Book Review: Milton Meltzer’s Bread-and Roses: The struggle of American Labor 1865-1915

By Kristen Kinjo-Bushman

Documenting the working person’s struggle in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, Bread-and Roses: the struggle of American Labor 1865-1915, elucidates the essence of the conflict that changed the very structure of labor. The title of the book comes from a famous line from one of the union songs used in the Lawrence textile strikes. “Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!” A quick read and a good intro to the history of the Labor Union this novel serves as a brief overview of 50 years of revolution.

With the dramatic growth of industry and the birth of the corporation, a cultural genocide swept post-Civil War America as skilledartisans and workers found themselves in an entirely new market. Their learned trades became obsolete almost overnight, as the economic efficiency of mass production transformed their mills into factories and small shops into large-scale corporations. This change meant that the tailor, shoemaker, mechanic and blacksmith were forced from their now antiquated specialized shops that produced an item from conception to completion to the mindless repetition of an assembly line. Consequently, workers were demoralized and rendered expendable as human worth was subtly undermined and social stratifications grew more disparate.

Showing the repeated defeats of the strikes and uprisings, Meltzer documents massacres and systematic starvation, exploitation and deliberate denial of wages that were already well below the standard of living. The inception of women’s rights, child labor laws, civil rights as well as the common worker’s struggle were portrayed in this novel as an unconquerable spirit united a class of slaves who were only nominally free. Revolutionary procedures were employed as union organizers were faced with the challenge of fusing the demands of people coming from different racial, economic and cultural backgrounds. Union after union failed to influence the impervious monopolies that paid-off the political system and were protected under the law. But finally, after documentation of human right violations of every kind, the courts ruled in favor of the worker, and the union emerged as a viable force.

While Bread-and Roses outlined the birth of American unions in context of the growing concern for social equality, it is certainly as relevant today as it was in the early 1900’s. The implications of history plague us. Although sweatshops and starvation wages may not be presented as primary solicitations in our modern day American frame of discourse, we are forced to call into question the slavery that still exists in the abstracted and intentionally exiled Asian worker. We are living in denial if we say that we believe in human rights past the borders of our own country while buying products that we know are in violation of fair wage laws, working and environmental standards.

The issues presented in this book should be very personally and religiously relevant. Reading of the conditions that existed in the country in which we live has only strengthened my conviction that we must find a way to eradicate the suffering of those living in foreign lands that we condone through our ignorance. As consumers and as Latter-Day Saints we must accept responsibility and acknowledge the power that we have by promoting awareness. I do not believe that the average American would knowingly support the exploitation of other human beings. And I do not believe that any returned missionary who served abroad, any Mormon, or for that matter any person who believes in applying the teachings of Christ can remain apathetic on the subject. The disturbing truth is that we have been pacified by our wealth and the easiness of our way of living to believe that other people deserve the poverty that we sustain. We cannot continue to excuse ourselves any more than the millionaires of the early 1900’s who lived in disgusting luxury while their brothers and sisters starved in the streets.