BREAD AND ROSES

In the late seventies and early eighties, when life was younger, when my life was younger, when the world I lived in was a very bright orange, I ended up working for an unlikely man, a Protestant minister, high-minded, theologically well-versed, the kind of man who led marches and gave speeches you wanted to write down. I got the job the way many of us did then. One day at lunch I ran into a college friend named Stephen, a man I trusted because he had memorized the entire Look Homeward Angel. He asked if I was interested in working at a place called The Pilgrim Press, the oldest publishing house in the country. At the time I was an office temp for the Rochester Button Company where buttons were the center of most conversation. Stephen arranged for my job interview with the important Protestant minister.

At the interview, he asked me what I knew about Reinhold Neibuhr. Nothing, was my answer, although I told him I knew a little bit about Martin Buber, one book in particular, so he, a generous man, talked to me about Buber instead.

Then he hired me to edit social justice books. I’m not sure why he hired me. Kindness? Intuition? But that unexpected and unpredictable opportunity changed so much of the rest of my life.

Every day, he and I would have lunch with a potential author, usually an unbelievably dull theologian from a prominent institution, Union Seminary or Harvard or Princeton, and the theologian would describe her book. After lunch, as we walked back to his office my boss would ask what I thought. Because I was a clean slate, because I had even less tact than I do now, I would explain how tedious the presentation had been, how small the subject matter. This did not, by the way, necessarily effect whether Pilgrim Press would publish the book.

One day, we had lunch with someone altogether different, a labor leader who told story after story about workers, about workers whose lives had been deeply changed by his union, Local 1199. He told a story I vaguely knew, but when he told it, I could feel the story enter into me the way one or two or three stories do, in a lifetime. It was about women and children in a textile mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts who went on strike in 1912 to change their lives, the lives of their children, and the lives of other workers. They called it the Bread and Roses strike, because they were fighting for everyone to have both bread and roses.

I knew when he said those words that I too wanted to fight for bread, and roses. The three of us, famous minister, labor leader and naive young woman who had no idea about very much, have worked together for many years. When I think now about Labor Day, and work and workers and the path of life, the personal paths and the collective paths, I am very grateful to those two men, and to my friend who led me to them, and to the many thousands of workers I have met who have taught me what work means, and have shown over and over again how much we all need roses alongside our bread.

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