Sunday, September 05, 2010

Bread and Roses

"Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes. Hearts starve as well as bodies; Give us bread, but give us roses". — James Oppenheimer

In 1912, thousands of immigrant textile workers in Lawrence, Mass. went on strike protesting grim working conditions and a cut in their wages. The strikers, mostly women and girls, had a solidarity that crossed ethnic lines and that endured in the face of violence.

The writer James Oppenheimer was in Lawrence that winter and penned his famous “Bread and Roses” poem after seeing mill girls carrying a banner that read, “We want bread, and roses too.”

That well-worded demand still resonates. That our workplaces should allow for both good wages and a high quality of life is something we can thank the labor movement for.

For most of us Labor Day weekend signals the end of summer. Most see this holiday as a celebration of not working rather than a day to acknowledge the labor movement and its contributions.

It wasn’t always so. For a long time in this country Labor Day was passionate holiday, a day of speeches, rallies and remembrance.

Growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, the city retained just enough civic and social memory to experience Labor Day as a sacred holiday. There were memories of lives lost in the plants and mines, and lives saved by safety rules and union working conditions. Labor history and its emotions are fully embedded in my family psyche.

My family never would have come to America if not for the steel strikes that lured starving Polish workers to industrial cities with promises of jobs, food, survival. But the jobs they came to take were other men’s jobs, other immigrants who beat them here by a few years and who were striking the mills.

My Pittsburgh family was in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville. Five brothers and one sister. There was no need to talk about a “work ethic”. My father went to work at 14, his brothers at 14, 15, even Joe, the “baby” was working and putting his earnings on the kitchen table to support the family. These uncles were such hard working men. It was fear and survival and a crazy hope that their own kids would get high school diplomas and maybe—crazy idea—some college—so they would not have to do the physical work their fathers did.

The eastern European immigrants arrived as strike breakers and they were despised. Yet they wanted exactly what men carrying the placards wanted: enough for their families. Later, after joining the union, they took their turn carrying signs, walking the line and paying their dues. I remember this. The whispers about meetings and strikes and yes, more fear. My father, his brothers, neighbor men. Scab was a really, really dirty word even though I didn’t know what it meant apart from skinned knees.

But that sense too that the union was a brotherhood. That I understood. I had all these uncles and two brothers of my own. When they were not beating me up they were protecting me. So maybe my child’s eye view of Labor’s brotherhood wasn’t so far off. My older sisters married men in unions: painter and teacher. Oh, Pittsburgh’s first teachers strike. The craziness, the debate and again, the fear.

I saw what the union did and what it meant: protection, benefits, work, paychecks. That small pile of money on the kitchen table lasted a little longer. We could—mostly—pay the bills.

But now we ask: Has organized labor gone too far at this point? Cost us too much?

Those arguments can be made. We all know of some ridiculous demand or workplace practice allowed only because of the union, but let’s remember the benefits that accrue to all of us because of the labor movement.

Even in non-union workplaces, the standard in the United States is five eight-hour work days per week. And, yes, it is a bumper sticker, but it’s also true: American labor brought us the weekend. A six and-a-half day workweek was the schedule for a long time.

In addition we can thank organized labor for rest rooms and smoke breaks and clean places to eat lunch. It won safety laws, paid vacations, sick leave, pension and insurance plans, policies and procedures that most of us take for granted.

The labor movement also brought us social reforms, such as child-labor regulation, advocacy for free public education and the concept of equal pay for equal work — that was part of the National Labor platform in 1868. We enjoy these gifts whether or not we belong to a union.

But one of the biggest contributions from organized labor that we don’t appreciate, because it’s so very close to us, is our middle class way of life. In large measure, organized labor’s efforts over decades established the American middle class. Decent wages and job security allowed workers to buy homes and cars and send their kids to college, which fueled our economy and what we now so easily disdain as middle-class life.

So this weekend, while you celebrate a day dedicated to working people by taking an extra day off, please take a moment to thank those girls in Lawrence, Mass., and even Jimmy Hoffa for a working life that includes both bread and roses.

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