Championing Workers and Culture, Too
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
On the makeshift stage of an art gallery on the West Side of Manhattan, a hobbled woman with thick glasses confronts a swaggering, foul-mouthed bully with arguments about why he should not rob her.
She, too, is poor, she cries, and she will be forced to abandon her beloved house for a dreaded nursing home if she is robbed yet again. Ranting and just as desperate, the robber responds that he needs her money because it will be his ticket out of a homeless shelter.
The audience, some 50 people in casual clothes, is mesmerized, and it audibly boils with anger when the robber, discovering the old lady has only pennies in her purse, runs off with her prized statue of Buddha.
The play ends with that harsh scene, and the audience, mostly nurses' aides, hospital technicians and nursing home workers, showers the two actors with flowers. The 53-year-old actress who played the elderly woman is a hospital orderly, a union organizer played the robber and a retired hospital social worker wrote the play to bring home the cruelty of not thinking of the hardships of others.
Produced by a labor union, the play is a throwback to another era when the nation had a thriving cultural movement, pushed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and many writers, artists and performers, that sought to bring art to the common man.
The union that sponsored the play, 1199 New York's giant union of health care workers, remains one of the last and foremost practitioners of this ebbing movement from another era. And Moe Foner, the man who presides over 1199's cultural activities, certainly stretches back that far. Now 85, he was organizing cabarets and jazz events for a department store union back in the 1940's.
These days, when much of the news from the art world is of multimillion dollar sales and museum admission fees can be $10, Mr. Foner, as head of 1199's Bread and Roses cultural program, continues to plunge ahead with his decades-old project of bringing art to the masses. In this way he shares the vision championed by the Works Progress Administration and private, nonprofit groups like the Public Theater.
While some union leaders have a vision limited to whether they can get a 3 percent or 3.5 percent wage increase, Mr. Foner insisted on having an art gallery built at 1199's headquarters at 310 West 43rd Street in Clinton. He has had Milton Glaser design union posters and has roped in Alan Alda, Harry Belafonte, Woody Guthrie and Sidney Poitier to perform.
In a highlight from the 10 exhibitions that Bread and Roses organizes each year, he once commissioned 30 prominent artists, including Ralph Fasanella, Sue Coe, and Jacob Lawrence, to do work-related paintings for an exhibition, "Images of Labor," which toured the United States, Italy, France and Sweden.
"The purpose is to bring the arts, meaning culture, to working people, to bring a culture that reflects their lives and that will help bring their lives to a higher level," said Mr. Foner, who has been called the Sol Hurok of the labor movement. "It helps create a sense of pride."
He and his three brothers, sons of a seltzer delivery man in Brooklyn, are from a family that is famous on the nation's left. In addition to being blacklisted, they all became luminaries: Philip became a leading labor historian, Jack was a respected author on African-American history, and Henry became president of the furriers' union.
In running Bread and Roses, Moe Foner has also tried to improve the image of labor unions and help members identify more closely with them and feel prouder of their work lives.
"We believe that it's important that the public and even our members understand the dignity of work, that working people do make a contribution, that they're not the schlumps that many people think," he said.
Facing his desk is a Ralph Fasanella poster of New York's skyline, and on his office bookshelves stand wax candles that are caricatures of President Richard M. Nixon and Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. (He was on Nixon's enemies list for organizing labor efforts against the Vietnam War.)
"Moe Foner brings a vision and a vitality that you don't see much anymore," said Maxine Greene, philosopher in residence at the Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts and Education. "The W.P.A. and some theater groups represented real Rooseveltian values about the arts, but they've largely been dropped." Bread and Roses, she said, is part of "a tradition that connects workers and art and music into a kind of communion."
With health problems mounting, Mr. Foner has given some of his duties to Esther Cohen, the creative director of Bread and Roses.
While Mr. Foner emphasized having musicians and artists bring culture to the union, Ms. Cohen has focused more on programs in which members of 1199, part of the Service Employees International Union, create and perform themselves, viewing that as a route to personal fulfillment.
Each month the union sponsors a cabaret act at the art gallery, where hospital workers read their poetry, sing hip-hop songs and play instruments. Week after week, Bread and Roses, with the help of state subsidies, sends music and theater groups to perform in hospitals and nursing homes at lunchtime. And Ms. Cohen teaches a creative writing course to 15 hospital workers. Their best short stories are published in the union's magazine.
Jacqueline Kendall, a nurses' aide who cleans rooms and delivers food to patients at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, loves the writing course and the other art programs. "I look at it as being a seasoning in my life," she said.
The program -- with a staff of four and a $400,000 annual budget, half coming from foundations and government -- has also played an unabashed role in keeping the nation's left-leaning cultural tradition alive. It has sponsored memorial concerts for Paul Robeson, introduced Pete Seeger to younger generations and sponsored dramatic productions on the civil rights movement that Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee have written and performed.
Not surprisingly, the few conservative arts critics who know about Bread and Roses -- they usually circulate in a different orbit -- have occasionally ridiculed its activities as propaganda or as schmaltz. Hilton Kramer, the conservative art critic, said that from the little he knew about Bread and Roses, its efforts were crowd-pleasing political art and not serious art.
Some people on the left have their own set of frustrations about Bread and Roses, regretting that it always remained on the margins of mainstream culture and never lived up to their hopes of becoming a loud and prominent voice with a profound influence in New York and nationally. This, its supporters say, would be difficult, given its backing by a single union and the declining power and visibility of unions and the left in general.
Perhaps its biggest success has been a poster series called "Women of Hope." It started in 1994 with a dozen posters called "African-American Women of Hope," featuring the poet Maya Angelou, the novelists Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, and the social crusaders Marian Wright Edelman and Ida Wells-Barnett.
The posters were first exhibited at 1199 and in New York City's subways, but they now line the walls of thousands of schools, union halls, nonprofit organizations and shelters for battered women. Many schools have bought the posters to promote role models for female students, and a 64-page teaching guide accompanies the posters.
The series has been followed by those on Latina, Native American and Asian-American women. The most recent series, "International Women of Hope," featuring Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese human rights crusader, and Graca Machel, a literacy advocate from Mozambique, is displayed in the United Nations.
In June Bread and Roses sponsored an exhibition in which 30 high school students around New York City created photographs, paintings, masks and collages on the theme "Why Unions Matter." It included a collage about the lives of underpaid supermarket deliverymen, photos of sweatshop workers and a painting of sugar refinery workers out on strike for more than a year.
Dennis Rivera, president of 1199/S.E.I.U., the New York Health and Human Service Union, has drawn much attention to his union, which has 200,000 members, often for negotiating contracts with job guarantees and benefits for workers near the bottom of the ladder. But he has not stinted in supporting Mr. Foner's initiatives. "As the saying goes," he said, "We want bread and roses, too."