Bread Labor

This weekend we will be celebrating Labor Day across this nation. The battle for worker’s rights in this country has been of epic proportions, fought in picket lines and folk songs lyrics. While great improvements have been made in the quality of worker’s conditions and rights, the struggle for labor rights is not over. The battles for human conditions are still ongoing in many trenches. There are still welfare dependent masses who are working part-time, 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 as disposable. 

Worker’s rights in the United States have come forward dramatic paces in our country’s short life. Labor Day as a national holiday was designed to exhibit “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” to the public. The initial goal was to exhibit the strength of labor. It was a time to march, fill the streets. 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.

Labor Day has changed over the years. In the 1950s nearly 35% of workers were in unions, while that number is approximately 10% now. Labor Day, once primarily a day for marches and parades, has also changed. Look around this weekend and you will see a lot of people with their feet up, grilling burgers. 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 has become a national day of leisure to many. (There is still a parade on Monday, and a huge picnic. I strongly encourage you all to attend!) 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 badass 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 on the cusp of a three day weekend devoted to leisure. To Barbeque, 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 and shopping. And we do love to eat, and to shop. But we have almost forty hours a week of leisure time to fill. Eating and shopping can only fill so much. What else are we doing with this “spare time”? 

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 attendence 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. 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. I know that most of you have a concept of intentional living, are thinking about living a life based on value consistent decisions. 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. Part of what has been given to us, part of what we are celebrating on Labor Day, is the choice of how to manifest our leisure time. 

Leisure could manifest itself as a quiet afternoon spent reading Stienbeck. It may be watching a *carefully selected* television show curled on the couch with your family. Leisure could be a stroll through the farmer’s market rows of perfect peppers. 

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

Leisure 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 picking up litter at a local stream or 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 or inviting someone you know is struggling out for a cup of coffee.

    These are moments of leisure, with as much authority as Game of Thrones or The Bachelor or hours spent playing Fortnite. 

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 go as hard 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 enjoying a good movie or playing videogames. And sometimes an hour in front of a television is simply 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 fits our values. Considering what great sacrifices have been made for this leisure time to be a promised mandated right? 

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.  It seems the reasonable way to celebrate Labor Day.

This homily was presented in September of 2019 at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Springfield. It was adapted from a sermon written by AJ Fox in September of 2013.

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