Bread and roses 2009: Women need a union

March 8 International Women’s Day was born of the struggles of women in the textile mills in our country at the turn of the last century. They fought and died for better wages and working conditions, an end to child labor, and the right to vote.

First adopted as a celebration to be held around the world at an international socialist conference in 1910, International Women’s Day was recognized by the United Nations in 1978.

The appointment of Hilda Solis as Secretary of Labor with an overwhelming vote despite right-wing opposition, is a great victory to celebrate this International Women’s Day.

Women voted in large numbers for change in 2008, and were an important part of the labor and people’s alliance that elected Barack Obama and a stronger Congress.

It is no wonder that Hilda Solis, born into a working class, union, immigrant family, a leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was given a standing ovation on her first day at work in the Labor Department. What a breath of fresh air after years of being run as an anti-labor, anti-union department under Reagan and Bush.

‘I’ll work to strengthen our unions and support every American in our nation’s diverse workforce,’ says Solis.

Millions of women, including many single mothers, are in desperate need of a union in their workplaces today. For three decades corporations have been given a free ride on deteriorating health and safety standards, while wages and benefits have been falling through the floor.

Union membership helps raise workers’ pay and narrow the income gap. Union women earn 32 percent more than non-union women. African American union members earn 28 percent more than their non-union counterparts. For Latino workers the union advantage equals 43 percent.

The best celebration of International Women’s Day is to make a call to Congress for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act which would remove many of the barriers that have been placed in the way of workers forming a union. It is being re-introduced into Congress next week.

Call your Congressional Representatives and ask them to be leaders to get the Employee Free Choice Act passed this year.

Remember the message of the courageous women textile workers who went on strike in 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts in protest of a pay cut. Their banner ‘we want bread and roses, too,’ inspired this poem by James Oppenheimer, later turned into a song:

Bread and Roses

As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,

A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,

Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,

For the people hear us singing ‘Bread and roses, bread and roses.’

As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,

For they are women’s children and we mother them again,

Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;

Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread but give us roses!

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead

Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.

Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.

Yes it is bread we fight for but we fight for roses too!

As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.

The rising of the woman means the rising of the race.

No more the drudge and idler – ten that toil where one reposes,

But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses!

Joelle Fishman (joelle.fishman chairs the Communist Party USA political action commission and is also chair of the Connecticut Communist Party.


Joelle Fishman
Joelle Fishman

Joelle Fishman chairs the Connecticut Communist Party USA. She is a Commissioner on the City of New Haven Peace Commission, serves on the executive board of the Alliance of Retired Americans in Connecticut and is an active member of many economic rights and social justice organizations. As chair of the CPUSA Political Action Commission, she has played an active role in the broad labor and people's alliance and continues to mobilize for health care, worker rights and peace.