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Agitate! Educate! Organize!: American Labor Posters by Lincoln Cushing and Timothy W. Drescher

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This book should be in every university or art school library, and be purchased by anyone who respects organized labor and its history.

Mike Mosher

Reviewer's Note: Two years ago I thought I was being so savvy and careerist by submitting my book review to a scholarly publication overseas. Though I'm tenured, I thought its publication there might help convince more traditional scholars at my university to approve my next grant, release time or sabbatical application. I was told it was accepted and would soon appear, then they selected some guest editors who evidently had other ideas, and years have gone by without any word. Nuts to 'em. Though my review's tardiness probably means it has no market value to promote sales, I present this notice of a worthwhile book here. --MM

This reviewer won’t feign objectivity towards these two San Francisco Bay area authors. I’ve worked on projects, including Community Murals magazine in the 1980s, with these guys, even slammed down the phone on one when a collective mural project went wrong. Lincoln Cushing has worked many years as a prominent progressive poster-maker with the Inkworks Print Collective, and produced notable books on Cuban and Chinese graphics, while Timothy W. Drescher is North America’s most conscientious and credible community mural historian. My deep reservoir of respect for them is replenished with this new book, which should be in every university or art school library. It should be purchased by anyone who respects organized labor and its history, or given as a gift to a favorite graphic design student. It is an affordably priced paperback, printed in a Canadian union shop, full of highest quality color reproductions, thematic organization and commentary. If I have any reservations…wait, first let us look at this cool book.

There is a satisfying richness to the ornate works from a century ago, as if the workers wanted to test the limits of the lithographic presses they operated and maintained. Posters like “Pyramid of the Capitalist System”, published in 1911 by the International Workers of the World (IWW), exemplify “media dollars” well spent, and remain a beautiful object worthy of careful art historical study, preservation and reprint. The Western Federation of Miners published a poster “Is Colorado in America?” in 1906 listed that state’s abuses upon the stripes of the US flag; a designer in 2010 might repurpose that motif to substitute Arizona, and its racist laws against immigrants and multicultural school programs. There is simplified urgency to graphics of the 1920s and 1930s that warned workers of the Klan and urging unionization of industry. Ben Shahn contributed memorable images during World War II, and the patriotic “Rosie the Riveter” images of female empowerment through skilled shipyard and factory work have maintained a sentimental appeal to this day. The book charts the re-use of J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It”, a woman industrial worker rolling up her sleeve over subsequent decades. Driving home from my university one evening, I saw this canonical Rosie image appear on the electronic sign in front of a struggling General Motors car dealership.

Some graphic designers supporting 1960s labor struggles looked to psychedelic concert posters coming out of San Franicsco’s Haight-Ashbury district, or contemporary Catholic graphics by Sister Mary Corita (later Corita Kent). Latin American artists like Rupert Garcia and Malaquias Montoya, who worked with the farm workers organizers and in other California struggles, looked to Cuba and South American political graphics for inspiration. Over thirty years Carlos Cortez made linocut portraits of organizers like Lucy (Lucia Gonzáles) Parsons, Frank Little and Joe Hill. One can see the impact of widening community college education when posters in the 1970s gained a professionalism, urban and urbane graphic focus, evincing a trained choice of photographs and fonts that stand up to the best Madison Avenue ads of their time. The Northland Poster Collective has long housed sophisticated designers who reflect on issues rather than specific labor actions; Ricardo Levins-Morales’ jumbo jet as slave ship encapsulates globalization evils succinctly.

There are the posters here by Mike Alewitz—some of whose images derived from images in his labor murals in Connecticut and elsewhere—that show influences of both Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo upon his imagery. Alewitz has adapted aspects of Rivera’s mural style of full-faced people, while applying eggplant-purple and pine-green to the complexions of people of color in graphics commissioned by the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers Union (ICEM). There is also one work by the illustrator Doug Fraser, who has promulgated a style of blocky, steadfast workers, evocative of both the Art Deco and blue-collar industrial organizing of the 1930s, for many corporate and occasional labor clients.

Several examples of the exciting work of Doug Minkler appear in this book, clearly the labor and leftist poster-maker of our time who, for a quarter-century, has consistently taken the biggest aesthetic risks. Minkler uses a clunky, willfully faux-naïve representation of burning issues, as if to ask in visual form: do the bosses, oppressors and polluters take us for children? He builds on the tradition of early 20th century artists, both whimsical Paul Klee and mordant George Grosz, as well as embodying in defiant graphics the nose-thumbing and gobbing of Punk, and is quite willing to depict social ugliness as butt-ugly. His work is often self-published, and is frequently purchased by academics for their university offices.

With a collection of all of these vibrant, powerful posters between covers, why do I feel any qualms?

Because I bet that over ninety percent of the living poster artists included here either own, or owned, a Santana album on vinyl. I lament that so many of the living poster designers in the book are in their fifties or older, which appears to reflect the seeming irrelevance of unions to younger workers and artists. My melancholy isn’t really about Cushing and Drescher’s book, but reflects greater misgivings about the state of labor organizing in the US today.

Several graphic waves of recent years are unrepresented. For thirty-plus years the realm of graphics has been invigorated by Punk rock and DIY (do it yourself) movement, the appropriation and photocopying of received images and text from newspapers and corporate media of current and past eras to be published as band flyers or ‘zines. The collage work of Winston Smith repurposes 1950s advertising’s shiny, happy people and ideologically-freighted imagery of postwar American bounty for critical, subversive ends. Into this hallowed tradition of re-use (that the Situationists of Paris deemed détournment) briefly stepped waiter Ron Henggeler, who, in a flurry of activity, created sixty or more images and distributed them among his fellow picketers during the San Francisco Waiters' Union 1983 strike. Yet this was a “wildcat” activity on Henggeler’s part, and its omission here may be because it was self-published work, (though some self-initiated work by Minkler, like his “WE do mind dying” gas masked woman, is represented in this book). The authors might reply that such images as Smith’s and Henggeler’s may be a political work by a progressive designer—which is nevertheless a good thing—but not necessary one that emerged from organized labor policy, the focus of this book. The “Health and Safety at Work and Play” poster, designer and client unknown, where a worker’s own eyes are permanently distorted into the shape of his workplace safety goggles, is a rare example of the seventies Punk one might have seen on a record cover or gig flyer at the time.

There is nothing here that could be called the cyberpunk style of the ‘80s, making use of willfully-crunchy low-resolution computer fonts (as seen on the black and white screens of the early Macintosh), to affirm the machine in the production process in order to critique mechanization. Cyberpunk aesthetic often informed the magazine Processed World, which flourished in the 1980s in San Francisco and was begun by a collective of temp workers in the financial district’s office towers, and reflected the decade’s growing computerization in much of its content and, occasionally, form. None of the posters in Cushing and Drescher’s book employ the willfully degraded type, which could prove appropriate to rail against environmental degradation or workplace dehumanization, which was first popularized in the 1990s by David Carson in a skateboard magazine, and then copied by many others designers for a decade. Why aren’t Photoshop filters being employed somewhere to show the distortion of workers under oppressive conditions? One poster makes use of an illustration of an industrial worker by Wes Delappe, grandfather of the contemporary digital artist Joe Delappe, who repurposed the computer game “America’s Army” to critique this decade’s Iraq occupation.

No graphics appear from Michigan’s auto industry that reflect the influence of either the region’s 1960s psychedelia in Gary Grimshaw, nor the wry cartoon humor of its 1990s music posters by designers like Frank Kozik. This is not to say that such labor works actually exist, but to ask in exasperation: why not? There were two short auto industry strikes in mid-Michigan in the fall of 2007, which were over before I even had the chance to bring a box of donuts to the picketers, much less talk to them about creating any artwork in solidarity. The only graphics I’ve seen published by labor organizations in my own "union town" of Bay City have been lawn signs supporting the building of a coal-fired power plant "for jobs". Sigh…

Then, if not graphics on paper, what is the medium of critique in currency among younger workers? Could it be stickers? Could it be spray paint stencils, in the manner of the British provocateur Banksy? A rat image printed in the book is comparable to the “Rats for Profit” stencils, courtesy the Urban Rats art activists, that protested gentrification in San Francisco in 1983. Last year, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I stepped over a sidewalk panel with an EMBEDDED CITIZEN, bar across his eyes to keep from seeing society’s truths, sprayed upon it.

Could the youthful discourse of labor critique be rap wordplay? Eminem's 2002 movie "8 Mile", one of the few recent films with scenes in an industrial setting, had laboring men and women gathered to witness a rap battle outside a Detroit automobile factory. But the event shown is less a collective commentary of work conditions than a competition to put each other down, where Eminem defends a gay coworker by insulting his antagonist's masculinity. As with the medium of spray paint graffiti, one can appreciate Hip-Hop’s formal invention more than its individualist messages.

Now, turn back to the book. With the exception of some Alewitz, and a few images like Faith Ringgold’s “Women’s Work Counts” and Cushing’s own 1997 commemoration of the 1946 Oakland General Strike, this book could have been published twenty years ago and been essentially the same book. There might be graphic conservatism within established leftist traditions to post-1990 labor artwork, though we aren’t really given enough examples to make an informed judgment. Jackie DeLeon’s attractive 2006 poster for the Labor Occupational Health Program at University of California Berkeley looks like an illustration in a children’s book or small-press comic book, a novel direction. Faviana Rodriguez used color effectively in her 2007 “Green is Not White” digital collage that demands non-toxic jobs for migrant workers. The 1990s example from the Exotic Dancers Alliance in San Francisco demonstrates the range of workplaces yet to be organized. While the works of Josh MacPhee and Nicole Shulman are welcome and effective, they don't have the compelling quality, the memorable bite, of Minkler's best work. To counter the glut of clever corporate images that bombard us, I want progressive posters to display progress in all fronts, aesthetically, technologically, and politically.

And that's my gripe. As an art and design professor over fifty, I want to be inspired and awed by newer, younger creatives. I’m old enough to worriedly want a younger generation of activists maintaining what frayed social safety net barely now exists in my country, and to expand human rights and social programs in the US and everywhere. Beyond thirty years of privatization of the social sphere, the abuses promulgated by our government after 9/11 deeply frighten me. Youth involvement in the successful 2008 presidential campaign of the mainstream moderate Barack Obama is appreciated, but certainly not sufficient. As factories continue to close, too many young workers are mired (and often while attending college) in McJobs, to work in fast food or other service industries, malls or big box stores, with neither benefits nor union representation. Young, high-income, skilled professionals, like programmers and Web/interface designers, grew up with fluidity, taking overwork, layoffs and folded companies in stride, with no expectations of security. To a single, unencumbered twenty-something, this feels like freedom; to organize them into unions has proven difficult. As they joke in Silicon Valley about its “flexible” work schedules, "You can work any eighty hours a week you want." And who needs stability and empowerment, when management provides a fridge full of free Orangina drinks?

If there is to be a revived movement of labor organizing in the United States, it needs a new generation of hip, savvy visualizers and image-makers. The two authors of this book are sophisticated enough to have likely discussed this question many times in the assembly of this nevertheless fine collection. So let us be grateful for that. In Agitate! Educate! Organize!, Lincoln Cushing and Timothy W. Drescher provide a grand informative and valuable map of the graphic foundation upon which the imagery of a revived American and global labor movement can now be built.

Agitate! Educate! Organize!: American Labor Posters by Lincoln Cushing and Timothy W. Drescher 2009, Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press. $ 24.95, 216 pages, 8 1/8 x 10 1/2, 268 color photographs ISBN 978-0-8014-7427-9.

Mike Mosher is a community muralist teaching at Saginaw Valley State University.

Copyright © Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.

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