There is this wonderful woodcut that I came across a while back called “8 Hours.”* It is a triptych, really, and there are three images with the following captions: 8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what we will. I love this woodcut, in part because it resonated with my own feelings about the importance of rest and of Sabbath time. But I always found myself wondering–where did it come from?
It turns out that this woodcut has its origins in the Industrial Revolution, and in particular, in the fight for the 40-hour work week in Britain. A man by the name of Robert Owen came up with the slogan during a campaign in 1817 for workers rights.
Long before Robert Owen, however, laborers in America were agitating for a 10 hour work week. As early as 1791, Philadelphia carpenters were organizing for a shorter work day. By 1835, Irish “coal heavers” from Philadelphia had joined them with their modest proposal for limiting the work day to the hours of 6am to 6pm, with 2 hours for meals. By 1846, the 8 hour day had gained traction, but it wasn’t until the 1880s that workers began to organize in force to demand a limit to permissible work hours.
Despite an organized movement for workers rights, many laborers didn’t see the results of the 8-hour-day campaign until well into the 20th Century. Until the Adamson Act in 1916, which established a universal 8-hour work day with provision for overtime pay, the 8-hour day was applied piece-meal at best. The Adamson Act was further strengthened under the New Deal provisions, and has become more or less standard practice today.
Personally, I find this fascinating, not the least because I had never truly appreciated or even understood the point of Labor Day until I started reading about the Labor movement. But it also got me thinking–despite the hard-won fight for the right to a 40-hour work week, how many people living in our country today truly experience the gift of rest from labor?
Because like many middle-class families, ours depends on two salaries to get by, which means that the housework that keeps our family going is squeezed into the hours that would otherwise go towards rest. All of the cleaning, cooking, washing, straightening–like many families, these chores, which truly are a full-time job in themselves–are held over, to be done on a day or at a time that otherwise would be devoted to family or to rest.
And my family is pretty lucky as far as these things go. We can afford to have someone come and help us keep our house clean. We have two very flexible jobs that allow us to juggle our schedules when the kids are sick or an evening meeting comes up. We are able to cover what needs being covered, and sometimes even have a little time to rest together in. We have enough time to plan our meals for the week, to drive to a reputable shopping center in order to make sure that there is good, healthful food on the dinner table every night. Which means we don’t have to rely on the cheap prepackaged food that would save us time if we didn’t have it.
For folks living on SNAP benefits out of necessity, these kinds of intangible benefits make the difference. A single mom on one salary has to work that much harder to provide the same meal that we have for dinner, not only because she is working with less, but because she likely doesn’t have the same flexibility and support at home. She likely can’t share the chore list with someone else, or take a break from her child when she needs a minute. The time she takes to make dinner, to go shopping, to plan the week is more expensive than my time, because her time is all that she has.
In their book, Scarcity: Why having too little means so much, author Sendhil Mullainathan explores the ways in which insufficient resources (time, money, food, and more) create systems that serve to keep people poor, stressed, and inefficient. And I find myself reflecting on this reality as our family continues with this experiment. Because while our family may be choosing to limit our monetary resources, we still benefit from the abundance of time, flexibility, support, and other resources that the middle-class takes for granted. The longer this experiment continues, the more evident it is that there is more to poverty, more to hunger, than access to food. This is less an issue of resources than it is an issue of morals. And in particular, the same question that motivated the labor movement of the Industrial Revolution: do all people have a right to rest, a right to fair pay, a right to conditions that allow for abundance?
I continue to find myself reflecting on Isaiah 58, which was read on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent:
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
God requires much more of us than empty platitudes and promises of solidarity with those who experience insecurity–God calls us to lift our hands and do the work of justice. God calls us to lift up the cry of the poor, until all people hear it and respond with the mind of Christ. Then, and only then, can we begin to honestly address the disparities that leave so many good and hardworking people struggling to keep up in a world that is increasingly leaving them behind.
*Update 9/1/2016 I have since learned that this woodcut was created by Ricardo Levins Morales, whose amazing work can be found here: http://www.rlmartstudio.com