Bread & Roses: an ongoing struggle

Posted on January 21, 2012


This month the labour movement justly celebrated with, or complimented, the ANC on achieving its centenary. But January this year was not just the centenary of the ANC; it also marked 100 years since of one of the great moments in labour history — and one that has considerable resonance today.

On January 12, 1912, five days after Pixley ka Izaka Seme and other intellectuals, teachers, preachers and chiefs gathered in Bloemfontein to launch what was to become the African National Congress, a group of immigrant workers across the Atlantic staged a strike that reverberated around the world. Most of the strikers were women and girls, some as young as 12, hailing from as many as 30 different countries and speaking many more than 11 languages.

An examination of that historic struggle carries with it lessons of the power of solidarity and reveals how far working people of today have progressed — and how much further there still is to go. It also provides an example of the crass insensitivity of the affluent elite that has disturbing parallels in South Africa.

Like the gathering in Bloemfontein, although from rather different ends of the social scale, the mill workers of Lawrence, Massachusetts, faced a renewed threat to their livelihoods. In the US, the state lawmakers had reduced the working week from 56 hours to 54 for women and children. The mill owners used this law to cut both hours and wages, across the board. This was 25 years after the great Chicago strike for a 40-hour week that gave rise to the international workers’ day: May 1.

And, as trade unionists are reminded every year at May Day rallies around the country, it is a battle that is yet to be won in South Africa. However, in 1912, the mill workers of Massachusetts welcomed the 54-hour week. But the atmosphere quickly soured when, on January 12, they checked their pay packets and found that they had been paid 32 cents less.

There was much sullen grumbling in the various mills across the town and all it took to let loose a tide of resistance was the angry cry of a single worker in the Washington Mill. “Short pay — strike!” Nobody knows who she was, but the cry was taken up and Washington workers poured into the street, chanting and marching past other factories to what was then the largest textile mill in the world.

The Wood mill, owned by William Wood, employed up to 14 000 workers, supposedly from the legal age of 14, but many a year or two younger. According to medical records of the time, most of the largely female workforce had a life expectancy of no more than 35. Malnutrition, insanitary and unsafe working conditions and poor housing saw many die even earlier.

Because these unskilled and semi-skilled workers were immigrants from different parts of the world the bosses never seemed to think they would unite. The mainstream unions too, did not bother to organise such workers, concentrating instead on the skilled, better paid and English speaking “native Americans”. Only the International Workers of the World — the IWW or “Wobblies” — seem to have had a small presence among the immigrants.

But that short pay incident of January 12, 1912, triggered a spontaneous unity. Workers in other factories along the way to the Wood Mill joined the procession which, in its turn, was joined by almost every Wood Mill worker. What was to become known as the bread and roses strike had begun.

The term bread and roses symbolises the struggle for decent wages together with dignified conditions, or what, in 2012, is the International Labour Organisation’s demand for decent work. The poem, Bread and Roses, by James Oppenheim was published in December 1911. Turned into a struggle ballad, it has been sung by legions of activists and recorded by the likes of John Denver and Joan Baez.

The most quoted lines are:
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
                                                                                                           Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

Labour movement tradition has it that the bread and roses theme was taken up as a slogan by the strikers of Lawrence. It may have been, but the first reference to this was in 1916 by the great American author and socialist, Upton Sinclair. However, the strike gave the world the first example of moving picket lines — “flying pickets” — and revealed how popular community support, allied with organised workers, can leverage substantial concessions.

The mill bosses, together with the local militia and police, thought they could easily crush the strike. They were brutal, but they badly miscalculated. Although the means of communication were crude by the standards of today, word soon spread and community groups and the American Federation of Labour, along with IWW organisers, rallied to the aid of the largely female strikers of Lawrence.

Food and financial support flooded in and young children of strikers were taken into the care of families in Philadelphia and New York. Two months later, despite gross intimidation and the deaths of two strikers, the bosses capitulated. Wage rises and overtime payments were won and the episode found a permanent place in the annals of labour history.

It was a victory although none of the known strike leaders or any IWW members ever worked again in Lawrence. They were victimised by the likes of William Wood, the boss who flaunted his wealth to the extent that he told the official inquiry into the strike that he hadn’t had the time to count the number of cars he owned.

Last month, there was an echo of the same arrogance and insensitivity when Khulubuse Zuma presented his finacee with a R1.2 million Maserati. He did so while the remaining 700 miners at what had been his Aurora mine spent Christmas without wages, running water or electricity.

It provided a good example of the fact that the more things change, the more they can still stay the same.