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Dick Meister: "We want bread and roses, too"

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By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

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

Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses!"

–From a poem by James Oppenheim

Bread and roses. It was the battle cry of the thousands of striking women and their supporters who marched through the streets of Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912, in the heart of the textile industry. Although it's been 100 years since they marched, their militancy and bravery remain among the brightest highlights in the long history of the American labor movement.

The three-months long strike in Lawrence, led by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) pitted the 25,000 workers – half of them women under 20, many as young as 14 – against the violently anti-labor textile mill owners, who were strongly backed by the press, politicians , school officials, and clergy.

Striking was difficult for the workers, who had only their poverty-level wages to live on. They had barely enough to pay the rent for the run-down, disease-ridden shacks and tenement flats where most of them lived. Many were constantly in debt, having to borrow money to meet their bare necessities. Health care and other fringe benefits were virtually unheard of, and more than one-third of the workers died in their mid-twenties. Read more »