Agitate! Educate! Organize!: American Labor Posters
(Cornell University Press)
US: May 2009
The strength of Agitate! Educate! Organize! is the breadth of the archive assembled within: posters from a century of American labor activism representing African-Americans, Chicanos, women and many other groups. Its weakness is that, with a subject as diverse and complex as this, it’s difficult to do more than skim the surface of posters created for these purposes in just 200 pages.
Lincoln Cushing and Timothy W. Drescher write in their introduction that they “seek to inform as well as to celebrate”, a laudable goal and one that makes it clear where the authors’ sympathies lie. Interestingly, this book walks the walk as well as talking the talk; it was printed at a North American union shop and bears the seal of the Allied Printing Trades Council. The 200-plus posters reproduced in vibrant color within the book represent only a portion of a larger archive compiled by Cushing while a librarian at the University of California at Berkeley’s Institute of Industrial Relations.
The core of this book is obviously the images it contains. Vivid, striking, colorful, arresting and at times even shocking, these posters speak loudly with voices of sorrow, righteousness, defiance and humor. Having such images recorded in digital form and archived with information about when, where and by whom they were created is of incalculable value to those who study American history or the history of populist visual art forms.
As the authors note in their introduction, such a catalogue had been virtually nonexistent until this point, and there are still many gaps in the record formed by this collection. “Some gaps are explainable”, the authors point out, such as a lack of radical posters during the Red Scare of the ‘50s, “but others, such as the relative lack of posters from the southern states, are not.” One hopes that the beauty and immediacy of the images presented in this book may help make the case for locating and preserving some of these “missing” pieces of the historical record.
However compelling the images of Agitate! Educate! Organize! are, the text has its puzzling moments. Whether as the result of being co-authored by two distinct voices, or simply because of the challenge of trying to condense more than a century of American labor history into a handful of short chapters, the book vacillates between stating the obvious and veering into higher-level academic-style criticism. While the authors explain that the book is intended as a springboard for further study, it is not clear who they envision these students to be.
Surely graduate-level students of art or history do not need to be told, for example, that a rising sun represents hope (“Justicia para los campesinos”, 1979 Chicago Texas Farm Workers Union poster), or that a clenched fist represents strength. The authors painstakingly describe the visual aspects of posters that are reproduced in full, sometimes on the same page as the text, which at times seems unnecessary. Yet the lay reader may not be familiar with the idea of “visual detournment” or the Marxist definition of alienation, ideas that are offered up with little further explanation.
In addition, there are some oddly blanket statements interspersed within the analysis. Cushing and Drescher assert, for example, that “positively oriented (organizing) campaigns ... are the most effective” in recruiting new members to labor unions, without offering any source or citation. Their introduction to Chapter 3, “Health and Safety”, includes the odd generalization, given the chapter’s inclusion of modern trades such as office work, that “one of the fundamental challenges of work is coming home with all your fingers and toes”.
Despite the at-times uneven writing, Agitate! Educate! Organize! offers some worthwhile analysis. The authors take pains to highlight the ways in which organized labor has been a progressive force for equal rights for women and minorities, as well as environmental issues. It’s arresting to see posters from the ‘40s making strident cases for racial equality, such as the 1943 CIO poster showing a mighty fist dealing a blow to a little man labeled “discrimination”. The authors also take the time to elucidate the changeable and complex relationship of organized labor to military actions, noting that different unions have held different views about American involvement in overseas conflicts and that some unions, particularly during the Vietnam War, changed their position on the conflict as it became increasingly unpopular.
On those occasions when Cushing and Drescher paint with a broad brush, Agitate! Educate! Organize! feels somewhat clumsy, but when they are attentive to detail, the results are extremely rewarding. For the images alone, this book is worth adding to the collection of any student of American labor history or poster art.