American politics is good at producing saints and villains. Ever since Abraham Lincoln occupied the White House in the 1860s, presidents and senators have been the focus of intense scrutiny as if character counts for more than policy. Strong-willed individualism – staked out in films as diverse as Mr Smith Goes to Washington of 1939, High Noon of 1952 and the Star Wars franchise – seems to be the American way. At the same time, collective politics – associated with protests, trade unionism, consumer boycotts and strikes – have often been characterised as ‘un-American’ activities.
The 1950s were the low point for American activists. In Washington, the House Un-American Activities Committee smeared consumer associations as subversive and the Senate set up a ‘Rackets Committee’ to investigate corruption in trade unions. In Hollywood, filmmakers painted a picture of the US labor move ment in cahoots with the mob. The trade unionists who command New York’s docks in Elia Kazan’s 1954 film, On the Waterfront, are presented as the new robber barons of the age.
In their new book Agitate! Educate! Organize!, Lincoln Cushing and Timothy W. Drescher set out to change lingering perceptions of collec tive action as crooked politics. Mapping the history of ‘American labor posters’, they record the rich and often forgotten visual history of US trade unionism, civil rights activism and agitation for democracy. This is a fair-minded book, not only celebrating the promotion of minority rights but also pointing out moments of mean prejudice too (in, for instance, calls to boycott Chinese-run clothing factories in US cities before the First World War). Today, when unemployment graphs form steep inclines around the world and we worry about the break up of industry in the West and the conditions in which people work in the sweatshops of Asia, their book seems to have a contemporary kick.
The book captures America’s long tradition of worker activism. The appeal of ringing calls for dignity and the end of poverty in New York’s sweatshops and Chicago’s slaughter houses of the 1910s and the dust-bowls and soup-kitchens of the Depression years is clear, but how did they sound in the boom years after 1945?
It is perhaps not surprising that in the land of plenty, many of the posters reproduced in Agitate! Educate! Organize! sought to mould the attitudes and behaviour of consumers. In the late 1960s, for instance, the United Farm Workers Union focused attention on California grape growers who denied the minimum wage to their farm-workers – largely Filipino and Mexican immigrants. A five-year-long strike on the farms was supported by a consumer boycott of their produce. Graphic designers including Milton Glaser lent their skills to the cause, producing vivid posters reminding consumers of the unpalatable conse quences of their appetite for cheap grapes. Other campaigning images of the period applied the psychedelic lettering and luminous colour palettes more usually associated with the head shops of Haight-Ashbury than the practical business of supporting disenfranchised workers.
Unsurprisingly, psychedelia has rarely been the imagery of choice of the American radicals. In fact, many of the most striking designs of the left have a low-tech character. Carlos Cortez’s woodcuts stand out. Cartoonist and editor for the Industrial Worker, the newspaper published by the Industrial Workers of the World union, Cortez specialised in woodcuts and linocuts. He is perhaps best known for his portraits of working-class heroes like Joe Hill and Ricardo Flóres Magón. His portrait of Hill – a union activist and songwriter executed in 1915 after being prosecuted on trumped up charges – radiates holiness and indignation in equal measure.
Cortez’s technique owed much to the primitive conditions in which the Industrial Worker was produced. Photo-engraved illustrations were beyond the resources of the paper, particularly in its early days in the 1940s. Linocuts could be printed inexpensively on a flatbed press. During hard times, Cortez would salvage timber from back alleys to make woodcut prints.
Even after the Industrial Worker switched to offset, and Cortez exchanged his gouges for pen and ink, he maintained his ‘primitive’ aesthetic. Style and ideology connected his work to a long tradition of popular print which claimed Mexican political cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada and Berlin artist Käthe Kollwitz as pioneers. His images contain more than a trace of nostalgia for an age when it seemed possible that workers might run the world (when, in Hill’s words, “every mine and every mill … will, at our command, stand still”).
Nostalgia is also shared by the two authors when they write, “A cool YouTube snip will have its moment, but won’t replace a poster in a coffee shop window about how employer X is unfair because of Y reasons.”
This is wide of the mark. The Industrial Worker, the union news paper which first made use of Cortez’s images can now be downloaded from iww.org. And activists make more use of their mobile phones and Dream weaver than printing presses. The coffee shop poster might well have spanned the ‘local’ dimensions of a labour dispute or a consumer boycott in the past. But today the food that we eat or the clothes that we wear are rarely made locally. Phoning the bank means dialling a call centre in India. Higher wages or better working condi tions in one country can ‘improve’ the competitiveness of another, usually poorer one. Globalisation has produced new kinds of commercial empires, which are far more adaptable and mobile than their forebears.
One of the most concise images in the book is a powerful reminder of this fact: Ricardo Levin-Morales’ 1992 poster Globalization: the Next Generation fills a plan view of a jumbo jet with a ‘cargo’ of slaves. It reworks Thomas Clarkson’s famous 1789 image of 482 closely-packed human beings on a slave ship bound for the New World. Almost 200 million people in the world are international migrants today who have moved in search of work and that figure will surely grow. Levin-Morales’ image points to the daunting challenge of protecting the rights of workers in what is often – and sometimes mistakenly – called a ‘post-industrial’ age.
David Crowley is deputy head of Design History at London’s Royal College of Art