Monday, September 3, 2012

Labor Day: Organized Labor & Calico Critters

It wasn't until I was in my late twenties that I ever thought to reflect about what Labor Day actually meant or where it came from.  I wanted my kids to know the value of collective bargaining and community organization as a means of getting powerful people who aren't listening to start listening.  So this morning we played this story together with her Calico Critters.

While this version of the story is a dramatic oversimplification and doesn't address the way that the structures created to fight oppression can themselves become oppressive, I hope it starts a conversation with my 7 year old that we can continue.  Also, I will add that if the power relationships represented here don't seem realistic, then you should count yourself lucky for having worked for honorable employers.  For the rest of us who have worked bad jobs, in unsafe conditions for employers who didn't respect us or listen, Labor day has a particular meaning.

Story by Matt Lumpkin
Poses, set dressing and props by Eleanor Lumpkin

There once was a cat who ran a factory.  He made decisions about the factory and the animals that worked there from his office.

The animals who worked in the factory made refrigerators.  They worked hard together and sometimes had fun doing their work.

But when they were at work, they left their kids at home.

One day, at the end of a long day of work, the manager came down from his office to the factory floor.  Everyone stopped what they were doing to listen to what he would tell them.
     "What's taking so long?" he complained.  "You're way behind on your numbers!  We're going to stay here as long as it takes to get up to quota!"
     The workers were already tired and were very sad to hear this though they weren't surprised.  It was not uncommon for the manager to ask them to work long hours without telling them ahead of time.  But this was a particular problem for the white rabbit because her babysitter couldn't stay any longer than usual.  So she had to sneak out and ask her friends to cover for her.

They workers did take breaks, especially for special occasions like birthdays, but they had to take turns, and the manager would often come down and yell at them to get back to work.

Even when they worked longer days, when the manager brought their paychecks, they often didn't include the extra time they had worked.  The workers were very disappointed, but again, they weren't surprised.  This was the way they were used to being treated.  Many of them thought that this was the way all jobs and bosses were, so what was the use of resisting?

One night at the end of a long week of working 12 hour days, they were told they had to work extra hours again.  They were exhausted and started to make mistakes.  The mouse whose job it was to put the clear drawers into the refrigerators tripped and fell.  He was injured so badly he couldn't work.

He had to stay home laying down all day.

His friends were really upset because this never would have happened if they hadn't had to work such long hours when they were already tired.  They decided they needed to go and talk to their boss to see if they could make some changes that would keep this kind of thing from happening again.

When they went, their boss just blamed it on the mouse who got hurt and warned them that if they kept complaining they would be out of a job.  He even said that he would talk to his manager friends at other factories and keep them from getting another job from them.

The workers were very discouraged.  They talked to each other during breaks about it.  Their boss didn't seem to care about them or the problems he was causing.  What would make him listen?

One of the older cats realized that he would never listen to them until they did something that made him afraid he might loose something that mattered to him.  They knew that making refrigerators to sell seemed to matter a lot to him so they came up with a plan.

If any one of them complained or quit their job, they could be replaced.  But it would be hard to replace a whole factory.  If they all refused to do their job together, then that would surely get his attention.  They planned a strike: where no one would do their job until the boss listened to their complaints.

On the day of the strike, some of the workers came and stood out in front of the factory telling everyone how bad the working conditions were and what had happened to the injured mouse.  Some workers even brought their kids.

The boss got on the phone and made some calls to find out how long it would take him to replace the workers and how much money he would lose every day that the factory didn't make refrigerators.  That's when the boss got scared.  The next call he made was to the leader of the workers.

When they met, the conversation went very differently.  Instead of threats and demands, the boss listened.  The workers didn't get everything they wanted but they did get a guarantee that they would get paid for the time they worked, extra pay for work after their normal 8 hours, more notice before they would be asked to work more hours and a 1 hour break for every 8 hours they worked.

At the end of the meeting the boss and the leader of the workers shook hands.  The relationship between the boss and workers changed that day because the power in their relationship changed.  Before, the boss and the workers had thought the boss had all the power.  Now, they understood that the people, if they worked together, had some power too.

The workers working together called themselves a union.  The contributions that workers and workers united into unions have made is what we celebrate on Labor day.  From then on, new employees at the refrigerator factory learned about the union and the story of how they came to enjoy better jobs than they had had before.


  1. Oh, this is SO awesome, Matt! I like the nice little details you included (of course): the Boss holding his coffee mug as he tells the workers they must stay late. And is that a cigarette in the mouth of the Injured On the Job Mouse? Perhaps not entirely PC, but it would have been appropriate for that time. Now...I am waiting anxiously for the sequel. Can you do "On the Waterfront" with PillowPets? Or maybe the "Grapes of Wrath" with Polly Pockets? The possibilities are endless...

  2. Thanks Brigid. I'm not sure Polly would be able to do the final scene from Grapes of Wrath in the barn but I'd like to see how far we could get.

  3. Also, I'm pretty sure it's a whisker, but a cigarette works too.

  4. I also thought it was a cigarette. When does part two come out? You know, the one which documents the use of paramilitary forces to crush the calico-pullman car workers? :)

  5. I love the way you tell the story and how those cute Calico Critters portray it. It is so cute. And by the way, I think it is a whisker since there are two of them. The other side of his face do have this cigarette-like thing too.


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