Moe Foner was a nationally renowned activist who dedicated his life to union struggles. He founded an influential cultural arts program, Bread and Roses, which brought together artists and activists to publicize the cause of workers, and added an artistic dimension to union workers' lives beyond earning their "daily bread." "I operated under the theory that a good union doesn't have to be dull," said Foner in 2000.
Born in 1915 to Polish Jewish parents, Foner grew up in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. He was one of four brothers, all of whom became prominent in the American left—Jack and Philip were historians and Henry was a union leader. Moe Foner graduated from Brooklyn College in 1936 and went on to work with the garment workers' union, then with City College of New York, where he was fired for his leftist political beliefs, and then, briefly, as a jazz musician in the Catskills.
After serving stateside as a quartermaster during the Second World War, Foner became education director of Department Store Local 1250 in 1945. He ran the union's cultural activities, presenting a musical about department store workers called "Thursdays 'Til Nine." A few years later, he moved to Union 1199, the New York Health and Human Service Union, where he became director of education and culture. Foner was instrumental in transforming 1199's membership from 5,000 white male pharmacists in the fifties to a diverse group of more than 210,000 hospital workers today.
He encouraged artistic and civic leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Ruby Dee, and Pete Seeger to support the union's goals. Foner led efforts to organize union opposition to the Vietnam War, while also coordinating concerts, plays, and in 1972 an art gallery in union headquarters. In 1978, he founded Bread and Roses, a NEA-funded program that brought a range of arts to union workers, from Spanish-language theater, to concerts at Lincoln Center, poetry readings by union members, to writing classes and lunch-hour events. He also created a series of posters featuring famous women of color, called "Women of Hope," which hang in schools, libraries, and union halls around the country.
He was married for more than sixty years to Anne Berman Foner, a Rutgers University professor. The couple had two daughters, Nancy and Peggy. Foner gave a notable series of interviews to Columbia's Oral History Research Office in the mid-eighties and again in 2001. He also wrote a memoir based on his oral history entitled Not for Bread Alone. When reflecting on his life's work shortly before his January 2002 death, Moe Foner said, "My goal was always to challenge the idea that culture is elitist or alien to working people."