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A Poem for the Workers' Holiday

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

Below is one of the best poems that I know about labor. 

I think it's especially appropriate for the one National Holiday out of the year when we honor both workers and the labor movement.  The labor movement brought all of us such "basic" benefits as the 8-hour day, the 2-day weekend, lunch breaks, and workplace safety standards (you know, unlocked doors and fire escapes).  Once upon a time, the labor movement brought many, many Americans a salary that allowed a family to move into, and, if desired, to advance from, the middle class on one worker's salary.  The erosion of the labor movement has kept pace with the erosion of workers' salaries and the erosion of the middle class.  Today, many Pagans find themselves living in below middle-class conditions.

Today, many Pagans, and certainly I include myself, are conflicted about the cheap goods that we buy that are made in bad conditions overseas, by workers who don't have decent pay or decent working conditions (shirts, iPhones, appliances, toys for our children and grandchildren, etc.).  Years ago, we could "look for the union label, when [we were] buying, a coat, dress, or blouse," but NAFTA and other corporate-written treaties have shipped those jobs oversees, to places where there are no protections for workers.  Even if you try (and who has time to try when too many of us are working three part-time, no-benefit jobs?) it's almost impossible nowadays to buy a shirt (or anything else) made by union workers. 

In my Pagan utopia, everyone has a chance to engage in right-livelihood:  working at a job that gives them a chance to contribute to the community, earning a decent living in decent conditions, having time off to spend on spiritual practice, to spend with family and friends, to recreate, to have a cook-out or trip to the beach to mark Summer's ending, and having time to take a few weeks a year to get away from things and gain perspective.  Everyone gets their religious holidays off, if they want them, and everyone  has a say in how the workplace is structured.  My Pagan utopia isn't far from the labor movement's utopia.

Labor Day comes almost directly between two Pagan Sabbats:  Lughnasadah and Mabon.  The timing of this holiday, unlike May Day, the one other day devoted specifically to the celebration of labor, was a bit fortuitous.  Wikipedia says:

Following the deaths of a number of workers at the hands of the U.S. military and U.S. Marshals during the Pullman Strike, the United States Congress unanimously voted to approve rush legislation that made Labor Day a national holiday; President Grover Cleveland signed it into law a mere six days after the end of the strike. The September date originally chosen by the CLU of New York and observed by many of the nation's trade unions for the past several years was selected rather than the more widespread International Workers' Day because Cleveland was concerned that observance of the latter would be associated with the nascent Communist, Syndicalist[,] and Anarchist movements that, though distinct from one another, had rallied to commemorate the Haymarket Affair in International Workers' Day.

International Workers' Day, May 1st, is often considered a modern appropriation of Beltane. 

So we have two days to celebrate and honor workers, one on a Pagan Sabbat and one in-between the two Pagan Sabbats devoted to a celebration of the harvest, brought in by, of course, the workers.  I'm happy to celebrate all of them. 

Of course, Paganism is chock-a-block full of the Goddesses and Gods of workers:

Hestia:  Goddess of those who keep the hearth, domestic workers, nannies, chimneysweeps.

Hephaestus:  God of blacksmiths and iron workers.

Brigid:  Goddess of those who brew.

Athena:  Goddes of those who plan strategy.  (And I count Athena and Apollos as matron and patron of lawyers, and Ma'at as Goddess of those who work for justice.)

Odin:  God of communication workers.

Neptune & Oshun:  God and Goddess of sailors and those who fish.

Venus:  Goddess of sex workers.

Hecate:  Goddess of crossing guards, death counselors, and artists. 

Ceres/Demeter:  Goddesses of farm workers, gardeners, those who reap.

Jupiter:  God of meteorologists.

Mars:  God of soldiers.

Mercury:  God of financial workers.

Minerva:  Goddess of teachers, professors, and librarians.

Ptah:  God of those who are skilled in a craft.

Thoth:  God of scribes.

Feel free to add your own in comments.  My point is that Paganism has always worshipped Goddesses and Gods who are involved with labor.  Those Goddesses and Gods helped Pagan workers to see the merit in their jobs, to realize a component of the divine in what they did, to demand respect.  What do these Goddesses and Gods have to say to us today about labor and the people who make the shirts that we wear, pick the tomatoes that we eat, make the computers upon which we depend?

Robert Pinsky, a former American poet laureate, (and, Goddess knows, in a proper Pagan utopia, the poet laureate would get more attention than is now directed at the holder of that post) wrote this poem back in the late 1980s, when it was still vaguely possible to buy a shirt inspected by a union worker.


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.
Robert Pinsky, “Shirt” from The Want Bone. Copyright © 1990 by Robert Pinsky.



Last modified on
Tagged in: labor right livelihood
HecateDemeter is a woman, a Witch, a mother, a grandmother, an ecofeminist, a lawyer, a gardener, a reader, a writer, and a priestess of the Great Mother Earth.


  • Jamie
    Jamie Saturday, 31 August 2013

    I work in a factory, and my job is physically very demanding. It's also dangerous if you fail to appreciate the hazards and maintain situational awareness.

    I pray to Hercules for strength, and to Hephaestus and Athena to help my industrial machines run smoothly.

    A generation ago, the opponents of 'free trade' warned us that this day would come. And so it has.

    Thank you for sharing the beautiful poem by Pinsky. So appropriate.

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Monday, 02 September 2013

    I, too, add my thanks. I remember that catchy ad "Look for the Union label" set to the music of an older folk song. Everyone knows that America was able to win WWII because of our strength as an Industrial nation. So, back when Bush II was enthusiastically allowing corporations to outsource American jobs overseas, I couldn't help wondering "Doesn't anybody else think this is a BAD idea? Why aren't they saying anything?"

  • Jamie
    Jamie Monday, 02 September 2013

    Yeah, the Masters Of The Universe used the mass media they owned to maximum advantage. We were pitted against each other with wedge issues so that Mr. Righty and Ms. Lefty couldn't see that We The [ordinary] People have common interests as American citizens which transcend the Left/Right political paradigm. It's not that the wedge issues didn't matter, but they were used as distractions so that meanwhile The Powers That Be could offshore your job to a low-wage country. Collapsing tax base? That was easy to deal with. Their political enablers just kept borrowing trillions to maintain the illusion of prosperity. Gods help us all when the house of cards finally comes tumbling down. Imagine a continent-sized version of Detroit.

    Notice that President Clinton (whom I voted for twice) did absolutely nothing to preserve American manufacturing jobs, and President Obama (whom I also voted for twice) has already done many things that he once condemned President Bush [The Younger] for doing.

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Monday, 02 September 2013

    Yes, Jamie, you're right. I voted for them also, but it seems that you can't trust anyone once they get into office. On the other hand, I would never run for office myself; so it may be unfair to judge too harshly those who stick their necks out in that way.

  • Jamie
    Jamie Monday, 02 September 2013

    I sincerely doubt that any occupant of the Oval Office is really the most powerful person in the USA. What would happen to an American President who deviates from the script too much?

    Like they used to say in the 1940s Hollywood film noir that I enjoy so much, "He might slip in the shower and fall on some bullets."

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Monday, 02 September 2013

    Yes, like John and Bobby Kennedy. The 1940s played out in the 1960s.

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