On Culturing a Union
American labor still pays lip service to the idea that it seeks "bread
and roses too"--a higher standard of living, plus the chance for workers
to enjoy some of the finer things in life. In reality, the famous
rallying cry of the 1912 textile workers' strike in Lawrence,
Massachusetts, is no more than a faint echo in today's unions. Few offer
what anyone would call a rich cultural experience for their members.
Most of the labor movement is no longer rooted in immigrant communities
or working-class fraternal associations of the sort that once supported
folk music, dance, theater and even literature in foreign-language
newspapers like the Forward, the Yiddish daily. Postwar
assimilation and suburbanization, the decline of indigenous
working-class radicalism and the rise of "mass culture" and
entertainment have left American workers with little claim to a culture
of their own. Beset with many current problems (including threats to
their very survival), unions are not inclined to embrace the additional
challenge of making drama, poetry or music--in new or old forms--part of
their internal life again.
The one AFL-CIO affiliate that has attempted this, on a large scale, is
the union of New York City hospital and healthcare workers, best known
by its number--1199. Now part of the Service Employees International
Union, Local 1199 launched a cultural program called Bread and Roses in
1979, with labor and foundation funding. Since then, B&R has
sponsored an impressive stream of union musicals and documentary films;
exhibits of paintings, poster art, murals and photography dealing with
workplace themes; poetry and writing classes for workers, oral histories
of their struggles--all of which help foster membership solidarity and
connection to the union.
Not for Bread Alone is the story of that effort and a brief
history of the union behind it, as told by 1199's longtime publicist,
campaign strategist and cultural impresario, Moe Foner. The book also
traces Foner's own career as a labor PR man par excellence and contains
much useful advice for today's "union communicators." The author was a
scrappy, streetwise hustler of the press who couldn't type but had on
his desk one of the most formidable Rolodexes in the labor movement. A
product of left-wing politics and CIO unionism in its Big Apple heyday,
Foner was far more effective than the AFL-CIO's current crop of
blow-dried, inside-the-Beltway "media consultants" (whose idea of"party
work" is introducing labor clients to the Democratic candidates served by
their firms, so that union treasuries and political action funds can be
milked simultaneously). Foner displayed a different kind of political
savvy, in countless picket-line battles and major lobbying efforts. As
journalist Jack Newfield says, he "could publicize like P.T. Barnum,
organize like Joe Hill and network like Bill Clinton."
For example, Foner's pioneering work on 1199 campaigns among private,
non-profit hospital workers--who didn't have the right to bargain with
management forty years ago--provides a good model for any union trying
to make organizing rights a higher-profile issue today. Not for Bread
Alone also reminds us about the important role played by the Labor
Leadership Assembly for Peace--the anti-Vietnam War coalition launched
by Foner, 1199 and their union allies in the late 1960s.
The author completed this memoir, with the assistance of former 1199
news editor Dan North, shortly before his death in January at age 86. As
the book recounts, Foner was born into a Jewish working-class family in
Brooklyn that produced not one, but four radical activists. A member of
the Communist Party from the mid-1930s "until the Khrushchev revelations
in 1956 about what went on under Stalin," Moe--along with his twin
brothers, Jack and Phil--was victimized by an early purge of leftists
from higher education. All three were forced out ofteaching or
administrative jobs at City College of New York (CCNY) in 1941. (The
resulting controversy led the highly musical Foners to change the name
of their dance band--already popular on the Catskills small-hotel
circuit--to "Suspended Swing.")
Despite their dismissal, Phil and Jack went on to have distinguished
careers as academic historians. Henry Foner--youngest of the four and
then a student at CCNY--joined the Furriers Union and later became its
president. And the author, for much of his forty-year union career,
became the living embodiment of the cultural politics that developed
during the period of the Popular Front, when American liberals and
radicals united to oppose fascism abroad and support Roosevelt's New
Deal at home. Some of the best material in Foner's book is, thus, like a
collection of old photos in a family album, faded but fascinating
because of what it reveals about the social and political milieu of a
now largely deceased generation of labor activists who managed to
survive both McCarthyism and the self-inflicted wounds of the Communist
In the 1930s and '40s, Foner observes, the left created "a vigorous
cultural life that became part of its mass appeal."
The most famous writers...appeared in the New Masses magazine,
which was close to the Communist Party. The Daily Worker had
great cartoons by people like Robert Minor, William Gropper, and Art
Young, but artists from the New Yorker also appeared there.
This was the era of the experimental Group Theater and...Waiting for
Lefty, the Clifford Odets play about striking taxi drivers.... The
International Ladies Garment Workers Union had already put on its
immensely successful musical revue, Pins and Needles, and on a
smaller scale, the American Student Union put on a musical every year.
One of them, called Pens and Pencils, was a takeoff on the Marx
Brothers.... There was a Theater Arts Committee that had a cabaret to
support the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. And the YCL [Young
Communist League] was always putting on skits and shows.
Foner was hired in 1947 as education director for a department store
union. Many Manhattan store clerks of that era--like waiters and
waitresses today--were aspiring actors. So when Foner put out a call for
auditions for the union's first theatrical venture--a seventeen-song
musical review called Thursdays 'Til Nine--400 members showed up.
Through his dance band and party connections, Foner also "had access to
an unusually large number of creative people who were, because of their
political beliefs, more than happy to participate for little or no money
in union cultural events." For music, lyrics or other help, he tapped
show-business talents like Millard Lampell, later a successful Hollywood
screenwriter; playwrights Arthur Miller and Norman Rosten; film
producer/director Martin Ritt (who went on to win an Oscar for Norma Rae); comedians Sam Levinson and Irwin Corey; actors Jack Gilford and Zero
Mostel; and future TV writer Mel Tolkin.
Although professionally written and produced, Thursdays 'Til Nine
drew on the job experiences of store workers themselves and provided
humorous commentary on contemporary labor issues (in numbers like "The
Taft-Hartley Rumba"). Thousands of members applauded its performances,
and Foner's singular career was launched. The show cost only a few
thousand dollars, but in return it "reaped immense rewards in good
publicity, education on labor issues, and membership pride in their
These positive results became a hallmark of Foner productions for his
later union employers as well. The store workers soon merged with
District 65, another "center of left unionism in New York," whose
stewards were deployed in Peekskill in 1949 to protect Paul Robeson when
a right-wing mob attacked one of his concerts. At District 65, Foner ran
educational, social and cultural programs for 20,000 workers in retail,
wholesale and warehouse jobs. One of the first things he did was start a
nightclub on the top floor of the union's lower Manhattan office
Each week, a different group of members would be in charge of selling
400 tickets at fifty cents each. Rank-and-file committees would set up,
check coats, wait on tables, serve drinks, etc.... I'd line up a band.
And every Saturday night, I'd get a guest star to perform for free....
Harry Belafonte was just breaking in then, and he'd come down and sing
in his dark glasses. We were packing them in, the place was always full.
On Saturday mornings, District 65 also had a "kiddy program," which
featured sing-alongs with Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, dance programs
conducted by Guthrie's wife, Margie, and magic shows by Doc Horowitz,
who brought along his daughter, a "terrific ventriloquist and puppeteer"
who acted as emcee. Her name? Shari Lewis, later the star of one of the
1950s' most popular children's TV shows.
In 1952 Foner moved to 1199, where he spent three decades--editing the
union newspaper, aiding strikes and organizing campaigns, advising union
founder Leon Davis and eventually creating Bread and Roses. At
midcentury, the union was quite different from what it is today; now it
has more than 200,000 members, most of whom are black, Hispanic and/or
female. When Foner was hired by Davis, a radical immigrant from Russia,
1199 had only 5,000 members and was overwhelmingly composed of Jewish
men working as pharmacists or clerks in New York City drugstores. But,
as Foner notes, 1199 had campaigned since the late 1930s for the hiring
of black pharmacists and was one of the first unions anywhere to
celebrate Negro History Week. When 1199 began organizing primarily
nonwhite hospital workers in the late 1950s--which led to its explosive
growth over the next twenty years--the union already had a strong record
of support for civil rights.
Commitment to that cause was symbolized by 1199's close relationships
with leading black artists and entertainers. Then relatively unknown as
actors, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis (who contributed a loving foreword to
this book) became lifelong friends and collaborators with the author.
The couple directed or performed in a series of productions at 1199's
annual "Salute to Freedom." Much later they helped Foner create Bread
and Roses' best-known musical review, Take Care, which used
humorous songs and sketches to tell the story of hospital workers' daily
lives, their frustrations on the job and hopes for the future.
In 1199's initial hospital organizing and strikes, the union tried to
fuse civil rights and working-class consciousness. Several vivid
chapters in Not for Bread Alone describe how its "Union Power,
Soul Power" campaigns were built--first in New York, then in Baltimore,
Philadelphia and Charleston, South Carolina, site of an epic 113-day
walkout aided by Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and
other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The
photographs accompanying Foner's memoir confirm the breadth of the
union's political alliances--with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr.,
Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Adam Clayton Powell.
If the 1960s and early '70s were years of triumph for 1199, they
culminated in a decade of byzantine internal feuding. Leon Davis
suffered a stroke in 1979 and decided, after nearly five decades as
president, to turn over the reins to Doris Turner, an African-American
and former dietary clerk who headed 1199's hospital division. At the
same time, the union's founder tried to realize his longtime dream of
creating "one big union for all healthcare workers" by merging 1199 with
SEIU. Neither the merger nor the internal transfer of power proceeded as
planned. Instead, the union was plunged into a terrible "civil war,"
replete with "bitter elements of racism, sexism, red-baiting, violence,
For a majority of 1199 members, two things eventually became clear:
Turner was an incompetent autocrat and their union had become a "busted
Stradivarius." Turner purged all staff critics, surrounded herself with
goons, moved the union to the right politically, engaged in vote fraud
to win re-election and then, in 1984, led "one of the most inept,
unplanned, and disastrous strikes in New York history." To get the union
back on track, Foner and other 1199 veterans joined forces with Dennis
Rivera, a staff organizer from Puerto Rico recently fired by Turner.
They created a dissident group called "Save Our Union," which ran a
slate headed by Georgianna Johnson in a federally supervised rerun
election for 1199 officers. Johnson narrowly defeated Turner, but her
presidency was only slightly less troubled. She was soon ousted by her
former backer, Rivera, who has led 1199 in New York since 1989 (and
engineered its long-delayed affiliation with SEIU three years ago).
On the subject of 1199's "self-destruction"--what Foner calls "the most
heart-breaking experience" of his life--Not for Bread Alone is
both unreflective and unrevealing. "To some extent, we all played out
events based on our backgrounds, and mistakes were made. But the union
survived," the author writes. Elsewhere, Foner admits that "the whole
affair had disturbing overtones" but claims, unconvincingly, that during
the union's 1989 leadership race he "was removed from the day-to-day
running of 1199, and [has] only a hazy idea of the details."
As a history of 1199, then, Not for Bread Alone is best read
along with Leon Fink and Brian Greenberg's Upheaval in the Quiet
Zone (which Foner, to his credit, helped the authors research,
despite its dissection of various 1199 flaws). Upheaval appeared
thirteen years ago, when the union's bloody and embarrassing leadership
succession fight was still unresolved. Yet it remains the definitive
study of what went wrong then--and its analysis is just as relevant
today, in light of 1199's recent right turn, under Rivera, into the camp
of Republican Governor George Pataki, a questionable ally for any
"progressive" trade union.
Fink and Greenberg criticize Davis not only for his disastrous choice of
Turner as heir apparent but also for functioning as a "charismatic
patriarch" whose "unquestioned authority verged on benevolent
despotism." According to them, even the 1199 bylaw reforms championed by
Save Our Union failed to address the problem of overly centralized
decision-making in a "local" union far larger than most national ones.
"Without provisions for an elected 'chief delegate' at each hospital or
elected area directors, there is still no structural accommodation to
pluralistic power centers within the union and little place for leaders
of the future to spread their wings," they contended. "Communication as
well as decision-making will still be formulated in a room at the top."
The local's history and internal politics aside, the main question
raised by Foner's memoir is whether Bread and Roses offers a viable
model for cultural programming elsewhere in labor. Or is it too much a
product of New York City exceptionalism--a unique expression of 1199's
interracialism and now-fading political traditions, including its
Popular Front alliance with artists and entertainers long in the orbit
of the Old Left?
B&R has, from the beginning, inspired other labor arts initiatives.
Just as 1199 once tried to spread its unique brand of hospital unionism
elsewhere in the country (with varying degrees of success), Foner helped
organize, in 1980, the first in a series of Bread and Roses cultural
festivals in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which have been held there on
Labor Day weekend ever since. For almost as long, the Labor Heritage
Foundation in Washington has hosted an annual Arts Exchange and
Conference on Creative Organizing, which brings together union activists
and entertainers. LHF also sells poster art, videos and CDs of union
music to help publicize the work of labor choruses and individual
singer-songwriters. At the local level, however, few unions have the
kind of membership base and staff support--or access to foundation
funding--that has kept B&R afloat for nearly twenty-five years.
(During his period of forced exile from 1199 during the mid-1980s, even
Foner found it hard to reproduce his past successes while working
part-time for a small Meat Cutters local in Queens.)
According to Esther Cohen, Bread and Roses' current director, the
project continues to achieve its founder's goal of providing
professional-quality programming and opportunities for creative
expression by 1199 members themselves. B&R's permanent art gallery
at union headquarters currently hosts eight exhibits a year, on topics
ranging from Haitian culture and Dominican religion to the lives of
Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson and Pennsylvania coal miners, and the
death-row experiences of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Once a month, Cohen reports,
the gallery becomes "a cozy nightclub" and cafe, with entertainment
provided by 1199 rank-and-filers. More than 150 members recently signed
up for a creative-writing workshop as well; and as part of an amateur
photography program called "Unseen America," Bread and Roses is helping
scores of its members--and other immigrant workers--record and display
scenes of workplace and community life rarely shown in the mass media.
However, in the issue of New Labor Forum that recently published
Cohen's account of B&R activity, the Queens College magazine also
bemoaned the fact that most professionals in the arts are no longer
stirred by "the plight of working people and the intoxicating promise of
their liberation." According to NLF's editors:
For two centuries, until now that is, there was always a cultural
alternative, a point of opposition that said no to the callous
calculations of the marketplace.... While many kinds of people and
institutions have, at one time or another, joined the opposition, the
labor movement was always part of the picture, sometimes at the center
of the canvas. No more.... The labor movement is at a cultural dead end.
It has been defeated in the struggle for the hearts and minds of our
Such funereal observations were not part of Moe Foner's game. He was
ever the optimist, the union survivor and upbeat promoter of new ideas
and causes. If still on the job at B&R, he'd be on the phone right
now buttonholing talent for its next production, badgering reporters to
cover it and rallying members to fill every seat in the house--while
organizing labor opposition to US intervention in Iraq on the side! He'd
also be applauding the role played by hip-hop stars in the mass rally of
New York City teachers (and thousands of their music-loving students)
held in late May during contract talks between Mayor Bloomberg and the
United Federation of Teachers. Better than some activists in his field,
the author knew that if "labor culture" is going to be sustained, it
must be periodically renewed--that Ossie and Ruby must finally give way
to the likes of Sean (Puff Daddy) Combs, Jay-Z, LL Cool J, and Erykah
Badu, all of whom graced the platform of the UFT.
As New York City union historian Joshua Freeman observed, in another
recent exchange about the future of labor-oriented art and
entertainment: "There is no going back in time, and no reason to do so.
The strength of mid-century New York left culture lay in its organic
relationship to the needs and tastes of the city's working class. It
remains for another generation, in its own way, to build a new culture
of labor and the left."