Labor of love

By Bill Castanier

Program explores relationship between work and culture

When youre mingling at the big Labor Day cookout on Monday — taking the day off work — pay attention to how long it takes some new acquaintance to bring the subject of work up, posing the question, “What do you do?”

“That’s the first question people ask,” said John Beck, a Michigan State University professor and co-director of the university’s Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives series. “Our work defines us. When you are out of work and unemployed, you lose your identity.”

Beck said the Our Daily Work program, now in its 17th year, explores that identity and the way work and culture intersect. Each year the program hosts authors, poets, artists and singers who represent that intersection. The program is cosponsored by MSU Museum’s Traditional Arts Program and the Labor Education Program within the School of Labor and Industrial Relations.

When describing the intersection of work and culture, Beck is quick to list a number of examples, from Michigan author Harriet Simpson Arnow writing about life on the line in Willow Run in “The Dollmaker;” to Diego Rivera’s mural at the Detroit Institute of Art; to Jack Nicholson playing Hoffa; to Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath;” to songs like Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It.”

Beck made this crossover himself while employed at a paper plant in the Upper Peninsula. While working on the graveyard shift, he wrote poetry on the stub paper rolls.

In the past, Our Daily Work has featured major art shows, including exhibits by former rail worker Mark Priest and worker-activist artist Ralph Fasanella (whose painting “Lawrence 1912: The Great Strike” hangs in a Flint museum); a memorial quilt project from the Oklahoma bombing honoring the government employees killed there and numerous “Brown Bag” lunch sessions focusing on everything from Joe Hill and trade union beauty pageants to Woody Guthrie and the Michigan State Police attacks
on “Wobblies” ( International Workers of the World).

The Brown Bag program, now in its 12th year, will host its 100th event this year.

One highlight this season is an Oct. 2 appearance by folksinger Peggy Seeger (sister of the legendary Pete Seeger), who will talk about women and work in traditional songs. She also will perform at the Ten Pound Fiddle concert series that evening.

On Sept. 24, Michigan Notable Book Award winner Steve Lehto will talk on how fraudulent newspaper stories about the 1913 Copper Strike and the Seeberville murders became folded into history. Lehto debunked many of those false historical notes in his book “Death’s Door,” which spurred the state to correct a historical marker at the site of a massacre.

This year, Beck said the program is building community through partnerships with other campus organizations, including the MSU Museum, MSU Law School, the Jewish Studies Program and the Center for Poetry.

He said the program helps attendees understand the complexity of work and workers, and it shows how workers often find art or create art in their workplaces, like workers who use drip-covered paint racks or the leavings of plastic injection molding machines to make works of art.

Beck said he first got interested in the history of labor when he was a literature major taking a class from the legendary MSU economics professor Charles “Lash” Larrowe, who turned him on to labor issues.

“Growing up in the Upper Peninsula, I never knew much about labor history,” he said. “The program has become a labor of love for me; it’s not what I do.”

The program, which may have started as a labor of love for Beck and recently retired MSU Museum folklorist Yvonne Lockwood, is becoming a campus institution, and its programs draw participants from numerous disciplines. Where else would you find programs on the Detroit Housewives Strike of 1913 (Sept. 17) and the Wobbly Visual Culture and its impact on today’s radical graphics (Nov.13)?

For a complete list of Our Daily Life/ Our Daily Work Programs go to http:// Programs&Services/dailylives.html

Dempsey chosen as Michigan Author

Author Dave Dempsey has been selected as this year’s winner of the Michigan Author Award. Dempsey, a City Pulse environmental columnist, was selected for his body of literary work, which relates to the environment and conservation. He has been writing on environmental issues for more than 25 years.

His latest book, “Great Lakes for Sale” asks and answers important questions about the diversion of water from the Great Lakes. He also has had two of his books selected for Michigan Notable Book Awards. His 2006 biography of former Gov. William Milliken was recognized as a 2007 Notable Book, and his 2005 book, “On the Brink: the Great Lakes in the 21st Century,” was recognized as a 2005 Notable.

Dempsey, who called the award “very humbling,” will be honored at the Michigan Library Association’s annual meeting on Nov. 6 in Lansing.