Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

May Day Musings: From Fertility Rites To Workers Rights

Winding the Pole by Micdsphotos via Flickr Creative Commons License

May Day always confused me.  Holiday around the world to celebrate workers rights, non-event in the US.  Actually, May 1st is multiple holidays.  There are a collection of holidays of Pagan origin in Europe that celebrate spring, and include the Maypole dance, back from an earlier age before pole dancing became adult for traveling executives.  Then again, fertility rituals were a large part of pagan culture.   For example, in one Celtic myth the king would have sex with the goddess Brigid in her “hag form” in order to ensure prosperity of the kingdom.  Talk about taking one for the team!  (Ok, “she would resume her maiden form after his initial embrace” but even so.)  The king was “doing what it takes” for the good of the country in accordance with the prevailing value system.  It kind of reminds me of the manager or executive who does what it takes for the good of the company, where the bounds of acceptable behavior are again dictated by the prevailing company culture.


Musing #1: International Workers Day

A corporation is like an idol in that both have value systems that can change with circumstance, and both act as institutions to perpetuate their own interests.  The details of corporate culture vary greatly, but all share the same need to make money, and there isn’t really any reason why a corporation won’t push its employees to do more work for less money.  The other aspect of May Day is international workers day, which commemorates the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, which occurred after an unknown person threw a dynamite bomb at police as they dispersed a public assembly during a strike and demonstration for the eight-hour workday.  (Clearly some of the Occupy protestors on this May first were also not content with peaceful protest, and also attacked the police.  Luckily, there was no police massacre this time.)

As a kid, my father explained to me it was a day for workers rights.  “What about the managers?” I asked.  They don’t count – they work for the company.  I have a false memory of dad explaining to me about the “company man,” as the guy who will do whatever the company asks of him.  (I think it’s a false memory, because my dad doesn’t talk that way.  He probably explained it in a different way, and my brain has re-imaged it in terms of the “company man.”

But the basic question remains – what about the managers and executives?  Even in its weakened state, there is a labor movement that pushes for better working conditions for employees.  For example, earlier this year I wrote about the after-hours email ban at Volkswagen that was negotiated by the German Trade Union.  But the after-hours ban does not apply to Volkswagen executives, who probably need an improvement in working conditions more than the factory workers.

Who speaks for management?

This issue of the eight -hour workday – it’s still something we are fighting about 125 years later.  What does that even mean in the information age when many people are expected to be on call 24/7, and after-hours email has become an ingrained habit for many people?  Earlier in the year, I wrote about the after hours email ban implemented by Volkswagen as a concession to the German Trade union to improve working conditions.  But the after-hours ban does not apply to the executives.  It’s funny – Henry Ford, one of the greatest industrialists of all time implemented a 40 hour week for his factory workers because studies found that working longer hours led to a decline in productivity.  And three months later, he implemented the same system for office workers.  (For more, see this great article by Geoffrey James published in Inc.)

Are managers and executives stuck just taking what the company has to offer?  Certainly the pay is higher, but so is the stress and so are the hours.  The very idea of managers banding together and demanding a shorter working day is absurd.  Managers are too closely aligned to the company, and it is there primary responsibility to drive execution of the company strategy, and maintain the essence of the written and unwritten rules of company culture.

Nevertheless, managers and executives can choose their level of devotion to the company.  It is one thing to be professional, and to do the best job you can do.  It is quite another to make the company the top priority, ahead of family and personal health.  As I have written previously, overly identifying with the company and a company-first value system are signs of Corporate Idolatry.

Musing #2: The Celtic Festival of Beltane

The Festival of Beltane took place on May 1 in Pre-Christian Ireland and Scotland, the halfway point between the equinox and solstice, and was an elaborate celebration of fertility, renewal, and bonfires.  I love the internet.  It gives access to these great college essays, where someone clearly has researched the topic and gives a nice, well written summary of information I could only get by reading a lot of original source material.  The essay I reference above is linking the Celtic fertility goddess Brigid with St. Brigid  of Kildare.  The nameless author at UNC (for goodness sakes, put your name on your essay!) that monks in the middle ages converted the stories of this fertility goddess into those of a nun in early Chrisitian Ireland.  And one of the key transformations was in the area of sexuality.

Sex was not something the Celts shied away from in their literature or in their art. It was only with the advent of Christianity in the fourth or fifth century, the replacement of the Druids with Christian holy men and women, that sex became something to be avoided for sanctity’s sake.

Beltane Fire Festival by Calum MacÙisdean via WikiMedia CC License

And in a similar way, I suspect the wild fertility rituals in Northern and Central Europe became replaced with the Maypole dance.  The Beltane Fire Festival is an example of the fertility ritual being returned in the form of modern dance and great pageantry.  It looks very cool and very sexy.

Closer to home, my wife helped my daughter picked flowers from our garden for a May Day basket that her third grade class will deliver to neighbors.  Now that is a great people-first tradition!