Friday, October 8, 2010

Changing Times, Changing Language

One of the things that struck me last month at the Labour Day parade was how the language and terminology of work and the workers has been changing. When, as a young working man, I began to involve myself in the labour movement all the words and slogans pertaining to rights and benefits that had been most identifiably the basis of the movement since the beginning of the industrial age were still current and still had the same meanings.
But now. Imagine a workers' celebration without talk of 'us' against 'them,' nothing about 'the bosses,' no reference to striking for increased wages, better conditions, shorter hours, increased benefits. The only recognizable sloganeering is about pension rights, not so much demanding the workers' rights to a pension but crying out against the international conglomerates' ability to erode pension benefits almost at will. That's not imagination, that was the reality. Joe Hill should be raging in his grave.
But when our concept of work changes, as it does more and more, so must the language change. When work was considered as physical labour, the time spent doing so was important to a person's physical well-being. Now such activity is becoming less and less a part of our culture.
A person who spends an inordinate amount of time at his job is no longer considered a 'slave' but more likely a 'workaholic,' one who chooses to spend more time at work for whatever reason. Bosses and employers have become faceless entities without any presence against which to direct protests. And so the workers' language must change.
The real force for change and workers' protection must necessarily be one of revolution. The problem seems to be that the work force has been fragmented. There are no longer thousands of people working together in one place who can unite into a single entity. A lot of the work done for a large corporation is handled by a few persons operating machinery or computers; much of it is outsourced to small businesses or individuals under contract. The old terminology no longer applies.
A revolution that cannot gather together like-minded people in one place needs to be fuelled by language. The possibility of pamphleteering still exists but a far greater force would seem to be the newer electronic media. It has already started with petitions using e-mail and/or facebook. The continuing growth will see new terms and language.
An example of the changes in the labour movement is happening locally. The Workers' Art and Heritage Center is sponsering a project looking for new labour songs for the new labour reality. Tonight during the monthly Art Crawl (an open house of a number of art galleries in one district) one of its proponents was seen going up and down the street pulling a cart – emblematic of the old concept of work – but singing a song dealing with the more recent concept of labour.
A post-industrial society needs to express itself using not only the age-old concept of work songs but also the post industrial media.
And an information language for this information, post-industrial world.

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