Bread, Roses and Spring

Labor History Month

Volume CVII, No. 5May, 2007

Esther Cohen

Bread and Roses is a center dedicated to workers’ art. The name comes from the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Mass. Workers came up with the slogan: “We want bread — and roses too!” In other words, it’s not enough to have the basic scraps of existence (bread) — we also need beauty and culture (roses). Bread and Roses is the nonprofit cultural arm of New York’s health and service workers’ union, 1199SEIU. Below, Executive Director Esther Cohen gives an update of what she and Bread and Roses are up to, as Labor History Month kicks off.

“Masses,” an oil-on-canvas by Sharon M. Davis, a member of 1199SEIU. Bread and Roses will sponsor a workers’ art show in May.

I went to Peru for spring break, to see the incredible Incan city of Machu Picchu. Our guide, in explaining how the city was created, mentioned that the Incans believed workers were gods, and work was godly. In fact, they spent l00 years building a city. The task was enormous, and collectively done: there was no chief, no architect, no boss. Only workers, trying, and succeeding, in combining their hard work with a deep aesthetic: the desire to build a poem, really, an homage to the sun, and the Andean cloud forests all around.

I kept thinking about bread — and then roses.

How the Incans in their wisdom saw how deep the connection of those two forces must be, how work and creativity and meaning must be closely tied together in order for us all to build a better world. How we can’t ever work alone, as artists or as trade unionists. How we need bread and we need roses, side by side.

In our cultural program now, we continue to try to generate the voices and visions of workers — in as many ways as possible, by pursuing the Unseen America project in scores of different venues.

The project, a modern day version really of the WPA, gave cameras and l2-week classes to over 600 groups of people around the country. The goal was to help them tell the stories of their lives and learn to see clearly and well. The final step was curating those scores of pictures into exhibits.

We’ve had hundreds of showings so far. And this June, in the State Museum in Albany, workers’ images from over 50 classes around New York State will be exhibited. These pictures show our society from the perspective of working people.

The pictures, unexpected and moving, show an America we rarely see: the America of work and working.

That we are all creative — if we’re given the opportunity — is something most of us forget.

(Perhaps Local 802 members don’t forget this, since your lives are full of music — even if it is occasionally unplayed.)

Our gallery, at 3l0 West 43rd Street, continues to have eight exhibits a year of interest to working people. The gallery is open to the public Monday through Friday.

Our exhibits in May will honor the creativity of members of 1199SEIU through paintings, sculpture, photography and performance. (On May l7 from 6 to 8 p.m., we will host an opening party.)

In June, we’ll present an exhibit of Kids With Cameras, a national group that sent children to photograph the aftermath of Katrina and the lives of people in New Orleans. The opening will be on June 5.

For more information, come up to the sixth floor of the Local 802 building where our administrative offices are located, or visit our Web site at