Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Signs of Unity: Stories and Symbols of the American Union Label Movement

Recently I was cleaning up some of the old content on this blog, and I was dumbfounded when I realized that I have never posted anything specific about the Union Label project that I have been researching off and on over the last 4 years. This will be a book that analyzes the graphic symbolism used in US labor union emblems, such as the AFL-CIO’s “hand-in-hand” logo, from the beginning of the union label movement in the Victorian era through the present, to demonstrate how these emblems, many of which have changed dramatically during this period, reflect the attitudes of society and of the worker’s self image, and the contribution the unions and their members have made to the fabric of American society and culture.

After the Civil War, American labor unions began using individual logos, both as a means of group identification, and as printed seals or labels affixed to union made products, to assure the consumer of the quality of the products manufactured in union shops. The label movement was also a non-violent means of garnering public support for the labor movement, by encouraging boycotts of products made by companies that did not support labor’s goals. The role symbols play in developing a sense of identity, and their ability to convey, in non-verbal context, important messages about cultural values, is also explored in this work.

Over the decades since the civil war, the symbols and messages contained in these logos have changed due to union mergers, economic transformations, changes in the political climate, and cultural/societal trends in general. Aside from this historical survey, I also plan a reference section that will show all the different versions of these logos (I’m estimating there will be about 200) and whatever information I have been able to collect about their specific use and origin.

How did I get into this, you ask? Well, I grew up in a blue collar family in a small town in Northern Michigan (Manistee, MI). Both my parents were in unions (Atomic & Chemical Workers & the Ladies' Garment Workers) and later I had my own union experiences (IATSE). I hadn’t thought much about it for a long time, and then in 2006 I did the Battle Emblems show at Intersection for the Arts. This show explored 13 well-known graphic symbols used by labor and social movements (like the globe logo of the IWW or the Peace Sign). While I was researching the labor symbols at the Labor Archives at SFSU, I realized that this is a neglected area. Also, people have no real awareness of this history anymore. A friend who teaches Political Science at CCSF assigned an extra credit report about the show to her classes, and we were amazed by the student’s attitudes. They seemed to have little interest in the idea that organizing for a common goal could be an effective way to instigate change, and seemed to think that rights like the weekend and the 8 hour day have just always existed. People suffered and died for these rights, and they deserve to be remembered.

Have a union label story? Leave a comment.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, would you please contact me via email so I could discuss your union label project. I'm very interested in your research for reasons I will cover in my email and might also be of some help as well. Thanks. (Email: tinyarmada AT gmail DOT com)