Bread and Roses

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Dec 19 10:16:41 MST 2001

Village Voice, Week of December 19 - 25, 2001

Working Papers
by Tom Robbins

Celebrating 1199’s Voice for Culture
Bread and Roses Too

In their best days, labor unions aspire to be much more than the enforcers
of contracts and providers of member benefits. In their loftiest ambitions,
unions hope to embrace the entire social well-being of workers—friendship,
solidarity, and the celebration of art and culture. But while those
activities were the focus of many early workers' organizations, they
quickly became unaffordable luxuries. "Meat and potatoes" issues were all
many unions could handle. 

Which is one reason that the Bread and Roses Cultural Project
(, an arm of health care workers Local
1199, is so special. Founded in 1979 to promote the arts for union members,
it boasts the only permanent art gallery of any union in the country, a
place where as many as six exhibits are installed annually. It is also a
launching pad for plays, documentaries, and hands-on projects enlisting the
members themselves in recording their lives and feelings.    

The project was the brainchild of Moe Foner, who, years before he went to
work for labor unions, had played saxophone in a swing band with his
brothers. They did gigs at upstate Borscht Belt retreats and Manhattan
hotels, and along the way came to know many other musicians, as well as
actors and artists. The Brothers Foner were leftists with a vision; one
went on to lead the furriers' union, two others became renowned historians.
Moe worked for several unions before landing at 1199 in 1952, back when it
was a small union of pharmacy employees. Even then, he was looking for ways
to integrate culture with his union work. He found a sympathetic ear in
1199's founding president, Leon Davis, one that continues with current
union head Dennis Rivera, who oversees a vastly transformed organization,
representing more than 200,000 workers. 

The project took its name from the slogan advanced by striking workers in
the bitter 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, "We Want Bread
and Roses Too." 

Last week a few dozen people, led by Andrew Stern, president of the Service
Employees International Union, 1199's parent organization, squeezed into
the Bread and Roses Martin Luther King Jr. Gallery on West 43rd Street to
honor Foner, now 87, and to announce the creation of a scholarship in his
name. Stern and a chorus of unionists rose to extol Foner and his many
contributions."Moe was the one who taught us how to promote our issues,"
said 1199 vice president Jerry Hudson. "He taught us how to present our
work to the world." 

Foner, confined to a wheelchair but still strong in voice, said that his
work to mix culture and unionism stemmed from a single philosophic tenet.
"The idea behind Bread and Roses is to challenge the idea that culture is
elitist, somehow alien to working people," he told the crowd. The evidence
of his argument was on the walls around him, where the project's latest
exhibit was mounted, artwork created for its annual "Social Justice"

Louis Proyect
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