Bread and Roses

Elleanor Chin FacebookTwitter

A woman that I went to highschool with posted this on Facebook today.

Gratitude on this Labor Day: That I'm able to see some of the most influential grownups in my life—my high school teachers—enjoying wonderful, happy retired lives. Thanks to solid pensions that union backed public teacher jobs in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, earned for them[.] Hoping that the future brings more dignity and financial security to more of our nation's elders.”

This made me particularly happy because we went to a high school where student-teacher relationships were closer than most. But I was also struck by how far today's conversation about labor and Labor Day has moved from “retirement benefits that are good enough for public highschool teachers to live comfortably in their old age.” Today's discussion about labor practices is as much about whether people who are in the prime of their working years can even afford to live and raise their children. In the 21st century we are not building on the 20th century gains for working people, but re-fighting the basic concepts of the 19th. There are differences: rather than fighting about whether or not children can work hard labor in factories, we're faced with whether corporations can monitor every second of a worker's production and fire them for not meeting optimum physically efficient motion targets. Rather than addressing work place discrimination against classes of humans, we are facing the question of whether simply being human (having children, getting sick) is a basis for employers to fire their employees.

Oregon has recognized Labor Day for 127 years, longer than any other state. Every Labor Day there is social media and news coverage along the the themes of “Enjoy a three day weekend courtesy of the Labor Movement,” or “The Labor Movement, the people who brought you the weekend.” But we also need to reflect on what lies ahead, and it looks to be a sorry state of affairs. Up until now, simply being human was not a protected class or a basis for labor organization. But in the age where corporations are “persons” whose purported freedom of religion and speech takes precedence over that of tangible persons, perhaps being a flesh and blood mortal should be protected. Couldn't we still be fighting over pensions? Are there even pensions to fight over any more?

My public school education began over 35 years ago in Michigan, early in the days of organized labor's long decline in that state. I can't honestly say I knew what the occasional teacher strikes were about back then, just that they meant I missed some school. But teacher strikes in Oregon today are about being just teachers able to do their jobs in reasonable sized class rooms, with adequate preparation, even as real wage value is falling. Union representation across the country is declining, and there is a massive transfer of wealth from middle and working class families to not just the one percent, but the wealthiest of the 1%. In the meantime there are people who are celebrating Labor Day by objecting to it and declaring it an occasion of “right to work” activism.

Traditional forms of labor activism (joining unions, striking, robust collective bargaining agreements and focus on long term benefits) are not the only solution for the problems besetting today's workforce. Lack of jobs arising from loss of production capacity, lack of political will to create any meaningful social safety net and numerous other challenges face us. Like my friend, I'm grateful that a generation of adults that I admired and who helped make me into who I am today are comfortable in their golden years. But I am the beginning of the generations who seriously question our and our children's economic security.

There is a song associated with the textile strikes in early 20th century New England. It is called Bread and Roses and the notion is that we fight not just to eat, but for human dignity. Sometimes I feel like we are back to fighting for bread, and roses are a long ways off.

As we come 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 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 life closes;

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 spirits knew.

Yes, it is bread we fight for -- but we fight for roses, too!

As we come 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!

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