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One Labor Union's Unique Tribute To The Working American

July 2024
1min read

During the 1912 strike of 25,000 Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile workers—the high-water mark of the Industrial Workers of the World’s turbulent career—a group of female mill hands marched under a banner that read “We Want Bread and Roses, Too.” Moved by the blunt poetry of the demand, the novelist Joel Oppenheim used it in a ballad that became the famous union song that runs, in part, “Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew./ Yes, it is bread we fight for—but we fight for roses, too!” In the years since Lawrence, many labor organizations have worked to improve not only the working conditions of their members but the quality of their lives as well. None, however, has striven more vigorously toward this end than District 1199, National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees in New York City. Currently in the midst of their two-year “Bread and Roses” cultural project, the union has—along with mounting a series of programs that includes drama, music, poetry readings, and symposiums—established Gallery 1199, the only permanent exhibition hall in the labor movement. According to 1199’s executive secretary, Moe Foner, it attracts “more than twelve thousand members each year, most of whom have never visited a gallery.” Last winter, many of them came to see “The Working American,” an unusual gathering of two centuries of paintings from which this portfolio is drawn. The subjects are as varied as the nation itself, ranging from men driving iron into a whale on a heaving sea to Edgar Melville Ward’s serene turn-of-the-century coppersmith on the opposite page. Although together they form a revealing social document, few of the paintings were intended to give the viewer any insight into the worker’s lot. In a Europe boiling with revolution, many of its nineteenth-century artists liked to show labor locked in heroic struggle against class and capital. But over here, writes Abigail Booth Gerdts, the curator of the show, the worker “entered American painting obliquely: as imaginative portrait, as enlivening detail in landscape, as part of the drama of an exotic interior, as character actor in narrative genre.” Not until the 1930's would we see emerge a true counterpart to the European artists’ interest in the troubles and triumphs of the worker. Nevertheless, we can discover its wellsprings in these views of the men and women who, quite literally, built the republic.


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