THE BLOG

Bread and Roses: Reflections on Labor Day

09/03/2012 12:01 pm ET | Updated Nov 03, 2012
  • Diane Russell State Representative, Maine House of Representatives

Four years ago, my dear friend and local city councilor, Dory, invited me to my first Labor Day breakfast. Held in the basement of a local church, it felt like the hunter's breakfasts my dad had taken me to as a fresh faced 12-year-old kid, doe permit in hand. When I was a kid, though, I knew all the folks in the room.

Walking into the Labor Day breakfast, I felt the paralysis creep in. The word "mingling" sends jolts up the small of my back. I'm painfully shy.

Earlier in the year, I had watched local labor activist, Harlan Baker, bring to life the early Labor Movement through the eyes of his character, Jimmy Higgins. It was my first entree into the Labor Movement and its colorful history, but I confess I didn't understand the magnitude of the word "Solidarity."

A new candidate for the Maine House, I wondered if folks would just see me as another politician in a long line of politicians who would ultimately disappoint them.

Dory introduced me to countless new people whose names I tried hard to remember. She knew everyone in here and smiled brightly doling out hugs to everyone she saw. I felt I would never fit in here as easily as she did.

As she introduced me to her friends, I learned I had more in common with people than I realized. College educated, I was one of the "underemployed." I spent my days working for $8.00/hour behind the register of the local mom and pop Italian deli. I didn't need to read Nickel and Dimed; I lived it.

As I ate breakfast, I listened to the then Commissioner of Labor read a poem, "Bread and Roses." I strained to understand the power of the words, to feel them as everyone around me so clearly did.

As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses, too.

The essence of the words was lost on me in that moment, but I was determined to understand
the power that stemmed from the history behind them.

Just a few short months after I heard those words, I watched an African-American become president, running on a platform of hope, something we were all desperately seeking. Since then, we have seen just how hard Wall Street and right-wing media personalities would fight back against his -- and our -- legacy. "Yes We Can" turned into "No, you won't," undercutting the hopes of a generation through greed and malfeasance. For two years, we invested in the middle class, but then the Citizens United case happened.

And with it, the Red Tide of 2010.

First came Governor LePage's removal of the "labor mural" from the walls of the Department of Labor headquarters. The mural depicted the history of Maine workers, from the era of child
labor, to Rosie the Riveter, to the Jay mill strike and beyond. Then came "Right to Work"
(rebranded as "fair share"), child labor rollbacks, voter suppression bills and minimum wage attacks. The tidal wave just kept coming. And too much of it passed -- including "reforms" to the worker's compensation system that will have terrible effects for workers permanently disabled due to an injury on the job.

Last March, friends and I drove across country from Maine to Madison to see for ourselves what was just erupting as the "Wisconsin protests." I went for two reasons. First, I realized the same bills being proposed and rammed through the GOP-led legislature in Wisconsin would soon find their way to our state. And I was right.

The second reason I drove through two snowstorms to Madison was to witness people standing up against these attacks on core American values, such as the idea that our democracy should not be sold off to the highest bidder at the expense of the rest of us, or that an honest day's work should still earn an honest day's wage.

What I found were people who shared my values, and had enough courage to put their reputations, their work and their time on the line -- because there was a line. No longer was there a gray area, no longer were people willing to sit in the water until it boiled. The line was clear and it had broad implications for the future of our country. These were average, everyday people -- the middle class -- and they feared the legacy that would be left for the next generation.

They say you can never come home again, and perhaps that's true. In many ways, I did not return as the same gal who left. But I was welcomed home by countless Mainers who shared the view that people should be climbing into the middle class, not falling out of it.

Suddenly, where I once froze with fear at meeting new people, I now felt like a member of the family. When the history books write about the past couple of years, we will be part of the masses they write about -- the ones who stood up against all odds, in solidarity, for what we believed in.

I'll never understand fully what people saw in our trip, but this morning when I walk into the giant breakfast room, I will not be "mingling." I will be returning home to the family where I feel safe and welcome.

And, like generations of people before me, I will finally understand, "Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses, too."

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