Bread and Roses

The slogan "bread and roses" captured the goals and dreams of the impoverished, mostly immigrant workers in the dramatic Lawrence textile strike of 1912 led by the Industrial Workers of the World. More than half of the strikers in the prosperous American Woolen Mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts, were women; more than half, young girls between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. Protesting the "sweated" conditions of their work and their lives and pursuing the dream of beauty as well as an adequate standard of living, the men and women of Lawrence pioneered the dramatic strike techniques of singing, mass picketing, and sending their children to safe homes in other cities. The strike appealed to the conscience of the nation to redress the appalling conditions faced by immigrants, women, and child laborers. Their picket-sign slogan of "bread and roses" became a song that inspired their own as well as future generations of working women, participants in movements for social justice, musicians, and artists.

Women have participated in the labor movement and in related social movements since the beginnings of industrialization. They went on strike and organized unions from their first exposure to the long hours and harsh working conditions in the mills. If the predominantly male unions were reluctant to welcome female workers, they continued to organize on their own, sometimes forming all-female unions. As a reserve labor force, women and immigrants made possible the major industrial expansions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as the shift from the manufacturing to the service and clerical sectors that began in the 1970s. As the gender of the paid-labor force changed in the twentieth century to include many more female workers and married women, and with the decline of blue-collar jobs and blue-collar unions, and the rise in immigration to the United States, women and immigrants have become increasingly important to the reemerging labor movement of the twenty-first century.

These long-term economic and social changes for both women and unions are creating the opportunity for new relationships. Women are a growing part of the new global workforce at a time when sweated labor is expanding globally. Economically, women in the United States are no longer "secondary workers. " The decline in real wages since 1973 and the rise in female-headed families have increased economic pressures on female workers. As wages in the United States fall and as workdays get longer, the competing stresses of work and family life intensify. The conditions that inspired the women in the Lawrence textile strike may inspire a new generation of women workers to revitalize the labor movement and call for "bread and roses."

The evidence from the twentieth century demonstrates that, contrary to the stereotypes, female workers are militant and organizable. In the twentieth century, female department-store workers in Oakland, California, walked out in 1946, sparking a general strike of more than 120 thousand workers. Two-thirds of the 350 thousand telephone workers who went on strike in 1947 were women. In the 1960s and 1970s women accounted for more than two-thirds of teachers, tripling the membership of the teachers' unions to more than two million. The evidence indicates that women are more sympathetic to unions than men and more interested in collective solutions to problems at work.

As women in such female-dominated sectors of the economy as health care, education, federal, state, and city governments, and the clerical and service sectors lead the way into unions, they are pressuring the labor movement to open leadership positions to them and to place issues of work and family squarely in the center of labor's agenda. In 1974, women organized the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) to press for leadership positions in the labor movement. By the 1990s two in five union members were women. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) with its 5.5 million female members became the largest "working women's organization" in the country. In consultation with its members it developed an agenda to place working women's issues center stage and to reach out to both union and nonunion women. Focusing on equal pay, quality child care, voting, organizing new workers into unions, the right to make changes on the job, and a better balance of work and family, the vision of "bread and roses" continues to inspire working women's struggles in the new century.

Ruth Meyerowitz


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Encyclopedia of American Studies, ed. Simon J. Bronner (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), s.v. "Bread and Roses" (by Ruth Meyerowitz), (accessed May 2, 2016).

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