Why we demand raises and roses

"What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”
- Rose Schneiderman

In 1912, thousands of workers went on strike in protest the exploitative working conditions in the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts.  At the time, the city of Lawrence was home to a large immigrant population: 74,000 of the city’s 84,000 inhabitants were either first or second-generation immigrants, with Southeast Europeans—particularly Italians—representing 1/3 of Lawrence’s immigrant population. The workforce in Lawrence’s textile mills was considerable, with between 30,000 and 35,000 workers toiling in the mills. Over half of these workers were women or children. The age threshold for working in the mills was 14 years old, though it was often the case that children under 14 worked in the textile mills. Working conditions were very exploitative. In January of 1912, a new 54-hour/week state law went into effect for workers in Massachusetts, cutting the hours worked in an attempt to slightly reduce the level of exploitation experienced by workers. But with the reduced hours, the textile manufacturers of Lawrence also cut worker wages.

Outraged at the wage cut, thousands of textile workers struck against the wage cut and for improved working conditions. This strike took place in the context of wave of strikes by garment and textile workers—largely immigrant, and disproportionately women—in the early 1900s. The Industrial Workers of the World, a militant labor union, led the strikers in Lawrence in what came to be known as the “Bread and Roses” strike, a phrase often credited to Rose Schneiderman, a socialist and feminist, and long-time labor union leader.

Like other activists in the union movement, as activists in UAW 2865, the union for student workers at the University of California, we take our inspiration from the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912 in naming this blog “Raises and Roses.” What does this phrase, Raises and Roses, mean to us?

Our union, UAW 2865, is currently engaged in negotiating our union contract with UC management.  We have developed a set of bargaining demands that includes very important economic demands (including a much-needed wage increase), but we also have other demands that we consider as important as our basic economic demands. These other demands include, for instance, an expanded childcare subsidy and affordable health coverage for the children of student-workers. They include a demand that the UC reduce class size, something that not only affects us as workers but also the quality of education of undergraduate students. We are demanding that the UC provide the same professional and academic opportunities for undocumented graduate and undergraduate students as those that exist for documented students. We are calling for improved mental health accommodations. We are demanding more gender-neutral bathrooms across the UC system so that LGBT, trans* and gender-nonconforming students can fulfill this basic health need without facing harassment or violence when trying to use the restroom.

In other words, as activists within UAW 2865 and Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (a reform caucus within the union), we believe that all of these demands are important. We recognize that the textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts experienced a class-based exploitation greatly exacerbated by the discrimination they faced as immigrants and as women. We recognize, in other words, that class is deeply shaped by immigration status, gender, race, ethnicity, ability, and other factors. 

So we demand living wage. But we also demand that we be respected and treated with dignity. We demand raises, and we demand roses too.

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