Bread and Roses, or Perhaps Roses First!

Guest Commentary

Volume CVI, No. 5May, 2006

Esther Cohen

Why we need culture is obvious to members of the musicians’ union. Without songs, and without music, we would be bereft. The score to all our lives would be missing, and that loss would be irreparable.

The same is true, in a thousand different ways, with painting, with stories, with theatre and photography and the infinite ways creativity happens.

But how do we tie creativity, in all its forms, to the social justice struggle? How do we add music, and voices, and poems?

About thirty years ago, Moe Foner, an impresario type who knew how to orchestrate the magic that is culture, talked Leon Davis, the head of the hospital workers’ union, into starting a regular cultural program called Bread and Roses.

The name came from the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Women and children, working in the mills in impossibly difficult conditions, decided to change their own fate, and the fates of generations of workers after them.

They went on strike, and came up with a slogan that made sense in the myriad of countries they came from: “We want bread — and roses too!”

In other words, it’s not enough to have the basic scraps of existence (bread) — we need beauty and culture, too (roses).

An American poet named James Oppenheim wrote a poem that became an American classic, using the bread and roses slogan as a refrain. Scores of singers have sung this poem, from Judy Collins and Pete Seeger to Ani DiFranco.

Moe started a gallery at the headquarters of the health and service workers’ union, 1199SEIU, at 310 West 43rd Street. And for many years now there have been about eight exhibits a year of interest to working people. Artists of all kinds, some famous, some not, have shown their work and performed for union members.

Moe — and the Bread and Roses organization — took the dictum seriously about wanting roses and needing them throughout life. He started a program to bring performers into workplaces at lunchtime called Theatre in the Hospitals. For nearly thirty years, Bread and Roses has sent musicians and actors into hospitals and nursing homes.

Another project has been a cafe where workers can perform, linked to Black History Month, Women’s History Month, New Year’s Eve, and other celebrations.

Many posters have been generated by Bread and Roses over the years, including the iconic “Images of Labor” exhibition, where well-known artists depicted what being an American worker means. This show opened at the 1199SEIU gallery, then moved to the Smithsonian, and finally traveled around the world for many years. The posters are found in thousands of schools, union halls, community centers, and offices — including 802.

We’ve made scores of other posters, on Paul Robeson and Malcolm X, on Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, on Julia Alvarez and Wangari Maathai and many other heroes and poets of our time.

Our challenge today is large, and we look to other unions like 802 to help us add voices, and music, and artfulness, to every dimension of our lives: to every demonstration, to every rally, to every celebration and every workplace.

We recently moved our administrative offices to the sixth floor of the Local 802 building. Come up and visit us.

We all need our own roses. Now more than ever before.

To learn more, visit our Web site at To join our mailing list, to help write a song or a piece of music, to perform, paint, or take a picture, contact or

Esther Cohen is the executive director of Bread and Roses, the nonprofit cultural arm of New York’s health and service workers’ union, 1199SEIU. She is a poet and author of two novels, “Book Doctor,” and “No Charge for Looking,” and editor of the forthcoming “Unseenamerica,” which will be published by HarperCollins.