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.”)