At the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, one organizer famously explained the motivation of union supporters by declaring: “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” With this simple, poetic expression, Rose Schneiderman invoked a common need for daily necessities, such as the bread we eat, but also the desire to enjoy the finer things of life, symbolized by a beautiful, flowering rose.

Labor unions have historically been an essential component in the continuing struggle by working people to raise living and social standards, with hopes that children and grand-children have ample opportunities for success and happiness. When unions have been strongest, working families have controlled our greatest proportion of the national wealth.

Through contract campaigns, shop-floor activism, community outreach, coalition building, legal challenges, political action and nationwide mobilizations, American’s labor unions have stood for:

  • Family-sustaining wages, with regular wage increases
  • A voice and a vote on workplace issues and conditions of employment
  • A 40-hour work week, with overtime pay for any more
  • A standard 8-hour work day, allowing for personal time and rest
  • Ending discriminatory employment practices by united action
  • Family health insurance, including vision and dental, with employers paying most
  • More healthful community standards
  • Paid vacations
  • Seniority rights
  • Fair scheduling of work
  • Workplace safety laws, rules, and personnel
  • Fire safety standards and a means to enforce them
  • Minimum wage laws
  • Protections from coercive power of employers, and defense against unfair treatment, discipline or discharge
  • Training and staff, so workers’ concerns are properly addressed
  • Legal and binding labor agreements with management, enforceable by law
  • The right to engage in concerted actions with co-workers for mutual self-improvement
  • A pro-worker base of support in our communities, with power and resources
  • Retraining assistance, leads on other good-paying jobs and other advantages of being a part of a network of like-minded men and women
  • Sticking up for other working people and helping out in their struggles
  • And unions stand for many, many more improvements that add up to a better deal for working people and their families

It’s no coincidence that the most meaningful anti-poverty social improvements – such as economic assistance for poor, disabled, unemployed, or for elderly Americans, such as Social Security – only came about when working people and our unions demanded it. The same can be said of America’s anti-discrimination laws. Unions and the labor movement are, at their core, an expression of the desires and demands of the working people themselves.

And on a larger scale, the labor movement makes sure that the power of the wealthy class does not run rough-shod over the rights of everyone else. On may levels, labor unions continue to expand the principles of equality that the United States was founded upon, and promote a more democratic society.

Of course, what is gained today can be lost tomorrow if not diligently protected. Our unions are a proven vehicle to safeguard hard-won gains, and to further the interests of working people through ever-changing times.


Commentary originally published in Pennsylvania Labor History Journal April, 2017 by Howard Scott