Yesterday was the first of May, and much of the world observed the holiday of May Day. Since ancient times, the beginning of May was celebrated as the end of the wintry cold half of the year. It marked the liberation of the world from that dreary time.
In more recent centuries, the first of May has become identified closely with a day to honour and rededicate our selves to labour rights – International Workers’ Day. Labour issues are not simply about work, as though we can cleanly separate work from the rest of our lives. No, how we work impinges on the much more basic value of freedom.
The labour focus of May Day began in conflict. It was in America at the end of the 19th century. Police responded to a major labour action by firing into the crowd, killing several strikers and wounding hundreds more. The resulting outrage sparked more support for positive change and a coherent movement began.
It is astounding today to consider the demands of the workers in that 1886 strike. They were trying to establish an eight hour working day. At that time, employers could and would force labourers to work for as long as sixteen hours a day. What kind of life do you lead if you must work sixteen hours a day? It is not slavery, but having no time that is your own is nothing like true freedom.
If we know anything about the abuses of workers during the earlier industrialization in England and other places, we will recognize that the possibility of organized labour and placing any limitations on work hours represented a huge step forward.
How many of us can even imagine being compelled to work 16 hours a day in an overcrowded, uncomfortable, unsafe, factory? There has been worse, of course. Can we imagine labouring in the cold wet dark tomb of a lead mine far underground? After a visit to the Speedwell Cavern, that image is indelibly etched in my mind. To think that many of the workers in such mines were children is unimaginable in its misery.
Throughout most of the developed world, we now see such conditions as barbaric. The changes that have occurred over the period of a few hundred years have been monumental. Labour laws now protect us from abusive work situations. Social support allows us to live decent lives even if we can not work.
Sadly, conditions for much of the world’s population are nowhere near as our own. Subsistence farmers may work almost constantly trying to scratch a living out of inadequate land with primitive tools. Working conditions in many places parallel what they were here several hundred years ago.
Most people in the developing world can not be said to be truly free, even if they are not slaves. Being tied to almost endless work just to survive is not freedom.
We in the developed world, of course, benefit from affluence, from democracy, and from protective regulations and support systems. We are as free as almost any people ever have been.
How free are we really though?
There are many ways to think about freedom, but one way to look at it is by considering the amount of free time we actually have – the time that is ours to do with as we please. If our time is spent entirely working and sleeping, then we have no free time and we are not free.
A study conducted a few years ago in the US showed that, on average, American have 35 hours per week of free time – that is time not spent working, sleeping, chores, and so on. So, despite all the moaning that the working world leaves no free time any more, Americans average 35 hours of actual leisure time – more than they have ever had before.
The study went on to ask how that leisure time is spent. One participant in the study said “Of course I don’t have any free time, because I spend so much of my time watching TV.” Fully half of Americans’ leisure time is spent in front of the television. Two and a half hours a day.
Most working people complain about work. I certainly did before I was a minister. No matter what I really wanted to do, there were things I had to do, meetings I had to sit through, plans that had to be made, experiments that had to be done, bosses who had to be obeyed and placated, papers that had to be written.
But in truth, I had a lot of freedom and a lot of time that I could use as I chose.
Even more importantly, I could make my own choices about the kind of work I did. I did not have to work in a company. I did not even have to work in the field I had chosen.
The prison I was in was constructed by my own choices – the choice to be affluent and the choice to be successful.
To be fair to me and everyone else who finds themselves imprisoned in this way, we are making our choices under tremendous pressure.
We live in a culture where we are surrounded by constant messages that we must buy more stuff to be happy - that we must have the right car, wear the right clothes, and look the right way. We know that to many people, we are valued for what we have and what we do for work, not on the basis of who we are or the quality of our presence.
To live in this way is not to live in freedom. We, living in the most affluent time with the most free time since industrialization began – we have given away our freedom to new taskmasters. The forces of our enslavement are more subtle now, but they are no less effective.
They are as close as the labels on our clothing. They are as pervasive as the advertisements everywhere we look. They are built into our conversation and our living.
Our freedom depends on our becoming aware of our confinement. Finding peace in our lives necessitates that we break free of that prison to use our time in ways that nurture us.
It is hard to imagine sometimes that the developed and developing worlds are part of the same planet. And yet, our fates are inextricably linked.
It is, at least in part, the prison of materialism in the developed world that perpetuates the enslavement of the people of the developing world. Our hunger for cheap goods keeps their wages low and their work hours long.
But in a larger sense, our own enslavement keeps us from seeing them as our brothers and sisters. In our constant focus on the material, we lose sight of connection, family, meaning, and purpose.
Eugene Debs was an American union leader around the beginning of the 20th century and perhaps America’s best known socialist. For his efforts against US involvement in the first World War, Debs was arrested, tried, and convicted. At his sentencing hearing – as he was about to be sent to prison on a ten-year sentence - he spoke these enduring words to the judge:
“Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
Let us recognize our own kinship with all living beings. Let us work for their freedom and our own. One will never come without the other.