So the topic of this year’s Themester, “@Work: The Nature of Labor on a Changing Planet,” might come across as an imposition: haven’t we had enough work already? Even as Themester co-chair this year, with my colleague Alex Lichtenstein, I sympathize with the objection. Were I able to tip the global balance of work and life, I’d surely weigh in on the side of the latter. But why should that be the case?
In the early 1930s, a young student of Martin Heidegger’s, Herbert Marcuse, asked whether, at the most basic level, we should even define work as an economic category. It’s a revealing question, because no doubt that is mostly how we think of work—it is something we are compensated for. That is why we fight so bitterly over wages and salaries, meticulously clocking minutes served, experiencing time in terms of efficiency and scarcity. Of course, many of us also see work more personally, as a career we pursue throughout our life, not just from 9 to 5. But even the word “career” tends to conjure images of the rat race sooner than a picture of salvation, whose afterimage we might recognize in that other, increasingly rare word for the work we do: our “calling.”
The question of “labor on a changing planet” reminds us that we are planetary creatures, too; that what we do has global consequences not only for the economy, but also for our natural and social history.
Indeed, if there is a polemic to this year’s theme, it is with our tendency to privatize our work aspirations to an all-too-pragmatic “career readiness.” Starting in kindergarten, Indiana distributes brochures to help our school children prepare for what they want to become: astronaut, firefighter, veterinarian—in the early grades, thoughts about career are filled with the joy of make-believe. As the grimmer metrics of standardized testing set in, channeling and filtering our human potential, work becomes a private fate, characterized by what Karl Marx called “alienation,” by which he meant a separation from our fullest understanding of ourselves as social beings. Our curiosity, our playful joy in an activity, the dignity of our crafts, all threaten to become private calculations in which we instrumentalize the time we spend manipulating symbols on our desktops, materials in our workshops, seeds in our fields, or faces across our counters.
Rather than attempting an overview of Themester’s diverse initiatives (see our comprehensive calendar of events), I want to highlight two events that illustrate its distinct approach to labor as a project we are working on together.
“Caregiving and the Future of Our Democracy” keynote by Ai-jen Poo 1-2:15 p.m., Friday, Oct. 16, Whittenberger Auditorium
On October 16, together with the Asian-American and Latino Studies Programs, we are cosponsoring the visit of Ai-jen Poo, MacArthur winner and director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), as part of a symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the 1965 Immigration Act. NDWA members are mostly immigrant workers, whose labor, rather than gathering them in factories or shops, disperses them among private homes. They have lacked a collective voice for realizing their “American” dream through their work. Ms. Poo’s innovative work with the NDWA has shaped new strategies for empowering immigrant labor.
One initiative, under the rubric of “alt-labor”—which refers to labor not regulated by the Roosevelt-era legislation assuring due process for workers seeking to bargain collectively—has sought to unite the NDWA with the main American labor federation, the AFL-CIO.
“Labor and Civil Rights: Bold Legacies and New Directions,” 7 p.m. Nov. 4, President’s Hall
In the spirit of this initiative, Themester’s “marquee event,” cosponsored with the IU Black Student Union, brings Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, to join us for a conversation with the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP and architect of North Carolina’s Moral Mondays Movement, on Nov. 4 in President’s Hall (tickets here).
The premise of this conversation is to host an event that not only reports on history that has already happened elsewhere, but also makes history here and now. Inspired by Dr. King’s recognition that labor’s struggles have been tied inextricably with those of the civil rights movement, Barber and Trumka will think aloud about how to innovate labor and social strategy, discussing, among other things, efforts within the AFL-CIO to bring together alt-labor groups like Ai-jen Poo’s NDWA with civil society groups like the NAACP, Sierra Club, and NOW, to reinvigorate a labor movement that built a robust, diverse and democratic American working class.
These events’ mixture of immigration, social justice, and environmental concerns, with the joy of working together to make intelligent change happen, speaks to the challenge set by Themester this year: to understand work not in opposition to life, but as an irresistible part of becoming who we are.