I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately, the ones we hear, the ones we tell, the ones that shape us. In her extraordinary book, “Braiding Sweetgrass,” Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about the power of the stories of her Potowatomi tradition, how they have shaped her understanding of the world and even informed her life as a plant scientist. She writes of her people’s teachings about the earth as gift, the gift economy, and the potential transformation this can bring in the relationships between humankind and the rest of creation. Then she writes something that has stuck with me since I read it: “The stories we choose to shape our behaviors have adaptive consequences.”
“The stories we choose to shape our behaviors have adaptive consequences.”
Religious communities tell stories. Even for traditions that share a common scripture, how these stories are held and which stories are held most dear shape the behaviors and beliefs of those communities. Stories can bring us together, remind us we are loved and challenge us to be our best selves on behalf of the common good. Stories can also be weaponized and used to perpetuate the status quo or demonize the neighbor.
Workers and their organizations have stories too. While Labor Day too often becomes just another day off at the end of the summer, it is a reminder to tell our stories. Especially today, when so many don’t even know these stories, when counter-narratives are coming at us daily from Washington and corporate America, we desperately need to tell our stories. We need to tell stories from the early days of the labor movement, when workers risked their lives to organize and demand greater dignity and justice. We need to tell the stories of those who stood up to red-baiting and congressional hearings. We need to tell the stories of workers in the South who organized clothing factories and textile mills that had moved to escape the unionized North. We need to tell the stories of workers of color who took on not only corporate America but white privilege inside the labor movement and reshaped it into a force for both worker justice and civil rights.
And we need to tell the stories of workers right now, standing up in worker centers and labor unions, still organizing and winning justice in remarkable ways. In every corner of the country, workers are taking on the threats to dignity and justice in our day. Immigrants and farm workers, Amazon warehouse staff and construction workers, teachers and health care workers, all are building on the labor stories of the past and writing their own stories through struggle. Telling these stories has adaptive consequences, they have the power to inspire and empower us.
The Trump administration and those who support it would like to tell a different story, a story of a different America, a story where workers prosper out of the kindness of the corporate elite and the blessing of the free market. But this story is a tall tale, told not to entertain but to deform us, to make us forget the truth of our deeper stories. This is one of those weaponized stories, packaged and sold to young and old alike.
Labor Day is a time to take on this corrupting story with the real stories of labor.
Labor Day is a time to take on this corrupting story with the real stories of labor. As people of faith, it’s a time to make the connection to our own stories of the value and dignity of work and workers. It’s a time to open our eyes a little wider and see the workers around us that are organizing right now that we might be inspired. It’s a time to find our place in today’s struggle for worker justice and hold these stories close.