April 29, 2021
The Scottish Artists’ Union annual conference event and AGM borrows its title ‘Bread and Roses’ from a phrase coined by labour activist and union leader Rose Schneiderman. Read a little more about the surrounding history of the phrase.
1912, Lawrence Massachusetts. A new law has been passed shortening the working week in the textile factories from 56 to 54 hours as well as a reduction in the hourly rate of pay. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) galvanise thousands of workers from every mill in Lawrence to mobilise a strike that spreads rapidly through the town. IWW leaders organise for 100s of strikers’ hungry children and families to be temporarily relocated to sympathetic homes in New York, New Jersey and Vermont. A move that means their parents can continue to strike. Law enforcement attempts to stop the exodus, sparking violence towards protesters. More than 20,000 largely female, ethnic minority workers hold steadfast and stage a strike that lasts more than two months in a brutally harsh winter from January to March 1912.
A woman addresses the crowd and delivers what was to become one of the most memorable phrases of the women's labour movement.
“What the woman who labours wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”
Rose Schneiderman (1882-1972) was a Polish-born labour activist, social reformer and union leader who immigrated to the United States in 1892, where she quickly went to work sewing caps in a textile factory. In 1903, she helped organise the United Cloth and Cap Makers, publicly denouncing those who had contributed to the 1911 Triangle Waist Factory fire. In 1905, Schneiderman joined the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL), the national organisation that led the fight to improve conditions for working women. She took a major role in several of the landmark events of the American labour struggle, tirelessly working for women's right to vote as well as organising the International Congress of Labour. During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Schneiderman to the administration’s Labour Advisory Board of the National Recovery Act in 1933 on which she served as the only woman. Schneiderman spoke publicly and lectured widely throughout her life and has become known as one of the most respected activists for improving the conditions of working people.
Back in Massachusetts in 1912, congressional hearings followed the strike resulting in exposure of the shocking conditions in the Lawrence mills and calls for investigation ensued. Mill owners soon decided to settle the strike, giving workers in Lawrence and throughout New England raises of up to 20 percent. The strike of 1912 defied assumptions from the conservative trade union movement, the American Federation of Labour, that female and ethnic minority workers could not be organised.
I am blown away by the power of the single phrase delivered by Rose Schneiderman in 1912, “the worker must have bread, but she must have roses too”, for how powerful and pertinent it remains today. The destruction of decades of neoliberalism has taken bread from the mouths of working families, has wilted the roses and is slowly dismantling all of the infrastructures that sustain everyday life. The NHS is in crisis, wages are staid or declining, the gender pay gap remains, the rise of anti-union legislation, police violence, institutional racism, homophobia and sexism, those who feel invisible, and then it goes on and on. What I think Rose Schneidermann was saying is that the fight for wages cannot be detached from the means that sustain life. In our demand for bread, we also need roses.