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Labor Day, with Bread and Roses

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As I write this, on Labor Day weekend of 2022, unemployment is at a fifty-year low. Sections of restaurants are closed due to staff shortages; businesses are opening late and closing early due to staffing shortages. Some small businesses are giving up and closing their doors because they can’t find enough people.

Why the sudden shortage of labor? As we come out of the pandemic, many people who can retire are retiring. Many are cutting back from two or three jobs to one. Many who can work remotely are demanding to work remotely. In other words, something is happening, and my suspicion is that American writer Studs Terkel hit the nail on the head as it where when he wrote, “Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirits.”

Perhaps that’s the best angle to approach the current situation: It’s a spiritual problem — “Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirits.”

How do we find a way to make work large enough for the human spirit . . . for everyone?

Well, among labor activists, there is almost a creed, that came to national attention with the 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts Textile Strike, better known as the Bread and Roses Strike.

The phrase “bread and roses” occurred in a speech by the women’s rights activist Helen Todd: ”bread for all, and roses too,” she said.

A Minnesota poet named James Oppenheim was taken by Helen Todd’s idea, and published a poem by that name. The poem later became a song titled “As We Come, Marching, Marching.”

“Bread and roses” has come to represent that dual call of workers — human beings — seeking both livable wages and a flourishing, spiritually fulfilling life.

Bread and roses too.

What is happening with labor this Labor Day? It appears that more and more people are to the realization that Studs Terkel reached as he talked with working class Americans: ”Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirits.”

That’s a good challenge to face: How do we find a way to make work large enough for the human spirit . . . for everyone?

It takes each of us. From the “job creators” to the customers who see the human faces behind the name tags.

As those signs in work areas scream: Let’s start seeing workers.

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