Articles, Blog

Protest Banners: Trade Union (3/4)

October 24, 2019


I am Paula James, research fellow in the faculty
of Arts and Social Sciences, and I want to share my excitement with you over this 1920s
Transport and General workers Union banner. It’s a dockside branch banner and the Dockers
have quite a history of protest from a mass strike of unskilled and skilled workers in
the late 1880s (the struggle against casualization and
for a daily living wage, the Dockers’s tanner). The leaders of the union at that time were
taught to read by Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx and they bucked the trend of elaborate
designs on banners and membership certificates for the unions by producing a big banner with a Hercules muscle man at the centre of a circular picture, the roundel or medallion. Originally the colours would have been much brighter and like many banners it is an accomplished painting (many emblems were commissioned
by Trades Unions from Royal Academy artists and produced in the large
George Tutill workshops). If we put ourselves in
the place of this upright worker and read the words he is uttering ‘we seek knowledge
that we may wield power’ then I think we should
be quite stirred by his dignity and determination. On
the other hand he is far lower than the three establishment figures on the rostrum and seems
to be pleading with them. We have a full view of their contemptuous faces, the officer, the teacher in his academic robes, the bloated
industrialist, they are probably all serving in the house of Commons or the House of Lords and they block the way to books and betterment and education. The church is not represented here but the trio sitting in judgement on
a son of toil are like an unholy trinity and they occupy
a god like place on the raised platform. In fact there is a carefully thought out structure here as the flattened pyramid shape is actually
the ziggurat or crepidoma, an ancient temple structure
for the shrines of the gods. It was a humble blacksmith designer, James Sharples,
who placed the craft workers of his trade, on
just such a ziggurat as the heroes of their newly amalgamated engineering union, way back in 1851. I find it fascinating that the workers
have been relegated to the floor in the 1920s TGWU banner but if you were one of the high
and mighty would you be wondering if this image is about toppling the privileged, portrayed
as corrupt, contemptuous and cruel? In short the ruling classes were not for persuading
but for sweeping away!? The thing to remember about the banners is that they were in your face popular art, paraded at open air events and
especially on marches. They were unfurled at union branch meetings and trades council
events. So they made strong statements about the workers they represented but for many
years they were not confrontational, rather reassuring about sharing the culture of the ruling classes. We don’t know when and where this
banner appeared but surely it was paraded in
public during the 1920s. I thought about it while demonstrating for the NHS on February
3rd this year, as the tradition of witty and creative
placards and also new and historic banners are
still very much a part of protest. They are a visual feast, every picture tells a story, and they also cement solidarity and identity amongst
the marchers, communicating a strong sense of
triumph and victory to be won! As we started with some historical context let’s remember
that the human cost of WW1 was the loss of millions
of working class lives. There was a new mood of militancy in Europe reinforced by
a revolutionary surge in Russia. Soviet posters depicted toiling masses with outstretched arms being ground down by larger than life, wealthy and heartless capitalists (they might even come in threes!) And Lenin and the leadership
of the Bolshevik government prioritised education
and free access to knowledge and culture for all. And harking back to the Hercules strike banner it too had a green and red background. These are the colours of conflict, so curtain up for a new dawn of a better society I would say! Get more from The Open University Check out links on screen now.

1 Comment

  • Reply Dorje Boleskine June 21, 2019 at 9:01 pm

    Why is part 4 a "Private Video"?

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