January stands as a prominent month in labor history. This January, 2013, marks the 108th anniversary of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), as well as the 101st anniversary of the “Bread and Roses Strike” at the textile mills of Lawrence, Massuchusetts. This well known strike was organized by the IWW and was led primarily by immigrant women. The American Federation of Labor (AFL), and the United Textile Workers (UTW) tried to end the strike but were overridden by the rank-and-file workers and their own chosen immigrant leaders. That being said, the purpose of this particular offering is not to go into great depth into the history of the “Bread and Roses” strike. Rather, I want to speak of the significance of the idea of “Bread and Roses” and what that means to the Unions and workers of today.
It was quite possible, even probable, that the workers at this particular strike never used the phrase, “We want bread, but we want roses too”. Upton Sinclair first associated these words with the striking Lawrence workers in his book, The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest, written in 1916. Furthermore, the term “Bread and Roses” comes from a poem by Robert Oppenheimer written in 1911. But the idea of “Bread and Roses” signifies a particular longing of the poor, working class, and of a particular brand of Unionism. What is the meaning of this term and what does it signify in relation to workers and unions?
The Longing of the poor, working class for “bread and roses” speaks of the deep human desire, not merely for the necessities of life, but for the creation of, and participation in, a world, community, and society of beauty. Yes, we want bread. Yes, we want shelter. Yes, we want clothes to keep us warm. But the deeper part of our human nature also longs for nourishment. The desire for leisure, meaningful friendship, music, art, and the time to pursue the particular interests and hobbies that fulfill us and lead us down a course of wholeness lie at the heart of “Roses”. These are legitimate desires that need satisfaction and the working class must fight, not only for the right to the necessities of life, but also for the right to enjoy the things that often only the rich have the time and money for.
If we work 10 to 14 hours a day we don’t have time for anything other than cooking our food, cleaning our homes, and going to sleep. If we work at jobs that are unhealthy, dangerous, and overly grueling then our bodies will not be strong enough or healthy enough to enjoy “the roses” of life even if we did find the time. If we don’t make enough money to have access to music, books, and art then they remain outside of our grasp. The end of life should not be work, bread, clothes, or shelter. Rather these things should be the means that enable a deeper and more meaningful life. So, the working class organizes and fights for bread! Bread indeed! But also for Roses!
It is not insignificant that the AFL, which majors on bread and butter issues, failed to understand the desires and grievances of the rank-and-file workers in Lawrence in 1912. It is no suprise that the ALF sought to end the strike and speak on behalf of the workers, even when the workers did not authorize them to do so. On the flipside, it is no suprise that it was the IWW which organized this strike. A union which fights not only for bread, but also for roses; not simply for better wages, but for a better world. It was the Industrial Workers of the World that came in and stood with these workers; allowed woman to have leading roles, and recognized and encouraged rank and file chosen immigrant leaders. It was the IWW organizers Elizabeth Gurely Flynn and Bill Haywood that came to town when the strikers were being assailed and offered valuable organizing and fund raising help.
I do not write these things merely to glorify the IWW or villify the AFL. My purpose is to highlight two different kinds of unionism and what they mean for workers. The AFL sough to pacify the employers and finds no problem with the very system that creates such terrible conditions for workers. The AFL seeks simply to reform this system to make it bearable for workers in bread and butter issues. The IWW does not seek to pacify the desires of the employing class. Rather, the IWW, and solidarity unionism, stands for the desires and needs of the working class. The preamble of the IWW constitution boldly asserts, “the employing class and the working class have nothing in common”. In the system of capitalism this is the unfortunate case. The working class, and unionism, must seek more than better wages and benefits. We must be a voice for a new world where labor, resources, the means of production, and the goods produced are fairly shared and distributed.
The old union song “Solidarity Forever” declares, “we can bring to birth a new world in the ashes of the old.” Unfortunately, the majority of unions seek only to make the “ashes of the old” bearable to the working class. Providing just enough of the necessities to keep workers healthy enough and pacified enough, to endure an immoral system and keep on working. The IWW seeks the abolition of the wage system, the end of capitalism, and a system where workers themselves control the means of production, and where communities share the work, resources, and goods that are produced. It is time for workers to assert once again, “We want bread, but we also want roses”. We must tell our unions that this is what we want. And if our unions fail to listen we must do what the Lawrence workers did. Go on without them and recognize our solidarity with one another as the true union.