These are tough times. Many people are having trouble paying for groceries, gas, health care and home heating fuel. Labor Day is traditionally a time of transition and reflection.
History instructs and inspires us. One compelling lesson is the story of the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912.
Work in the mills was dangerous. Workers lived in crowded tenements. They survived on bread, molasses and beans. Meat was a rarity.
Massachusetts had passed a law limiting the work week to 54 hours. Textile millworkers earned $8.76 for working 56 hours a week. When the mill owners reduced their week to 54 hours, they also reduced the workers’ pay. This prompted a violent strike. The state militia was called out; many strikers were arrested. One, Anna LoPizzo, was murdered. The nation was outraged at the open assault on women and children.
Women and immigrants working in the mills were the hardest hit. They were the poorest, and the women went home every day to start their other jobs — cooking, cleaning and child rearing. The mortality rate for children was 50 percent and 36 percent of mill workers died by the age of 25. For them, the strike was not just about pay — the bread — it was about quality of life — the roses.
Today, it is still about bread and roses. Our economy has shifted. In the past, a high school diploma provided access to good paying jobs. Today, most good paying jobs demand advanced training or a college degree. For example, both boat building and construction now require significant computer skills. Our work force is more productive, but at a cost. That cost is the need for education. Education buys bread and roses.
A huge societal change is playing out in the working world. Seventy percent of men and 60 percent of women in Maine hold jobs, sometimes more than one, to support their families. Some employers are realizing that flexible work schedules, family care benefits, van pooling and subsidized education and training are not just good hearted, they’re good business. Yet more roses and bread.
The fabric of our society is only as strong as the fibers that hold it together. It’s our workers and their employers who weave the cloth that cover and warm our families and our communities. We are fed and nourished from the material stitched by our work force.
At the Maine Department of Labor, we have recently installed a mural commemorating the labor history of our state. In it, you can see our past — shoemakers, loggers, and textile mill workers, workers exercising their voting rights, the Rosie the Riveters of World War II, and young children working. Their struggles created the protections that workers have today such as unemployment compensation, safety and health standards and minimum wage laws.
You also see the work force of our future. That work force includes young and old, new immigrants and people with disabilities. Although the specific jobs are unclear, we do know that the occupations will require more training and education.
Yes, we work to put food on the table and oil in the furnace. But we also want a life of love and justice, with dignity and freedom from endless toil. From the 1911 poem by James Oppenheim, for which the Lawrence strike was named:
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth to until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.