As we come marching, marching in the
beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill
Are touched with all the radiance that a
sudden sun discloses,
for the people hear us singing: “Bread and
Roses! Bread and roses!”
As we come marching, marching, we battle
too for men,
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread
but give us roses!
As we come marching, marching
unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient
cry for bread
Small art and love and beauty their drudging
Yes, it is bread we fight for–but we fight for
As we come marching, marching, we bring
the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of
No more the drudge and idler–ten that toil
where one reposes,
but a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and
roses! Bread and roses!
-James Oppenheim, The American Magazine, (December, 1911)
Bread and Roses. Isn’t that what any human being has a right to? The 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike pitted immigrant workers from twenty-six different national origins but all of them Americans against the city’s textile mill owners. The mill owners had refused to grant an increase in pay despite the coarseness of the worker’s diet; mostly beans every day when food could be had. A great number of the workers were young women. Their lungs became cut up by a million different microscopic cuts as they worked day, after drudging day, at the looms. Most girls went to work at fifteen and sixteen and many were dead by age 25. The damage to their lungs made them unusually vulnerable to tuberculosis and any kind of cold or flu that might be going around. Many died. But the Strike won a modest wage increase and it instilled spirit into the textile workers. It was an empowering experience. It became known as the Bread and Roses strike and the poem was put to music and sung.
The poem reminds us that people want work to enrich their lives and work that comes with a measure of human dignity. They want work that gives them their bread: a family supporting wage in any historical era. But anyone who is not “reposing” but working for a wage for someone else for a living also wants to experience some of the joys of this life: family, faith, the arts, self-improvement via education, health, and a measure of rest and peace, and a few nice things to make a home a real home and not something to be ashamed to bring friends and guests to. They want a measure of job security, so that their lives will not be filled with worry over layoff or firing notices in this age of the “shedding of jobs.”
Unions are the greatest bulwark against working people in America lacking these things. As such, Unions, particularly those in the public sector where they are still strong are under heavy attack. Employers want to rid themselves of any organization that might be a voice for working people in the workplaces workers spend so much of their lives in. Unions are democratic: they elect officers and vote on major decisions. They are not only a voice for their members but also all of labor. They bring higher wages, more benefits, and promote a safer workplace. Unionized workers are often better trained, and more professional. Employers hate them because they eat into profits and their voices are heard much too much through collective bargaining. It is no coincidence at all that the erosion of the American middle class historically dates from the PATCO air traffic controller strike and the assault on Unions in the 1980’s, along with the growing global marketplace and the world trade deals we were told would be so beneficial to workers. Workers were told to re-train as they lost their older factory jobs. They did, and now many are losing those jobs too.
The big problem today is that corporate America and our government and too many working people themselves are accepting what singer-songwriter and social activist Utah Phillips has called “The Blame Pattern.” Right now it is downward. Workers themselves and their Unions are to blame for what happens in the marketplace when outcomes are bad. People point to those still employed and who have reasonable wages and benefits and say they ought to give up what they have because I do not have that anymore. Instead, Phillips sagely pointed out that the blame pattern needs to flow up. WE NEED TO DEMAND THAT THOSE THAT DO NOT HAVE A GOOD JOB AT REASONABLE WAGES AND BENEFITS OBTAIN ONE WITH DIGNITY AND THOSE THAT HAVE THEM KEEP THEM TOO! The blame pattern needs to reflect up right onto to corporate America where it has always been and simply needs to be recognized by the masses of the American people. Let’s ask why not?
Let us have Bread but let us have Roses too!