UCU Strike Poems 1 – What Work Is, by Philip Levine

What Work Is

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

Philip Levine, from What Work Is


The university that I work for is currently in conflict with the union that I belong to, the UCU, over Universities UK’s (UUK) proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

This has resulted in lecturers like me taking strike action.

You can read more about the reasons some of us have for taking this action here and here.

For the next few days of strike action I am going to be posting poems on my blog whose subject matter is the world of work.

On this third day of strike action we begin with Philip Levine’s masterful poem of rage and of hope, What Work Is.


You can follow the #USSStrike hashtag on Twitter here and the #UCUStrike hashtag here.

If you can take the time to retweet or share this poem via social media I would be so grateful.


The views posted in this blog are mine alone and do not represent those of my employer.



  1. Anthony, my Dad was a union president at the pulp and paper mill in our small Northern Ontario town,
    and your words compelled me to add my two cents… I hope that’s ok. Jerry.

    Becoming My Father

    .in the
    ,you are like
    two tears of amber

    onto a rock of the Shield
    sloping into the Sturgeon River
    ,the decision made, you looking like a teenaged
    secret agent, she a movie star, just after the War

    .placing a pot on the stove for the morning porridge
    ,a ramekin of rolled oats on the counter
    ,a bowl and spoon on the table, you sat
    there in the frozen moonlight
    across from your thoughts
    ,as only the shadow knows

    .getting up before anyone else on the street
    ,fondling sunshine and drinking Molson
    Canadian, you smoked cigarillos at Christmas
    time while cutting old Dusty’s hair

    .swimming with us all day long
    at Three Mile Lake you never tired
    and tucked us in each night
    ,never missed a day of work
    ,were forever and always a union man

    .drunk once
    ,at the “Petit Quebec”
    ,enamoured of Hallowe’en
    and little children

    .i smelled the Mill
    on your work clothes today
    .the sun had just broken
    through the silences
    of a small window, it
    warmed them up


    to me
    you are thunder
    in a blue sky
    ,you are the
    very definition
    of love


  2. Stand strong brother, yours is the only true path to freedom, the unified voice of common men and women that must continually rise against the smallness of the selfish and greedy few. The poets of this movement are the historians, the teachers, the voices that remind us of our duties as citizens in a democracy.

    Liked by 1 person

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