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It is 72 degrees on Christmas Eve, so it feels like the world is ending. On the way to see The Force Awakens, any given Tom Petty song is playing and my father is idly muttering the lyrics. I am, too, until we both acknowledge the simultaneity and stop. I have a two liter bottle of Publix brand diet cola in my backpack, he has Pall Malls and shots of Fireball in his pockets, and she has Snickers from Deal Mart that expired over six months ago in her ‘pocketbook’. We will, of course, share all the bounty. Later on, in her recliner, she calls to me, “I really have to start finding a better way of making a living.” I say, “What if finding a better way to live came first?” She says, “Well isn’t that a great philosophy.”
The Lawrence Textile strike united immigrant workers hailing from Austria, Belgium, Cuba, Canada, France, England, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Scotland, Spain, Syria, Turkey, to name a few. The year was 1912 and a law had been passed in Massachusetts reducing the maximum workweek for women and children from 56 to 54. The textile owners sped up the machines and cut pay proportionally, of course. In Lawrence at the time, organizing was led by female workers who were able to rally peers in this landmark “immigrant city” speaking over seven different languages. On January 12th, a group of workers in the Washington Mill walked off the job announcing “short pay, all out.” Knives in hand, they slashed the machine belts, cloth, and thread in their wake in a declaration of a break from their humdrum drudgery. By the end of the day more than 10,000 workers were out on strike. To circumvent injunctions against loitering, they developed the new strategy of the roving picket line. Some of the Wobblies’ best men and women were sent to Lawrence to assist in the proceedings. One of these was Rose Schneiderman, a precocious defender of working class dignity, who helped infuse the strike with the sentiments it would come to be known for. In a speech associated with the strike, she professed:
“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.”
Bread and Roses. Well, isn’t that a great philosophy.
It’s the small luxuries beyond sustenance that really make it, isn’t it. Whiskey helps, too. But so does the free time to spend with friends and loved ones. I want us to have sustenance and the right to survive, but I want us to thrive together with everyone in the community, too.
This is going to take some work.
They say you are the way you eat and she is eating nothing but deals. Everything she eats is packaged and has gone bad, but not so bad that it kills her right away. We have to go here to get these items and there to get those items. I am already looking for a good bottle of wine that is under seven dollars when, in an excited aside meant just for me that is completely without irony, she tells me that we can go to Walgreens and get a bottle for only $4. I imagine that the gas isn’t worth it and it will taste horribly. I haven’t seen her this happy all day, though, so it must be worth something. It is hard to dream of roses when you think all you deserve is discounted, rotten bread.
In 1912 people tended to actually talk to one another, like, in person; globalization was just barely starting to be a thing. Of course, folks had their own set of new conditions that brought forth their own societal plagues. But their social networks were composed of soup kitchens and mutual aid networks rather than algorithms that cache our every click. So what really happened between now and then? When our economic growth is actually a result of quantitative easing. When our wages have fallen by twelve percent, in terms of what they can buy, over the course of the past five years. When there is an unprecedented decline in living standards. Unemployment, underemployment. When more than a quarter of people living in places like Detroit, Michigan or Macon, Georgia, or Fountain Inn, South Carolina or St. Louis, MO are living below the poverty line why are we not all walking out on the jobs? Oh, right, the force of neoliberalism has lulled us into thinking that when we shop at New Seasons or Whole Foods we are doing our part, when in fact there is a war being waged on our collective subjectivity. It’s the same old story, sure. Politicians espouse ‘jobs’ as the silver bullet. Swept up in TINA logic, it is difficult to dream of something truly different for ourselves, together.
[la salute non ha prezzo]
In her speech accepting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards, Ursula K. Le Guin reminded us that we’re going to be needing writers who can remember freedom, writers who “know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the production of an art.” Amen to that, sister. She furthered by reminding us now that “we live in capitalism. It’s power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” Well, isn’t that a great philosophy.
At the end of 2015, let’s set our resolutions really big. or, at the very least, let’s set our resolutions on roses. Let’s not forget that this has all been done before and it can be done again.