this Labor Day Sunday and optimistically look back and marvel at our forty hour work weeks, how far we have come.


The days of company stores and seventy hour weeks are primarily over. Unless you count marketing campaigns and credit cards as a company store, a different debate. Labor Day as a national holiday was designed (and I am quoting here) to exhibit “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” to the public. That was the initial goal of a celebration of Labor Day, written into the papers outlining the need. It was a day to exhibit the strength of labor. It was a time to march, fill the streets.


Labor Day was instated as national holiday as a result of the Pullman Strikes. The Pullman Strikes were train strikes in 1894. Although the activist epicenter was in Detroit, their shock-waves were felt across the nation’s train-yards. The strikes became so large and destructive that President Cleveland sent the federal government in to manage the situation. The result of the federal government attempting to shut down or dampen the strikes was bloodshed. Within days thirty US Citizens were dead at the hands of the men wearing the badge of the United States Government. In an era long before photos of protesters skin on skin conflicts were tweeted instantly, waves of concern slowly washed across the country. Sentiment had started on the side of the government, but only six days after the strikes were over Congress and President Cleveland (the same President who had sent the feds into the strike to begin with) had signed Labor Day into a national holiday.


Labor Day was created as a direct response to the blood and sweat martyred in the name of the movement. This weekend was designed as a way to honor those sacrifices, and remind the public (corporations are people,too!) that we have the strength to do it again.


These sacrifices, however, have in many ways been forgotten when we speak of Labor Day today. Labor Day in the popular eye, seems to be associated with something entirely different. Look around tomorrow and you will see factory farmed meat cooking on a grill, the red white and blue of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and a whole lot of people celebrating their labor free Monday. It has also, as your thick News Leader will attest, become one of the most important sale holidays of the year. Many retailers report sales dwarfed only by Black Friday stampedes.


In short, the day that was designed to exhibit the “strength” of the labor movement? It is has become a national day of leisure. Okay, we will play by the rules set by the cultural consensus. We don’t have to spend today discussing the labor movement. Let’s discuss leisure, on this Labor Day Sunday.


Most of us, with a few exceptions, work fortyish hour weeks. We get 168 hours a week to play with, so even after figuring in time for sleep and stuffing our faces, we end up with almost an entire bonus 40 hour week worth of time. What we do with this time is up to us. This is our leisure, what is left over when you subtract the bread labor, the time you spend to sustain yourself.


What once was work put into a garden and a woodshed has now become what we feed into a paycheck to trade away at Mama Jeans and City Utilities. The work that sustains our body? This is bread labor. Bread labor is a term espoused by Helen and Scott Nearing.


Helen and Scott Nearing, for the record, were the most adorable nerdy awesome bad-ass self-sufficient back to the land couple ever to grace this earth. They were working in academia until they left New York City in 1932 in an attempt to find a more balanced life living on a farm in rural Vermont. They split their waking hours between bread labor and leisure. Bread labor was the work associated with keeping themselves alive. Working the garden, chopping wood, building their homes and additional sheds, and sugaring the maples that were a small financial income for themselves. Bread labor accounted for about half their time. The rest of their waking hours they considered to be leisure time. The leisure time our country is currently devoting an entire weekend to.


We know that Americans have a ton of leisure time at their disposal. Lets take a moment to consider what most Americans do with their leisure time. We are, of course, in the depth of a holiday now predominately devoted to leisure. To Barbeque and Budweiser, to three final days of summer spent in plastic lawn chairs. To scouring through the Labor Day sales at Old Navy, with reckless disregard to the impact that our bulging bags have on Vietnamese laborers.

If you watched America on this weekend, you would think our leisure was consumed with the act of feasting, drinking, and shopping. And we do love to eat, drink and shop. But we have almost forty hours a week of leisure time to fill. Eating and drinking and shopping can only fill so much. We do eat about 2,600 calories worth of food each day, 500 calories more than we did forty years ago. Those 500 calories take time, and certainly count as leisure. We drink about four drinks a week on average, although some drink far more, and each drink takes time. And our credit card debit, as a nation, can attest that we love to shop.


Sometimes we do things with our leisure time to build ourselves and others up. About forty percent of Americans report they use some of their leisure time to attend church services of some sort each week! To feed their spiritual needs. Although when you drop self-report and look at attendance that is more like 20%. Either way… some some of us go to church for an hour or two each week. But what else do we spend our wealth of leisure time on? Mainly, it seems, we… watch….. TV.


Thirty-four hours of TV a week, in fact. We gorge ourselves on television. We absorb it while we chew our food, while we rest our feet, our eyes follow that screen until the moment we fall asleep. Our confused primate brains feel emotional connections with our favorite fictional characters, emotions that should be binding us to the person in the next easy chair.

We have our favorite dramas, and when the dramas get too heavy we can always switch to sitcoms. And if the sitcoms get too fake we can always move to reality TV, with reality scripted to fit in product placements for our favorite corn syrup soft drink.


And we fill our brains with this for 34 hours a week. Which, if you do the math, is about how much leisure time you have now that the labor movement has given you forty hour bread labor weeks. We have this leisure time in the palm of our hand. And I know that I am preaching to the choir, to a room of individuals who care enough to wake up and come to the UU Church on a Sunday morning. I know that most of you have a concept of intentional living, are thinking about living a value consistent life.


But on this weekend, a celebration of leisure that came at the cost of backbreaking work by the labor movement, I want to reiterate that leisure can take many different paths. Leisure might mean Fox News and HBO to most of America, but it doesn’t have to.


Leisure could manifest itself as a quiet afternoon spent reading Stienbeck.


Leisure may be sitting in a lawn chair, drinking a cold beer. It may be watching a *carefully selected* television show while your legs seahorse tail curl with someone elses.


Leisure could be a stroll through the farmer’s market rows of perfect peppers, and then the afternoon spent in a ten degrees too hot kitchen, making ethical food into a meal to feed your family.


Leisure could be taking a minute out of your day to sign a petition on a local issue, or spending two hours waving a poster board emblazoned with a peace sign.


Leisure could be the 3:53 seconds you spent watching John Kerry explain exactly what Syria is doing to it’s civilians.


Leisure could be the minutes of contemplative echoing silence you spend staring at the end of the video, contemplating what our government may do to Syria’s civilians.


Leisure could be putting your education to use, volunteering to tutor down at RareBreed or Ambassadors for Children, helping a child who have no one else to help them with their homework.


Leisure could be getting to church half an hour early to volunteer as a greeter, staying an hour after to put up tables.


It could be dedicating yourself to catching up on local events *before* you walk into the voting booth.


Leisure could be walking into the voting booth.


Leisure could be spending a day working on a disaster clean-up in a neighboring state. It could be dedicating yourself to serving on a non-profit’s board.


It could be bagging up potatoes for two hours at Crosslines.


Leisure could be checking in on a neighbor you know is going to want to talk for half an hour.


It could be inviting someone you know is struggling out for a cup of coffee.


These are moments of leisure, with as much authority as American Idol and Breaking Bad.


With as much authority as Heineken.


This is leisure, as surely as the Razorbacks game is leisure.


As surely as Dancing with The Stars is leisure.


Helen and Scott Nearing were hardcore, taking this to an extreme. They wrote that they were choosing to use their leisure time to work as educators to “help their fellow citizens understand the complex and rapidly maturing situation in the United States”. Their goal was to use their leisure time to “assist in building up a psychological and political resistance to the plutocratic military oligarch that was sweeping into power in North America”, and they used the time they had left over from bread labor for this goal. They used their leisure time.


I am not recommending that we all cut our personal leisure time out entirely. Not all of us can be as hardcore at being human as Helen and Scott Nearing. Human brains need down time, away from the chaos of an industrialized world. Let’s be clear… sometimes that means beer and a lawn chair. And sometimes an hour in front of a television is a good end to a long day.


But we can choose to live intentionally, using each moment of our leisure time in a way that makes sense. Considering what great sacrifices have been made for this leisure time to be a promised mandated right? Surely we can do better than we are currently as a nation.


We can use it in a way that speaks to self-edification, and perhaps we can use it to grow our world. We can give back, in part in the name of the protesters and picketers who have given us this precious time. It seems like the next logical progression in this communal discussion of labor and workforce and leisure in the United States.


To me, that seems the reasonable way to celebrate Labor Day.


Amber Culbertson-Faegre,

Member of 1st UU

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