Monday, September 04, 2006

Bread and Roses: Labor Day

It's Labor Day. In honor of the day, I am linking to a very nice article about the Bread and Roses strike in 1912 in Lawrence, MA. The article is by Lynn Neeley in Workers' World, dated January 9, 1998. The strike itself was on January 12, 1912 and erupted over a cut in wages. It was unusual in its time for the participation of women. At the time, the AFL would not organize women or non-whites. So this spontaneous strike by the textile workers was not endorsed by the AFL. It was organized by the "Wobblies," the International Workers of the World, who organized labor with socialist ideals.


As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
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 go 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 life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.

As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.

As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days,
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
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.

Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
hearts starve as well as bodies; bread and roses, bread and roses.

Words by James Oppenheim
Thanks to

The workers were earning a mere $6 a week. When Congress passed a law limiting the work week from 56 hours to only 54, the mill owners cut the wages. At the time, this put the workers below starvation level, and they spontaneously went out on strike. The name of the strike, "Bread and Roses," came from the plea of the women workers to "Give us bread but give us roses." That is, they wanted not only a living wage, but leisure to enjoy the beauty of life: a mere 54 hour work week and a living wage.

In recent decades, labor unions have taken a beating in the popular press and the relevance of the unions seems to be fading. But without unions, we would not have the 40 work week, over time pay, or many of the benefits we now enjoy. At a time when managment held all the cards, they struggled against huge odds to rebalance power in the United States. Many scholars suspect that the intervention of labor unions prevented revolution in this country where, as happened elsewhere, the working classes might have risen up to seize a share of power and wealth by force. Thanks to labor unions and the federal laws that supported them, the redistribution of power and wealth that created our middle class happened under the rule of law.

So, on this Labor Day, let's give a nod of thanks to those brave union organizers and the workers who struck to demand Bread but also Roses.

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