The United States labor movement grew rapidly in the 1930s with the enabling legislation of the New Deal. The new Congress of Industrial Organizations (1938) reached out to many workers not served by the more conservative American Federation of Labor, oriented to defending the prerogatives of skilled white male workers. Sit-down strikes were a galvanizing tactic of the era, as workers occupied plants and other workplaces to compel negotiation. The labor movement both emerged from and relied on other forms of community activism. Sit-down strikers depended on support from those outside the plant, and women and children joined the picket lines as family members. CIO unions encompassed women workers in occupations like retail sales, clerical work, and laundry work. Meanwhile, many other forms of activism drew participants, most notably the civil rights and peace movements.
A wealth of visual materials provide evidence and insight into New Deal era activism. And, like other images, they document not only what they illustrate, but also offer evidence of how visual images are used to frame events, shape opinion, and persuade viewers.
Compare these two examples of visual images with explicitly political uses. The first is immediately recognizable as a political cartoon. But what about the photograph of the water tower with its faint trace of hand-painted “CIO”?
This political cartoon appeared in the Philadelphia Record, August 8, 1938.
What do you know about the situation depicted from this image alone? Why might a labor conflict that happened in Newton, Iowa, be the subject of a political cartoon in a Philadelphia paper? What is the artist’s point of view about the conflict? How could you use the information in this image to find out more about the conflict?
This initially somewhat puzzling image serves to document a sit-down strike and the use of spectacle to advance it. Striking workers who took over the Maytag company plant in Newton, Iowa, asserted their presence and their determination to organize by painting CIO on the water tower.
Picket lines were visual signs of labor conflict, and themselves served as a site of conflict as striking workers challenged others to join them. Demonstrations and picket lines were also addressed to community members and to a national audience of viewers that would have access to them through newspapers
Consider the political uses of these two photographs.
Picket lines and demonstrations rely on the politics of spectacle, using visual images to provide information and solicit support.
How do demonstrators like these use their bodies to create visual images to persuade?
What’s the effect of the kinds of bodies used here-women and children?
Demonstrations like this have effects both in real time and in their potential for wider impact through photographs.
How might such photographs be used and circulated, and to what effects?
Who do you think took this photograph of Woolworth’s workers around 1937 on a sit-down strike, and why?
What do you think it is intended to convey about women workers?
Women’s auxiliaries played a crucial role in supporting strikers, and also linked labor struggles to the broader community.
Why do you think this photograph was taken? What do these kinds of images reveal about a group’s identity? How might they help contribute to that identity?
Large group photographs are often taken in a setting that adds information or comment about the group. Graduation photographs, for example, are often taken in front of the main administration hall or oldest building on campus. Company photographs are taken in front of the plant. The location of this photograph is somewhat unusual. Why do you think it’s here? How might you find out more about it?
This photograph opens up discussion of race and gender in 1930s labor organization. Teachers could invite students to find out more about the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, its long struggle to get recognition from organized labor, and its 1935 recognition by the American Federation of Labor. This image of the women’s auxiliary demonstrates the importance of broader community support for unionization, and the connection of labor organization to other political movements like the long struggle for civil rights.
Some visual images confront viewers with representations of conflict.
What is there in this image that signals we are looking at something other than a fight between two men with a score to settle?
The title of this print lets us know it refers to a conflict in San Francisco; contemporary viewers would have recognized it as the 1934 general strike in that city.
Where is this part of the conflict occurring, and what kind of work is involved? What side is this artist on, and what are the visual cues that suggest he is taking sides?
What do you think is going on in this photograph?
Images like these are jarring reminders of the intensity of labor conflict in the 1930s.
More than profits were at stake in labor conflicts, as owners struggled to maintain their authority and prerogatives even as workers sought to gain a measure of control over the conditions of their labor. Often, owners turned to the authority of the state, summoning police to assert physical control of demonstrators or to prevent workers from gaining access to plants for sit-down strikes. At times, owners used the power of court injunctions and martial law, as in this conflict.
Photographs document these conflicts, and yet they are less familiar images of labor-less likely to be reprinted and circulated. Why do you think this might be? Why might both workers and owners prefer to avoid these images of struggle?
Social movements often use familiar visual images in new ways, identifying their cause with symbols of common values or shared tradition.
What do the figures in this poster communicate? The three figures in the front recall a common image of the Revolutionary War, Archibald Willard’s 1891 painting The Spirit of 1776:
The association is underlined by the caption, “Declaration of the Rights of American Youth,” with its echo of the Declaration of Independence. But how does the banner signal this group’s anti-war politics? What’s the effect of its use of patriotic imagery? What about the ranks of people following in the background?
Now largely forgotten, the peace movement was arguably the largest of many grass-roots movements in the 1930s. Students were active participants in it, organized through the American Student Union. According to some estimates, a half million college students participated in one-hour strikes for peace-amounting to half of all students.
The Spirit of 1776 echoed in other 1930s images:
How does this poster work with viewers’ associations with The Spirit of 1776? How do the visual images help you know what “it” refers to?
The Federal Theatre Project was part of the Works Progress Administration, active from 1935 to 1939. It Can’t Happen Here was a play based on Sinclair Lewis’s best-selling novel of the same name. Opening simultaneously in more than twenty cities across the country, the play extended discussion of the political issue addressed in the novel-Americans’ uneasy observation of the spread of fascism in Europe and concern about how to respond.