Labor Day

Labor Day Poetry

(Source: Labor Day Poetry)

Poetry on Labor and Protest


Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The woodcutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day-at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.




If a task is once begun,
Never leave it till it's done.
Be the labor great or small,
Do it well or not at all.


The Factory Girl
(By Walter V. Holloway)

When the trembling East is beginning to blush
With the rosy red of morn,
And the World holds her breath in a solemn hush
As another day is born.
I am startled from sleep's illusive dreams
By the factory whistle's imperious screams,
Which seem but an echo of yesterday --
So soon has the short night passed away.
A child was I in my beautiful dream,
In my old home far away,
Where I strayed on the banks of a laughing stream,
Through the slumb'rous summer day,
And gathered the flowers that blossomed there,
With never a thought of work or care.
While the birds above in the murmuring trees
Poured their joyous songs on the perfumed breeze.
Why is it, I ask, that the birds are free
To flit over vale and hill,
While I a life-long slave must be
In a noisy, squalid mill?
Does God love the birds, and hate me so
That He fills my life with work and woe?
Or can it be that there is no God,
Save the factory master's cruel rod?
But God, or no God, I must be in my place,
When the heartless wheels begin
To turn the machine in its tireless race,
More wealth for its lord to win.
From my hurrying hands, with a fiendish roar,
It snatches its food and shouts for more --
"More food, more food, for my sateless maw;
More gold, more gold, is my master's law."
No matter how weary my arms may grow,
No matter how numb with pain,
If I slacken my pace the machine seems to know,
And shrieks in its wrath again:
"More food, more food, for my sateless maw;
More gold, more gold, is any master's law."
Till the soul of the ghoulish machine, to me,
Seems to laugh at my helpless misery.
All day the demon laughs and leers.
Till my heart grows sick with fright;
And ever the taunt rings in my ears --
"I will have your soul to-night;
For my Soul and the master's soul are one,
And I'll come for your soul when the day is done.
More food, more food, for my sateless maw;
More gold, more gold, is my master's law."

Berkeley, Calif.


The Little Textile Worker

You may find him in the East and in the South,
This small child slave. His little eyes
Look out aweary on the world. His little mouth

Is hard and old, in babyhood; his shoulders droop.
But skinny hands fly at the broken threads,
Tie up theknot, undo the tangled loop

Unerringly, with quick, machine-like skill.
Quick-witted hands. Only they may live. The baby promise
Of all other human faculties the great machines soon kill.


(Edgar Guest)

Somebody said it couldn't be done,
     But he with a chuckle replied
That "maybe it couldn't," but he would be one
     Who wouldn't say so till he'd tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
     On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing and he tackled the thing
    That couldn't be done, and he did it.

Somebody scoffed: "Oh, you'll never do that;
     At least no one has ever done it";
But he took off his coat and he took of his hat,
     And the first thing we knew he'd begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
     Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing and he tackled the thing
     That couldn't be done, and he did it.

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
     There are thousands to prophesy failure;
There are thousands to point out to you, one by one,
     The dangers that wait to assailyou.
But just buckle in with a bit of a girn,
     Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start to sing as you tackle the thing
     That "cannot be done," and you'll do it.


The Toiler
(Theodosia Garrison)

Nay, let me play a while ere day grows late.
So brief the sunlight and this task so great,

What wonder that I yearn to drop the strand
And mar the pattern with a ruthless hand

Of this I weave, and, in the weaving, hate!
What profits it if, long compelled to wait,

At twilight by the finished work I stand
Too weary for that gipsying I planned?

Nay, let me play a while ere day grows late.
My truant comrades call without the gate,
"Ah, little sister, throw a jest at fate,

And laugh, and join us." All the spring-thrilled land
Lures me with sweet insistence and command.

Taskmistress Life, be once compassionate,
Nay, let me play a while ere day grows late.


(Carl Sandburg)

The policeman buys shoes slow and careful;
the teamster buys gloves slow and careful;
they take care of their feet and hands;
they live on their feet and hands.

The milkman never argues;
he works alone and no one speaks to him;
the city is asleep when he is on the job;
he puts a bottle on six hundred porches and calls it a day's work;
he climbs two hundred wooden stairways;
two horses are company for him; he never argues.

The rolling-mill men and the sheet-steel men are brothers of cinders;
they empty cinders out of their shoes after the day's work;
they ask their wives to fix burnt holes in the knees of their trousers;
their necks and ears are covered with a smut;
they scour their necks and ears; they are brothers of cinders.


The Factories
(Margaret Widdemer)

I have shut my little sister in from life and light
(For a rose, for a ribbon, for a wreath across my hair),
I have made her restless feet still until the night,
Locked from sweets of summer and from wild spring air;

I who ranged the meadow lands, free from sun to sun,
Free to sing and pull the buds and watch the far wings fly,
I have bound my sister till her playing-time is done --
Oh, my little sister, was it I? -- was it I?

I have robbed my sister of her day of maidenhood
(For a robe, for a feather, for a trinket's restless spark),
Shut from Love till dusk shall fall, how shall she know good,
How shall she pass scatheless through the sinlit dark?

I who could be innocent, I who could be gay,
I who could have love and mirth before the light went by,
I have put my sister in her mating-time away --
Sister, my young sister, -- was it I? -- was it I?

I have robbed my sister of the lips against her breast
(For a coin, for the weaving of my children's lace and lawn),
Feet that pace beside the loom, hands that cannot rest,
How can she know motherhood, whose strength is gone?

I who took no heed of her, starved and labor-worn,
I against whose placid heart my sleepy gold heads lie,
Round my path they cry to me, little souls unborn,
God of Life -- Creator! It was I! It was I!


(John Milton)

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask; But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait."


(Edgar A. Guest)

I knew Ket and Knudsen, Zeller, Zeder and Breer.
I knew Henry Ford back yonder as a lightplant engineer.
I'm a knew-'em-when companion who frequently recalls
That none of the those big brothers were too proud for overalls.

All the Fishers, all the leaders, all the motion pioneers
Worked at molds or lathes or benches at the start of their careers.
Chrysler, Keller, Nash and others whom I could but now won't name
Had no high-falutin' notion ease and softness led to fame.

They had work to do and did it. Did it bravely, did it right,
Never thinking it important that their collars should be white.
Never counted hours of labor, never wished their tasks to cease,
And for years their two companions were those brothers, dirt and grease.

Boy, this verse is fact, not fiction, all the fellows I have named
Worked for years for wages and were never once ashamed.
Dirt and grease were their companions, better friends than linen white;
Better friends than ease and softness, golf or dancing every night.

Now in evening clothes you see them in the nation's banquet halls.
But they earned the right to be there, years ago, in overalls.


(Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.

His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate'er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.

Week in, week out, from morn till night,
You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
With measured beat and slow,
Like a sexton ringing the village bell,
When the evening sun is low.

And children coming home from school
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge,
And hear the bellows roar,
And catch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing-floor.

He goes on Sunday to the church,
And sits among his boys;
He hears the parson pray and preach,
He hears his daughter's voice,
Singing in the village choir,
And it makes his heart rejoice.

It sounds to him like her mother's voice,
Singing in Paradise!
He needs must think of her once more,
How in the grave she lies;
And with his hard, rough hand he wipes
A tear out of his eyes.

Onward through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees it close;
Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a night's repose.

Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and though


The Song of the Working Children
(George W. Priest)

Grant us but rest, to hide our haggard faces;
The brute evicts our souls for daily bread --
We children of the drear and noisome places,
Of joy and beauty disinherited.
This cruel Nation has worn out, defaced us
Ere childhood's happy playtime should have sped;
As well had fate, with careless blindness, placed us
With savage and benighted tribe instead.
We watch the somber garments, higher growing,
And dream of silk's and satin's wondrous sheen:
Weary we make our exits, many knowing,
But fewer caring what our fate has been.
O men of wealth and power, little fearing,
When all Earth's deeds are done and trumpets blown;
When, stripped of all pretense, for final hearing
Your souls stand bare before the Maker's throne:
When long-loved idols are, fast-broken, falling,
And little's honored that on earth appears:
May God not hear our plaintive voices calling
Down the accusing reaches of the years!

(Source: Labor Songs by Mimi Yahn)


Tune: "Midnight Special"; Words by Mimi Yahn, 1990, 1991

Let the Union's spirit
Take ahold this land,
Let the Union's power
Fill every woman and man.

Yonder comes my steward,
Got a grievance in her hand,
She come to see the boss man;
You shoulda seen the way he ran.

Get on board the Union
Don't be left behind,
Don't be standing by your lonesome;
The boss'll get you if he can.


The devil's got his helper,
Your back he's always out to stab;
You know they call this creature
A low-down union-bustin' scab.


Don't be fooled by slick words,
Don't be fooled by corporate cons;
They'll always try to split us,
But don't forget which side you're on.


The comp'ny's greedy for their profits,
Think they own 'most everything;
Well, there's one thing that they can't own:
Union solidarity!




Words and music by Mimi Yahn, 1989, 1991

Oh, I'll tell you a story of our government,
A story of red tape and bureaucracy,
A story that'll make your hair stand up;
It's the story of the Unknown Wobbly.

Oh, look alive, boys, you FBI boys.
If you're quick enough you just might find
Those fingerprints, boys, those fingerprints;
Yes, the prints of the Unknown Wobbly!

Well, they murdered Joe Hill in 1915;
They framed him on charges of homicide.
But the greatest crime of all to them
Was the songs that he wrote and sang.

Joe Hill said don't mourn, organize;
And scatter my ashes to the merry winds.
So they sent them in packets all over the land
To good Wobbly folks everywhere.


Well, two years went by and one packet remained
At the Wobbly headquarters in Chicago,
Till one day the FBI ordered a raid,
So they threw a stamp on it and mailed it.

The Espionage Act had just been passed
And the Postmaster knew what to look for;
When he saw that subversive packet come through
He sent it to you know who.


Those dangerous ashes they caused quite a stir,
They poked 'em and pushed 'em and prodded 'em,
And they dusted that packet for fingerprints
But they couldn't tell which were the Reds'!


The FBI boys, they worked on that packet
Till World War II came and stalled them,
So, in '44 those ashes were transferred
To the folks at the National Archives.

Well, it wasn't until '88 that the Archives
Decided to do some spring cleaning;
So, they let the Wobblies reclaim what was theirs
And at long last Joe's ashes are back!

Oh, the tale of those ashes spanned seventy years,
But that packet remains a great mystery
And that's why the Feds kept the envelope:
To identify those damned fingerprints!

Oh, look alive, boys, you FBI boys.
If you're quick enough you just might find
Those fingerprints, boys, those fingerprints,
Yes, the prints of the long-gone Wobbly!



(Original by the Almanac Singers, 1941;
new verses by Mimi Yahn, 1990, 2000)

The boss comes up to me with a five-dollar bill,
Says, "Get you some whiskey, gal, and drink your fill."

Get thee behind me, Satan,
Travel on down the line.
I am a union woman,
Gonna leave you behind.

The big corporations say their profits are down,
Say they gotta cut our wages or they'll leave this town.


The union busters tell us that we got to realize
That the way to heaven is to privatize.


You know, those plantation bosses wanna work you to death,
But the Avondale workers said, "Enough is enough!"


If you work for the City down in New Orleans
You won't even earn enough for to buy some rice and beans.


The politicians come to us on Labor Day,
Say, "Vote for me and I'll raise your pay."


If anyone should ask you your union to sell,
Just tell him where to go, send him back to Hell.


(Note: Chorus and first and last verses by the Almanac Singers, who first sang it for the striking Ford workers in Detroit in 1941.)


This page was last updated August 26, 2003.