Labor Day is not a marker for the end of summer; it’s not about mattress sales; and it wasn’t created as an excuse to break out the barbecue.
This will not be a history lesson. You can look up for yourself why Labor Day (or, alternatively, Labour Day) exists.
Today, we won’t talk about nonprofit arts organizations in 2023, except to say that many are signatories to union contracts for their workers. And, in a race to the expense bottom (following the lead of the corporate, profit-seeking members of their respective boards), they would rather cut costs than spend the personal capital it takes to raise funds.
We won’t talk about the fact that national office of Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) is currently not on strike, nor are the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA), the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), the Stage Directors & Choreographers Society (SDC), or the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). Nor will we mention that many of the members of AEA, AGVA, AGMA, SDC, and IATSE are also members of the Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG/AFTRA) or the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA), the two unions that have caused most film and television production to shut down.
We won’t even discuss the fact that all of these labor unions are affiliated with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the largest federation of unions in the United States and a supporter of the current work action against the studios.
This is not just a strike, something happening somewhere else. And most television- and movie-making is either godawful, spectacular, meaningful, boring, or some other adjective. Or all of the above. The shows are not the issue. The movies are not the issue. Even the viewing public is not the issue. Just as in the flailing, flopping, half-the-coffin-nails-hammered-in nonprofit arts sector, the art is not the issue.
The real issue is this: what the hell are we doing?
We work for many reasons. I subscribe to the notion that no one will probably ever know why we’re on this particular planet, in this particular galaxy, or even in this particular universe, at least until the sun burns out in 4.5 billion years. I’m Jewish, but not terribly interested in fairy tales that start “In a beginning…” (which, to me, sounds a whole lot like “Once upon a time…”).
Because of that belief and the fact that I am a privileged American and have more time to engage in wonder than 90% or more of the people on the planet, I have a philosophy about work. Simplicity aside, the philosophy stands that all work is “make-work.” Ultimately, unimportant but time-consuming tasks for which someone gets paid in order to pay someone else in order to pay someone else, etc.
The best kind of work causes joy and passionate expression. The worst kind of work involves unfairness, inequity, bloodlessness, and repetition. Exactly the kind of work that best suits robots and other machines. And now, robots do, because it’s cheaper, and that makes stockholders happy and want to buy even more stock and get even more wealthy.
In days not so far past, among faceless teams in construction, there was a pride attached to the placement and manufacture of each door, window, and wall. People who worked on a particular area of a skyscraper would point to an unseen window ledge 60 floors up and tell their friends that they were a part of that. Studs Terkel’s book, Working, dealt with the stories of just such people. These were workers who were happy and unhappy; crazed and bored; exhausted and hopeful; but most of all, they sought a seminal purpose. They needed something to do that paid the bills, sure, but in each case, their quest was for something to do that had meaning. Even if they had to invent the meaning where others might not have seen it.
There was a Broadway musical created based on that book. Listen to the song “Something to Point to,” by Craig Carnelia. I’m sure you can find a copy somewhere. And if nothing else, for Labor Day, read the book.
Two unions are on strike, hampering the studios’ ability to churn out the cheapest versions of entertainment you will abide. The studios seek to lower costs by eliminating huge portions of the workforce and churning out work in less time. They want to increase the use of AI-related technologies, eliminating even more people from the workforce.
One such piece of technology is one a viewer might not even notice: the virtual elimination of extras. The studios, by report, want to pay an extra once, for one day of shooting, and then use that image in perpetuity. Maybe it’s for the life of the movie. Maybe it’s for the life of all movies. Literally thousands of people would lose piecework if that were to happen. Thousands of people will have to find something else to do, regardless of whether it has meaning.
And life will become one step drearier and meaningless. And the rich get richer.
Who knows? I might not have the facts on that. I’m only writing what others have reported. And who knows? Maybe by the time you read this, the strikes will be over. But on this day, Labor Day, let’s remember that laborers should always, always, always have the opportunity to point to a window, a taco, a performance — a something — and feel like they have a purpose on this planet. Because purpose is a finite resource (especially when it comes to work) and there is nothing that can replenish it.
Based in Kirkland, Washington, Alan Harrison is a writer and speaker specializing in nonprofit organizations, strategy, the arts, and life politics. His columns appear regularly in major publications. Contact him directly at email@example.com.
If you’re feeling generous or inspired, just click on the coffee cup. You don’t have to, of course, but if you can afford it and find some value here, please provide the desperate need for caffeine.
Alan is always looking for good opportunities to write and consult for nonprofits that need a hand. And, of course, that elusive Perfect Opportunity™.
BIG NEWS: Alan’s new book, “Scene Change: Why Today’s Nonprofit Arts Organizations Have to Stop Producing Art and Start Producing Impact” will be published in January. CLICK HERE TO PRE-ORDER IN THE UNITED STATES. If you live in the UK, CLICK HERE. In other places, just use the ISBN code and your bookstore may be able to pre-order it for you: 978-1-80341-446-1.
A few more copies may be made available for those booking conferences, reading engagements, and speaking engagements. Recruit your local bookstore, conference panel, or boardroom to get a visit from Alan. Get on it! (Please.)