Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Bread and Roses

Bread and Roses
delivered at UUCA
© September 2, 2007
Rev. Marti Keller

Like many girls, my first paid job outside of the home—that is beyond my fifty cents a week allowance —was babysitting. At 12 and 13 I had a fair-sized clientele of families in the suburban subdivisions within 15 minute bike rides of our house.

Some of my employers were great, with babies who actually slept, and toddlers who didn’t have tantrums, and refrigerators supplied with ice cream bars and soda. And they paid me when I was finished working, 75 cents, even a dollar an hour.

Other jobs involved babies with constant diaper rashes and colic, four year old bullies, and picky eaters. I remember Jeremy, the only child of a piano teacher, who instructed me to feed him his oatmeal with as much whipped cream and chocolate chips sprinkled in as the bowl could bear—and still he would shut his mouth tight or throw the spoon on the kitchen floor. And then never have the right amount of money to pay me, so would I please come back on Friday and she would have it then, usually less than I had earned.

But it was mostly OK work, and the coins and bills I collected were put in an envelope in my dresser drawer, and I saved them up for special extra things, like my very first pink transistor radio, the one I listened to when the Giants lost the baseball play-off series to the Dodgers—and my heart was broken-- and my first purple mini skirt. And then a Samoyed puppy that cost 75 dollars and took months of earnings, much to my parents’ horror when I brought her home.(since of course I didn’t figure on having to feed, inoculate, or spay her). .

Whatever I earned, and whatever I saved, and whatever I spent this money on, did not in any way have to go for basics. I was fed, clothed, housed and even taken out for movies and hamburgers, with or without my wages. Work enhanced my sense of being responsible and capable, it bought me metaphorically a feeling of independence, it certainly filled up some otherwise dull and endless summers, it was in short good for what we like to call character development.

I didn’t do it for bread, in other words, I did it for the roses, for enrichment, for my soul.

I can’t say the same for the first job I landed after graduating with honors in journalism from the University of California in 1970, the year of one of our periodic Great Recessions, when no one, it seemed, was hiring. Armed with my prestigious degree, I went to work for Swenson’s Ice Cream parlor, serving up single scoop and double scoop cones filled with apple pie, pistachio, marble fudge, and mocha ice cream.

After the first couple of days of enjoying the free tastes we snuck when traffic was slow, I stopped craving ice cream entirely. My arm ached and my hand burned from dipping down to the bottom of cartons. I tired of having people bark orders at me, and change their minds about what flavor they wanted, or not have the right change and expect me to make it up at the end of my shift.

But my then husband and I needed the money I brought in, with no benefits, no holiday pay, certainly no sense of dignity, and really no way to stretch or bloom.

I didn’t last all that long as an ice cream scooper, not even as long as my ex- husband, who had dropped out of college to find himself, lasted on the line in a Del Monte canning plant or in his next job working swing shift in the collections department of an upper end furniture store.

When our first baby was born, just a couple of years later, our vocational ambitions were still lofty: I fancied myself a published writer and he an award-winning film-maker, But the economy remained in the tank, a crowd of us boomers were out there with our competing high flying dreams, and we were still piecing our budget together.

I remember that it was not so much that we ate a lot of fatty ground beef and soups made from turkey necks and bulk carrots, or that we lived in a third floor walk-up apartment where the heat only came on a few hours a day that bothered, even depressed me. It was the way I was treated in the charity medical clinic at Mt. Zion Hospital, the forms we had to fill out to get food stamps to supplement the less than living wages we were earning, and the look in the eyes of fellow shoppers when I actually used them, checking out, of course, what I pulled from my cart, looking for waste and indulgence. I missed my dignity, I missed my sense of being special and worthy. I missed believing there were endless possibilities.

And of course I missed being able to go to the movies when I wished, or buying myself eye shadow at Macy’s instead of Woolworths’, and coffee out, instead of in our own kitchen.

This period of genteel poverty was relatively short-lived, and truth is, while our parents wanted us to make our own way as a headstrong young couple, they never would have let us go without electricity or end up on the streets. We had a safety net in the form of economically stable extended families who would only let us dip down so far before they helped us back up, for our sakes and certainly for the sake of our children. And we were embedded in a culture where the assumption was that we would do better, sooner than later.

My young woman’s dream of a better vocation, of bread and roses in my work and in my life, was only a dream deferred—longer than I might have wished—not a dream that died or no dreams at all.

This was not so for my grandfather, and I would wager many of our parents and grandparents. A few years after the turn of the 20th century, my grandfather on my father’s side escaped conscription in the Czar’s army as a young teenager and made his own way alone to Boston, where he went to work doing what his father had done in the old country. Son of a tailor, he found a job in a ladies coat-making factory, where the hours were long, the pay was ludicrous, and the conditions substandard.

The same sort of conditions, I imagine, as existed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York in l9ll when more than a hundred shirtwaist workers, many of them young female immigrant workers, either died in the fire that broke out on the eighth floor of the factory of jumped to their deaths. Many of these workers were unable to escape because the doors had been locked to prevent them from stealing or taking unauthorized breaks.

More than 100,000 people participated in the funeral march for the victims, and still others gathered at the Metropolitan Opera House a few days later to express their grief and their rage. Rose Schneiderman, an early labor organizer in that movement, told the crowd: This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and the property is so sacred…. We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a given a couple of dollars by way of a charity gift. But every time workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us…. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working class movement.

My grandfather joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, in fact was a very active organizer. I don’t believe he expected intrinsic rewards from his hours of sewing and later supervising seamstresses. He wanted fair pay and safety. He wanted bread, in other words, and had no expectation of roses.

Whatever pleasure and soul-feeding he got then and later on during the Depression when his own factory went through hard times ( and he faced actions from his own workers), came from the glasses of hot, sweet tea – and harder stuff—he drank at the end of the day; an occasional Chinese meal, his labor party newspapers, and periodic reprieves from the endless bickering with his wife, resulting from crowded spaces, thin wallets, and little joy.

I know from reading some of his scribblings, translated recently from Yiddish to English, that he had a gift for story-telling, but whether he ever dreamed of a vocation in writing, whether he dreamed at all of possibilities within his work life beyond manufacturing ladies’ coats and providing for his family, no one seems to know.

The song we practiced earlier in the service and will reprise at the end, “Bread and Roses” was first heard during a strike in Lawrence Massachusetts during January-March 1912. Earlier that same year, the Massachusetts legislature finally passed a law limiting the working hours of children under 18 to 54 hours a week. The huge textile corporations vehemently opposed the law and in an act of retaliation cut the working hours and thus the wages of all employees, adults and children, leading to the total walk out of workers in the Lawrence factories, more than 35,000 of them.

This textile mill strike, which united dozens of immigrant communities under the garment maker’s union, was led by a large extent, we are told, by women. Some have said that during the strike there were women who carried a sign that said, “ We want bread, but we want roses too.”

In the course of the strike, the workers presented their bosses with these demands:

A 15 per cent wage increase

Double pay for overtime

No discrimination against strikers

An end to speed up expectations

An end to discrimination against foreign born workers

It was, according to labor organizer Bill Haywood, a wonderful strike,a significant strike, the greatest strike that has ever been carried on in this country.

This was a strike that appealed both for fair wages and dignified conditions, and beyond that health care, educational opportunities and cultural activities.

The women who held up the signs “Bread and Roses” were saying that they weren’t content, as writer Bruce Taylor describes them, with improvements in the bare necessity of life and work. They wanted opportunities, he notes, to enjoy their lives and family, to find beauty in the world, and to be treated with dignity and respect.

Their demands were met over the years in that New England factory town, as Lawrence opened a series of free libraries, art galleries, concert halls and parks. For these women, as for most workers who are given the time and opportunity to talk freely about what they want for themselves, work should be as a source of pride and joy and fulfillment, not all of the time, but more of the time than it often is. Not just working to live, but in some ways living to work, alive to our work.

More than 30 years ago, radio commentator Studs Terkel created what has become a micro industry in published oral histories of men and women and their jobs. In Working, a collection of people talking about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do, he observed that Americans get up and go to work each day as much for “daily meaning as “daily bread.” That they were as likely to describe how little their work fed their spirits as to complain about how little they were paid.

There was Sharon Atkins, the phone answerer who talked about how the machine dictated her life, the crummy little machine, as she told him, you have to be there to answer. My job doesn’t mean anything, she said… a monkey could do what I do… It’s really unfair to ask someone to do that. You try to fill up your time with trying to think about other things, what you’re going to on the weekend or about your family. You have to use your imagination, she said. If you don’t have a very good one and you bore easily ,you’re in trouble.

And Nick Salerno, who drove a city garbage truck for 18 years, who said you’re just like a milkman’s horse, you get used to it. If you remember the milkman’s horse, all he had to was whistle and whoosh. That’s it. He knew just where to stop, didn’t he?,,,, You get different thoughts. Maybe you got a problem at home. Maybe one of the children isn’t feeling too good… Or you’ll read the paper. You can always daydream.

In Gig, published in 2000, with a new set of tales of the working life, there is one by UPS driver William Rosario—a relatively high wage earner-- who said that the most stops he ever made was at Christmas one year, like 240, with a helper. Sometimes I start the day and I realize I can’t do it, he said. I can’t keep working. A couple times I called them, he admitted. I told ‘em they had to come get me. I said I was sick. They loved that. But usually when I am out there, I just do anything I can not to actually work. I mean on my stops I watch television, make telephone calls, flirt with secretaries, call my girl friend, go shopping… go swimming in the summer in a motel pool.

Even ministers get to confess that the calling may not always be calling them, that the spirit had gone out of their vocation. A Lutheran parish pastor owned up to not being at his optium point in ministry right now. I’m just burned out, he declared. I mean, not so bad that I would fail to share the good news where I see it is needed and will be received, but in terms of running a parish and the institutional aspects of keeping certain programs going, I’ve been burned out by all the conflict and I feel I need to move on.

But he stayed.

He was no longer feeling the spirit at his workplace, but like most people that are asked about their jobs, he was inclined to persist. At least not to drop out completely. According to the editors of the Gig anthology, the majority are confronted with constant and complex stresses on the job and nearly universally they throw themselves without reservation into coping with them.

Not that a higher minimum wage and more important a fair living wage aren’t crucial. It is just plain wrong, it is a violation of the Golden Rule(s) of every living faith tradition that even after working two or three jobs, you could still not earn enough money to make ends meet or provide the basic subsistence needs—the bread of life. Today’s federal minimum wage, even with the slight increase that just went into effect, to $5.85 an hour, has become a poverty wage instead of an anti-poverty wage, which is inhumane and soul-stripping. And our Georgia state minimum wage is below that, one of the few remaining states.

Working for a just society, our denominational social justice statements remind us, is central to the Unitarian Universalist faith—a faith based on the creation of justice and peace here on earth and among our common world community.. Where all people have equal opportunity to care for themselves and their families and individuals take responsibility for the effects of their actions on their own and others’ lives.

It has been my privilege to lead personal growth and spirituality groups for women in transition out of homelessness for more than a decade. Several hundred of them, mostly women of color. Many of them arrive at shelters with little more than the clothes on their back. They come fleeing battering, they come because their husbands are incarcerated, they come because of debts and foreclosures resulting in part from bad choices but in larger part from predatory lenders, aggressive creditors, and low wages in jobs they show up at every day, despite huge logistic obstacles. No cars. No childcare.

We first offer them bread—often the day old leftovers from local fancy bakeries—and beds and the hugely important gift of safety. We expect them to be accountable: to have work, to learn to manage and save their money, whatever is left over from the necessities we expect them to provide.

Yes, they want to earn more, earn fairly, not just a minimum wage but a living wage.

Why not? We have the means to make this so

If they come to trust me, they sometimes share their more hidden longings. Yes, they crave satellite dishes and big televisions and fancy houses larger than any I have owned. Why not? That’s what they are promised 24-7 in every corner of the media.

But more than that, and deeper than that, and with more urgency than that they want, oh they want roses—worth and dignity, the chance to express themselves, the chance make a difference in their working lives. Some beauty. Some song.

Work, the Persian poet Gilbran wrote, is love made visible. Sister Joan Chittister, a social activist and Benedictine nun, tells us that the meaning is clear… work involves all of us in the exercise of world-building, of co-creation, and we must each of us, in each age, work in new ways to achieve it.

With bread, and with roses. .

Flow down and down in always

widening rings of being. - Rumi

Rev. Marti Keller
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta
404 634-5134