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“Our labor creates all wealth.” Ricardo Levins-Morales, Northland Poster Collective, 2004. Offset, 56 x 56 cm.

In these times of fraught union-management relations brought about by the global economic recession and employers' consequent need to cut costs, this new book is a vivid reminder of the sad fact that the two sides of the production coin have never really gotten along.

Over and over in the past century, one day an employee is a valued "partner in prosperity" and the next she and the wages and benefits she receives are an obstacle to profit, or perhaps even a legitimate threat to her employer's continued existence.

That the tensions between worker and boss have been galvanizing North American labour activists for a long time is not a secret, but less well documented is the fact that that activism has resulted in some very cool art.

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

"The best posters about American workers and the jobs at which they labor make up a visually fascinating body of work that rewards our attention," the authors, Lincoln Cushing and Timothy W. Drescher, write in their introduction. "The posters were produced with a dual purpose: to entertain and inform."

One of the first thing the two authors discovered when they set out to compile a visual history of American labour posters (with a sprinkling of Canadian ones) was that there was very little scholarship on the subject, and that the posters themselves were hard to come by. They were often either lost in large traditional art collections or buried in archives and libraries, and information about them was often incomplete.

Still, Cushing and Drescher managed to find - and possibly rescue - several thousand examples from a number of different eras; they compiled 1,000 of them in a database that has allowed them to analyze and sort the posters along themes such as "Dignity and Exploitation," "Health and Safety," "Strikes and Boycotts" and "Solidarity and Organizing."

See the images from the book

The authors write that North American labour art reached a peak after the Great Depression, during which the U.S. Federal government funded a program to pay trained artists to teach postering skills to the public. In effect, the government taught Labour activists that silk screening was a cheap and effective way of producing full-colour posters, and so-called "agitational art" flourished as a consequence. It dried up for a while during the McCarthy era and then returned with a vengeance in the 1960s and '70s, the authors write.

Today, labour art typically appropriates the iconic images of the past: the hammer and the wrench, the raised arm, the powerful typefaces, the muscular worker in a dramatic pose. The various evolutions of the genre say as much about art history as they do about labour history. "An issue may get viewers attention," the authors write in the book's conclusion, "but that issue depicted with striking graphic style help makes it memorable."

Regardless of the era or style, however, they point out that the message is always the same: "a call to action based on a belief in our ability to join together for a common good."

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