While the 177 cartoons were created and published in a sequential and chronological series within the UE News, they represent a range of labor topics. In addition to reading about these topics, clicking on a topical link below will retrieve corresponding images.
These topics were generated by Archives Service Center staff with the help of several undergraduate History majors who performed their internship at the Archives in the fall 2008. The students researched and wrote the descriptions.
The average work day encompasses the day to day routine of workers: number of hours, wages, working conditions, mechanization, and relationship with employers. During the labor movement, workers fought for shorter work days and improved working conditions. Campaigns for a 10-hour day and then an 8-hour day marked particularly important milestones in the American Labor Movement and Wright depicts men, women, and children fighting to improve their work day with shorter hours. Wright’s cartoons also depict mechanization’s affect on workers, as they feared automated machinery would replace human labor.
Businesses, which consist of a single person, partnership, or corporation, supply consumers with a good or service while striving toward maximizing profits. The interests of business owners often contradict the interests of labor, usually resulting in formal grievances or strikes. Businesses attempt to maintain control over workers in order to increase profits with minimal costs. During strikes, they use various tactics such as non-union replacement workers called scabs to ensure that production remains in motion. Businesses also use political influence and legislation to maintain power over workers by limiting labor unions’ power. Several of Wright’s cartoons depict caricatures of businesses and bosses scheming against their employees.
The term economy refers to the system of production, consumption, and distribution on a regional, national, or global scale. The economy consistently ties into labor organization activity. Economic depressions set back the entire manufacturing industry and especially hit labor unions hard, even crushing worker organizations completely. Production cuts often led to increased layoffs and firings, which in turn resulted in decreased union membership. Wartime economy also affected labor union organization and effectiveness, due to the increase in production and expectations of an obedient and “patriotic” workforce. Wright’s cartoons often depict the effects of economic recessions and depressions on workers, tackling such issues as layoffs and decreased wages.
The term equal pay refers to the disparity of wages for people who work similar jobs based on gender or race. Several labor unions, including the UE, fought for equal pay for equal work since their creation in the mid-1930s and were an important source of support for the civil rights movement. During wartime, increased production for war resources encouraged women and minorities to enter the work force, closing the pay gap temporarily. Once war production had ended, wage discrimination took hold again. Wright’s cartoons illustrate the differences between men and women’s pay, as well as the struggle to gain equal wages.
Labor unions and their resulting activism often spurred new legislation and political agendas. Wright depicts unions influencing the government to create legislation standardizing safety precautions and inspection codes for factories. In addition, labor used politics as a means to gain representation in government. Labor rights became an important issue among third party tickets in the early twentieth century and in the 1920s the Progressive Party won five million votes in the presidential election by supporting labor unions.
Conversely, businesses relied on their influence with politicians to fight labor in the courts. Wright illustrated a long history of business owners working in conjunction with the government to legislate against labor. He gives several examples, including the use of federal court injunctions to ban strikes and organizing activities. Many of his cartoons also depict important legislation concerning labor such as the Wagner Act, which protected the right for workers to organize labor unions, and the subsequent Taft-Hartley Amendment, which restricted the rights of labor unions.
The “Red” scare refers to two different times of heightened anti-communist sentiment in the United States: 1917 to 1920 and the late 1940s to the late 1950s. Fear of communism and “radical” thinking, coupled with a sense of heightened xenophobia, turned the public against trade unions, which were largely composed of immigrants. The Taft-Hartley Amendment to the Wagner Act required that all union leaders submit affidavits stating that they were not members or supporters of the Communist Party. Wright’s cartoons focus in particular on Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting of the UE and his anti-communist campaign against workers.
The term “scab” was initially used by union members as a derogatory name referring to someone who works against the union during strike action. During strikes in the United States, employers hired scabs as replacements, permanently taking jobs away from demonstrating workers and weakening the control of the union over employees once the strike had ended. Some believe the term holds metaphorical meaning: the picket line symbolizes a wound and those who break its border by returning to work represent the scabs that bond that wound, to the benefit of the employers. As the word scab became an accepted term for strikebreaker throughout the country, the term lost much of its sting; however, it still holds a negative connotation. Wright published cartoons about several strikes throughout the labor movement in which scabs played a meaningful role.
Strikes occur when a number of employees stop working due to a grievance of some sort. When businesses took advantage of workers, laborers threatened to stop work in order to gain humane working conditions or better wages. Without workers, businesses shut down, subsequently losing profits. Often in the early to mid-twentieth century strikes turned violent as scabs attempted to get to work or policemen tried to break up the demonstrations. Many workers gained today’s well established workers rights through strikes that occurred during the early to mid-twentieth century. Wright depicts workers using strikes as a key negotiation tactic with employers during the labor movement. He also illustrated how large corporations used violence and scabs in an attempt to bring the strikes to an end.
In order to combat harsh working conditions, workers form protective units called unions. Unions, a major part of the American Labor Movement, began organizing in the late eighteenth century and continued to grow throughout the twentieth century. National union organizations such as the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor, and the Congress of Industrial Organization marked important milestones in the labor movement over the past 200 years with a strength-in-numbers mentality. Early unions largely excluded unskilled workers, minorities, and women; however, as unions became more common and powerful, they embraced far more inclusive practices. Wright depicts the formation of unions in important industry sectors, particularly the organization of electrical workers, steelworkers and automotive workers.
As with any other facet of life in the United States, the country’s involvement in both domestic and foreign wars had an impact on the American Labor Movement. Wartime economy affected the labor movement by hindering the ability of labor to organize or properly negotiate for decent working conditions. Increased production for the war effort led to an increase in hours and stagnant wages. Wright’s cartoons capture the tension during and after war time, when pent up frustrations unleash resulting in massive strikes and demonstrations. War appears several times throughout Wright’s cartoons, particularly evoking scenes from the Civil War, World Wars I and II and the Vietnam War.