Radical media, politics and culture.

Art and the Labor Struggle -- Historical Relations

Anonymous Comrade writes "Mike Alewitz is a mural artist. This piece is a brief for the use of mural art in building the labor movement. In it he recounts historical instances of the close relation between art and politics in the U.S.. Alewitz recently produced a "coffeetable" book of his work called "Insurgent Images" (Monthly Review Press 2002) which combines his mural images with photos of demonstrations, showing the clear context of organizing within which his work is made.

Art Can Help Create a New Labor Movement

The following article is based on a speech by Mike Alewitz, Artistic
Director of the Labor Art and Mural Project (LAMP.) It was delivered
to the Collective Bargaining Convention (CBC) of the American Association
of University Professors (AAUP.) The convention took place in
Washington DC, on December 6. 2002.


This meeting takes place at a critical juncture in history. The US
government stands poised to launch a horrible new war against the
people of Iraq. Actually "war" is something of a misnomer - that term
implies the capability of both sides to inflict damage. This is really going to be a massive bombing campaign and invasion of a virtually defenseless country.

The war is occurring in conjunction with serious new assaults on
working people here at home. It's going to create some big changes in
this country. It's going to change the labor movement, and force us
to confront who we are and where we come from.

We are going to have to relearn some lost traditions. One of those
traditions is using art and culture as a method of struggle. Art can
help create a new labor movement. As we discuss this tonight, I am
going to use slides of murals and banners from recent projects to
illustrate these ideas.

The tradition of labor art and culture in the US.

There is a rich tradition of labor art and culture in the US.

When the Paterson silk workers struck in 1913, John Reed, the famous
journalist, organized Greenwich Village artists to create the Paterson
Silk Strike Pageant. Workers marched from Paterson, New Jersey, to
Madison Square Garden. They strode onto the stage, reenacted the
strike to a packed crowd and led them in singing strike songs. The pageant
told the story of the strikers to the world.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, known as the Wobblies,) had
a cultural life of humor, poetry, song, cartoons and theater that made a
lasting contribution to American culture.

When autoworkers staged sit-down strikes in Buffalo in 1937 they
formed an orchestra to serenade assembled supporters from the rooftops of the occupied plant. When they won the strike they transformed the
orchestra into a brass band and marched through the streets of the city in a victory parade.

The P-9 Strike

More recently, art was utilized when workers of Local P-9, United Food
and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) struck the Hormel Meat Company in

The workers performed brutal, dangerous and repetitive work. They
the bold step of leading an important struggle against concession
contracts that galvanized union support from around the country.

I traveled to Austin, Minnesota to attend a solidarity rally, and
worked with them to create a glorious mural on the side of their union
building - an image that symbolized the strike. The mural was
to Nelson Mandela, who was then imprisoned and being subjected to a
vilification campaign by the US government.

Unfortunately, this heroic local was attacked by it's own
union officials, placed into receivership, and the mural was
off the wall.

Recent Labor Strikes

In 1989, when the United Mine Workers (UMWA) struck the Pittston Coal
Company, artists traveled to Camp Solidarity in Virginia to join the
pickets and create music, murals and banners for the strikers. This
100' long mural of UMWA history highlights a contribution of John L.
Lewis. When threatened with federal troops for striking, he pledged
that "Bayonets in coal mines will not mine coal." In that slogan he
summed up a too-often forgotten fact - that workers hold the ultimate
power in their hands - the power to withhold their labor.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s workers waged a series of defensive
struggles: the Eastern Airline Strike, the Daily News Strike, Staley
many others as illustrated by these banners. And while these actions
occurred, labor activity of another type was taking place. Immigrant
workers were self-organizing themselves and winning important labor

Immigrant Workers

In 1995, mostly Mexican mushroom workers in eastern Pennsylvania
the Kaolin Mushroom Company and organized themselves into the Kaolin
Independent Workers Union. Artists organized by LAMP traveled to
Kennett Square PA, where we created banners and signs to march in the
Mushroom Day Parade. Workers carried puppets and used musical
instruments to create an exciting public presence, create confidence
undocumented workers, and win the sympathy of the surrounding

Similar organizing efforts took place among other workers. In
California, Mexican workers shut down drywall production on
construction. Up to 7000 workers participated. They were

To rebuild our movement, we must learn from, and address the concerns
of millions of immigrant workers. We have to stop thinking of
as Americans and start thinking of ourselves as workers. There are
American workers and American employers. There are Iraqi workers and
Iraqi employers. American workers have more in common with Iraqi
workers than we do with American employers. For example, we have no
interest in slaughtering each other.

For their part, U.S. employers have no problem palling around with and
promoting Iraqi employers. In fact, that's how Saddam Hussain and
Bin Laden got to where they are today.

The quote on the banner is by Malcolm x. To paraphrase he said "I'm
not a Democrat, I'm not a Republican, I don't even consider myself an
American. I am one of the victims of Americanism..."

Unions Don't Organize Workers

The struggles of these immigrant workers point to another

Workers are ready and willing to engage in struggle. They are ready
join unions. Whenever given an opportunity they have responded
enthusiastically. They are not apathetic. Workers abstain from
elections because they are unwilling to swallow what their "leaders"
feeding them. Look how people responded to Ralph Nader - and even
a rich lawyer. He repeatedly had rallies of thousands of students and
workers desperate for something different, What if those workers had
been given a choice of a clear voice of labor - a labor party or other
independent formation?

Workers would respond to organizing efforts as well. But despite the
millions of dollars and hundreds of young organizers provided by the
AFL-CIO, there has been no significant growth in that organization.
Why? It's not an organizational or financial problem; it's a

This portable mural, called "Bureaucracy," illustrates the point: Most
unions function more as dues collection agencies than as social
movements. There's a difference between workers empowerment through
organization and simply signing up members.

Workers organize unions when they are inspired to do so. Think of the
great periods of union growth. The Knights of Labor didn't have staff
or money. The IWW, which claimed the allegiance of hundreds of
thousands of workers, had two staff people. When millions of workers
engaged in sit-downs and other forms of militant struggle, when they
organized industrial unions in the CIO, they did it themselves.

After the recent elections, [AFL-CIO President] Sweeney explained the
failure of their electoral strategy by saying "Bush was too much for
us." How embarrassing! Can you imagine George Bush being too much

The Role of Educators

The mural you see was painted at the Highlander Center in Tennessee.
Highlander, a popular education center played a key role in the
organization of the CIO, and later the civil rights movement in the
south. The banner reads "Without Action there is No Education."

As educators we can play a special role in helping to relearn our
movements history. But it needs to be an organic process. This mural
is "The Resurrection of Wesley Everest." I painted it in Centralia,
Washington, where a local labor coalition decided they needed a mural
project as a way to reach out to immigrant workers. Wesley Everest
an IWW labor organizer lynched in Centralia. He was a great martyr of
our movement, yet most workers would have no idea who he was.

When I painted a mural at the Frente Autentico Trabajdore (FAT) in
Mexico City, union leaders asked me to portray Lucy and Albert Parsons.

Albert Parsons was one of the Haymarket martyrs - anarchists framed up
and executed for their role in the eight-hour day movement. Lucy,
with Albert, was a leader of the labor movement in Chicago. She was
also an early feminist an outstanding revolutionary leader throughout
her life. Mayday, the international working class holiday, is in
commemoration of the Haymarket events.

The Mexico mural was part of a cross-border project. I painted a
similar mural in Chicago shortly thereafter - it was a celebration of
the Teamster strike victory over UPS. At a large rally of the
I asked the crowd if anyone knew who the figures were. Nobody knew.
have been robbed of our history. As educators we can help to bring it
back. And we can bring it to life through action.

Historic Program

There is a history to our movement - we don't have start all over
again. That's Marx and Engels on that banner. We don't have to be
afraid of them. We don't have to be afraid of the ideas of socialism
anarchism. It's part of our history.

This is the backdrop from the founding convention of the Labor Party.
We haven't succeeded yet, but it is critical to promote this idea.
the last 50 years, the labor movement had a position of independent
political action. The idea that you should support the employers
candidates, the Democratic or Republican candidates, is a new idea.
That concept has always pretty much been rejected by the world
working-class movement. Voting for your boss doesn't work. It
and it won't.

A World in Crisis

Today we face a renewed period of political and economic crisis.
are 800 million hungry people in the world. There are 40 million
infected with HIV. According to a recent UN report, we could solve
basic problems of food, clean water and health care for those millions.

Know what it would take? 4% of the combined wealth of the richest 225
people in the world.

Would the wealthy even notice if it was gone?

Instead, congress has voted 150 billion to wage war - just for this
year. It was a virtually unanimous bipartisan decision - with no
questions asked. Next year the budget will increase from 329 to 400
billion. There will be an additional 38 billion for so-called

These vast resources will come out of the pockets of working people -
especially the poor.

Artists and Workers Form One World Without Borders

The gluttony of the employers has no limit. But workers have become a

larger, more compressed and more international class. We have the
to stop the warmakers.

"Artists and Workers Form One World Without Borders" was painted as an
act of solidarity in 1998 in Baghdad. It illustrates the basic
foundation of the labor movement since the industrial revolution: the
primary weapon of our defense is solidarity.Bush

Unfortunately, our national union leaders have been quiet at best and
jingoistic at worst in regards to Bush's war plans. They refuse to
recognize that the war is against both Iraqi and American workers.

The labor movement must take the lead in this struggle, and we must
fight to get the AFL-CIO to take on that task. If the AFL-CIO does
transform itself, it will be replaced by other organizations that
workers will create.

Artists and intellectuals can and must play a special role in helping
to inspire and rebuild a militant new labor movement. Art can be a
powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressed.



To subscribe to AGITPROP NEWS,
the LAMP digest of news and
humor for artists and activists...

send a blank email to:



Department of Art

Central Connecticut State University

1615 Stanley Street

New Britain, CT 06050

Phone: 860.832.2359"