May Day: What (more) about the workers?

Jill Segger
By Jill Segger
1 May 2010

May Day, early May Bank Holiday, the feast of Joseph the Worker, Labour Day. Whatever you choose to call this weekend, its common thread today is that of the dignity and rights of the worker. It is unfortunate that the mental image associated with May Day is one of grim ranks of military hardware and goose-stepping troops pouring past old men in medals. (It is surprising how closely all totalitarianisms come to resemble each other.)

But these few spring days, which also celebrate the coming of summer, provide us with the opportunity to reflect upon work, its meaning to our lives and our responsibilities to employers, employees, co-workers and the unemployed.

Work in the 21st century is no longer what it was in our parents' and grandparents' generations. More and more of us will have portfolio careers, choose self-employment, work from home, and suffer at least one experience of redundancy in our working lives.

The “job for life” is long gone and with that. comes the need for flexibility and re-skilling. I began my working life as a musician – if anyone had told me in 1975 that 20 years later, I would become a journalist, I would have though them mad. My music degrees were there to see me to my retirement.

Unfortunately, that loss of permanence – though offering real opportunities for growth and freedom – has also tended to loosen the bond of responsibility between employer and employee. A culture of getting as much as possible whilst giving as little as can be got away with has become widespread. This is not only a failure of ruthless managers in a highly competitive environment. Many employees seem to consider it a sign of weakness to give full value for their pay or to be sufficiently committed to go the extra mile from time to time.

Of course, if the work concerned seems dreary and pointless or if the management culture is indifferent to effort or well-being – for employment should be more than a bald economic relationship - then a lack of moral engagement becomes more likely. Where pay does not reflect either skill or realistic need, no worker is going to feel justly treated. Whichever party or combination of parties forms the next government should be pressed to introduce a 'living' rather than a 'minimum' wage. Let whoever has never worked hard, lived frugally, then felt the sickening fear mount as the month between one pay check and the next indicates looming debt, consider their criticism of that idea.

Too many employers in our increasingly materialistic and growth-obsessed society are demanding a level of work commitment which is damaging to family and community life. Workers required to give everything to their company are undermined both in health and self-knowledge and a significant number are choosing the downsizing which permits them to be active parents, partners and citizens. Work is important, but it is also part of a wide, overlapping series of responsibilities and actions which make us whole.

For many years of our lives, the ability and willingness to work hard is part of that wholeness. My own father – who shared the trade of Joseph the Worker – went out with a hessian hold-all of tools to work a nine hour day for five and a half days, fifty weeks a year. I am grateful for the unspoken example I was given that this is what was necessary to put a roof over our heads, wholesome food on the table and books into my hands. I never heard him complain or wonder if there was an easier way.

Unemployment deforms the lives it touches. To be unemployed is not only to be plunged into financial hardship; it brings a sense of being useless, unwanted and without a place in society. Hope and the maintenance of dignity is essential for those who are without work and it should be a duty on us all to look with understanding and compassion on all suffering this blight and to seek the means of campaigning for just solutions, for realistic training and a sufficient level of benefit to sustain the lives of families and individuals.

It is not constructive to buy into the tabloid demonisation of 'shirkers and scroungers'. There may be a few who fit that description, but most are wretched and long for the opportunity to contribute to family and society again with the minimum of delay. They neither need nor deserve hostility and disapproval in a time of distress

I count myself blessed to have the education and marketable skills which make me a reasonable living. But I also believe that imposes obligations. This testimony to the life of the Quaker Stephen Hobhouse, written by Hertford and Hitchen Monthly Meeting in 1961, is a model and, perhaps, a rebuke in that regard: “Disturbed by the contrast between the luxurious comfort which he sometimes experienced in visiting the homes of wealthy Friends, and the hard lives of ordinary working people...he took a small flat in a block of workers' dwellings in a poor part of London because felt that his discipleship of Jesus called him to share their life as much as he could, and also to open the eyes of his comfortable friends to the way in which the great majority of people had to live”.

Not many of us would be capable of following Hobhouse’s example in a literal sense, but it should be within our grasp to absorb and put into practice the spirit of his choice according to our own situation and attributes. There should be no refuge of indifference nor hiding place in complacency. Neither can we afford to become stuck in work-related resentment or to permit work to take over our humanity.

So whatever you do this weekend – dance round a maypole, attend a Trade Union celebration, potter in the garden, visit the family – may it bring you refreshment and renewal for the return to honest work, held in an honest perspective. Because “Who sweeps a room as for thy laws, makes that and th'action fine”.

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© Jill Segger is a Quaker and Ekklesia's associate editor. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is also a composer. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger

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