In 1912, teen-age girls striking the woolen mills in Lawrence, Mass, carried placards reading: "We want bread and roses, too."

Bread and roses became a slogan of the labor movement, but the successes of American labor have been in bringing the workers bread, not roses.

Few unions have even tried to keep faith with the vision of a labor union voiced by president of the United Steelworkers, Phillip Murray. "What does a union mean to working people?" he asked. "Pictures on the wall, carpets on the floor and music in the home," he answered.

But a relatively small, New York based union has now organized, under the title Bread and Roses, what appears to be the largest program to bring culture to the rank and file in the history of the U.S. labor movement.

District 1199 of the Naional Union of Hospital and Health Care Employes is not bringing music into the workers' homes, but into their workplaces around the city.

Martin Luther King Jr. once called District 1199 his favorite union. In the 20 years since its first successful hospital campaign in New York, the union has been not only a militant organizer involving the lower-rung health care workers, but also a leader in civil rights and other social activities. Executive Secretary Moe Foner remarks with pride that District 1199 was the first union to oppose the Vietnam war.

Almost 85 percent of the roughly 70,000 union members are women and more than 70 percent are black or Hispanic.

Bread and Roses is an effort, Foner said, tobring new horizons to members - and to others. The program challenges the idea that culture is elitist and somehow alien to working people.

The music, art and history Bread and Roses is providing, however, are limked to the workers' backgrounds. District 1199 is not trying to turn its members on to Shakespeare or Bartok, but to their roots and to experiences of working people.

At St. Luke's Hospital recently, and audience largely in white-and-blue hospital coats clapped and sang through the gospel finale to the Howard Roberts Chorale's lunchtime performance. For four weeks, Roberts' professional singing group, which deals in American and Caribbean folk songs, has been playing hospital audiences including sick patients, nursing home elderly and brain-damaged children as well as hospital workers.

Spirituals, workers' songs and calypsos or other Caribbean rhythms dominate the Roberts recitals which have been heard by about 7,000 people so far, in the opening series of entertainment for people where they work.

The hospital workers - not to mention the patients - are not in the habit of visiting Linclon Center or other expensive halls relatively far from where most of them live. But their lunch hours - which can be stretched beyond the usual 30 minutes to allow for a concert - are usually free. Foner hopes that over the two years Bread and Roses is scheduled to run, a worker will be able to participate in some aspect of the program once every two months.

The most challenging part of Bread and Roses is an oral history project designed to result in a musical review that will take its place as part of the lunchtime entertainment in hospitalsa next year.

Union members have been volunteering their time after finishing jobs as nursing aides, laboratory technicians, therapists and orderlies to meet evenings at the union's headquarters to discuss their working experiences.

The discussions are led by Lewis Coles, a writer and teacher. From tapes and notes of the rap sessions, a number of professional writers will create a Bread and Roses show.

The subject at one recent session was women and work. Thirteen women and one man, most black or Hispanic, ate sandwiches and drank coffee as they considered such questions as why so many of the lower-paid hospital workers are female.

They have too much pride in themselves and in their roles helping patients to adopt boldly the Women's Lib answer that women simply get the worst jobs.

But their discussion was rueful and often amusing. "It's sort of natural," one woman nurse's aide said. "If you were a good mother, you could nurse a patient."

"Right," another said, "you're washing, you're cleaning, you're helping."

"No one brought me up to aspire to anything," another said, "so I just got married. I never felt I was missing anything until maybe now when I think of what I could have done."

Most men in their lives are not heroes. "I got the kids and he's out there having a good time," one mother of eight remarked of her husband.

But they agreed that when women, particularly black and Hispanic women, turn up at a hospital to apply for jobs, they are funneled into the lower-paying categories.

One woman who said she can type and take shorthand told the group: "I bought a new typewriter, and I've been practicing shorthand at home. They tell me I'm on the waiting list [for a clerical job], but I don't think that list is ever going to come."

To a woman, however, they agreed that they would prefer to have a male supervisor. "A woman will do everything to make your life harder. They've scratched their way to the top," one said.

In addition to the lunchtime performances and oral history project, Bread and Roses includes a series of evening concerts, one of which brought 2,800 union members to Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall - where most had never been before - to hear Harry Belafonte.

Belafonte, a longtime friend of District 1199, said the evening was a rarely moving experience for him as an entertainer. "That audience, " he said, " was special."

The union is also presenting a series of exhibits of photographs and paintings in its headquarters. High school classes are being invited to the current show of photographs of Southern textile workers and the message is clear - both from the photographs by Earl Dotter and the printed discussion guide which describes J. P Steven's antiunion practices and asks:

"Should workers have unions?Why?"

And "would you like to be a textile worker in the South?"

Bread and Roses will cost about $1.3 million over two years, Foner said. The National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and state cultural agencies are contributing grants totaling about $550,000. District 1199 plans to provide $350,000 in contributions and services and the rest is being sought from foundations and church groups.

"Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses!' James Oppenheim wrote in his poem on the 1912 Lawrence strike that was one of the major triumphs of the International Workers of the World.

District 1199, despite its emphasis on culture for the next two years, is not forgetting bread. Just a block from St. Luke's Hospital where the Roberts chorale was performing, other members of District 1199 were picketing in a strike of clerical and cafeteria workers against Columbia University.

A union history of hospital work lists its achievements but then makes clear that it sees a lot of work ahead. It says:

"The health field is the second largest employer in the United States. The overwhelming majority of the country's 2.5 million hospital workers remain unorganized. They are among the most exploited and underpaid in the land." CAPTION: Picture, Poster for the union program, which offers arts, music and history to members.