Bread and Roses : a film by Ken Loach

As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: “Bread and roses! Bread and roses!”
As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry 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!

As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler — ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!
–James Oppenheim, 1911

Ken Loach’s 2000 film Bread and Roses takes its inspiration from the 1980s Justice for Janitors campaign in California that was run by the SEIU (Service Employees International Union). In the film, a young union organizer (Adrien Brody) tries to organize a group of janitors in an LA office building that houses suites for many high-profile organizations and lawyers, including some Hollywood firms (expect one or two cameos—Ron Perlman!). Apart from the organizer, the story focuses primarily on two Mexican-born sisters, Maya (Pilar Padilla) and Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo), who work for the building’s cleaning company. Rosa is legal and the older of the two. She’s also married to a man severely suffering the effects of diabetes. They desperately need health insurance. Maya, on the other hand, is newly arrived and undocumented. She’s also the more feisty of the two and the first to be charmed by the zealous union representative, as you’ll see in the following clip.

Most of the janitorial workers at the building are from Mexico and Central America. They’re overseen by a tightfisted, union-busting boss, and they’re mostly in the dark about the fact that janitors in Los Angeles made more and had full benefits just ten years ago (i.e., wages went down and benefits were lost during the course of just ten years). Brody’s union organizer quickly causes a spark of revolt for many of the workers, but several of them are also scared witless—with reason—about the repercussions of even talking to a union official: firings, deportation, and beyond.

As you can probably guess, the film is strongly pro union and paints a relatively black-and-white picture of the situation. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, right? It’s not like there are an overwhelming number of pro-union films floating around out there.

The film’s title is taken from the James Oppenheim poem at the beginning of the post, and the phrase was also used as a slogan in the 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts textile strike. That strike, which was organized by the Wobblies, is directly referred to in Loach’s film by Brody’s character more than once. For example, during rallies he has a tendency to say, “we want bread, but we want roses, too.” That’s a line rumored to have been plastered on signs during the 1912 strike.  But does all this make for an excellent film? Honestly, I’ve seen better. However, the movie is good at igniting a little working-class anger, and it provides more than one opportunity to shed a tear. So I’d encourage you to see it. Plus, there’s quite a bit of dialogue in Spanish—practice those listening skills, people!

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