For Labor Day, the art of work

As the labor movement struggles against new challenges, a look at art that reveals the highs and lows of work and its significance in life

Monday is Labor Day, the 126th in the nation’s history, and amid the barbecues, ball games, and big-box-store sales of the three-day holiday it’s good to take a little time to remember what it’s all about. As we wrote last year at this time, Labor Day is “the day we celebrate the American labor movement and its drive to guarantee living wages and safe, decent working conditions for all workers. It’s been an official federal holiday since 1894, through boom times and hard times, strikes and strike-busting, and massive shifts in technology and public/private economic strategies that have weakened the labor movement that inspired the holiday. A historic transfer of wealth away from the working and middle classes and into the bank accounts of the superrich threatens much of what the labor movement has accomplished in the past century and more. Nevertheless, the movement persists.”

Gordon W. Gilkey, 6th Avenue Subway Construction, New York City, 1937, watercolor on paper, The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection, © Portland Art Museum

Artists, of course, are workers in good standing. And over the years countless painters, sculptors, photographers and printmakers have created art depicting the centrality of work to human civilization. Sometimes the art is mainly documentary. Sometimes it’s psychologically or emotionally incisive. Sometimes it’s art of advocacy. We’ve gathered a small selection of art that in one way or another reflects the significance of work in our lives, grappling with the tolls it takes, the gifts it gives, and its relationship to a good and honest and fair way of life – precisely the things that Labor Day memorializes. Several of the works are in the permanent collections of Oregon museums. A pair of public outdoor works can be found to the north, in Seattle and Centralia, Washington. And we’ve pulled one photograph from the collections of the Library of Congress in the nation’s capital. 6th Avenue Subway Construction, New York City, for instance, celebrates the workers who build the brawling, muscular cities where so many of us live. And as a bonus, it’s an early work by Gordon Gilkey, who went on to become a Monuments Man, rescuing European art from Nazis during World War II, and then became a legendary teacher, collector, curator, and artist in Oregon: The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection forms the core of the Portland Art Museum’s superb collection of prints and drawings.

Strike Pickets, 1910, Ladies Tailors union on picket line during “Uprising of the 20,000” garment workers strike, New York City; glass negative, 5 x 7 inches or smaller, Bain News Service, George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

In the early years of the 20th century the factories of New York City’s Garment District relied on a steady flow of cheap labor mostly from immigrant women workers, who toiled long hours for low pay under dangerous conditions. The labor movement found willing recruits there. In 1909 the members of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, with support from the National Women’s Trade Union League of America, went on strike in what became known as the New York Shirtwaist Strike or the Uprising of the 20,000. In early 1910 they won concessions from the factory owners and signed a new agreement. A year later the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 123 women and girls (some as young as 14) and 23 men, exposed the importance of battling for safe working conditions in addition to shorter shifts and higher wages. It was one of the deadliest industrial disasters in United States history.

Betty LaDuke, The Cook, 1951, pen and brown ink on paper, 11.4 x 8.4 inches, Gift of the Artist, © 1951 Betty LaDuke, Portland Art Museum

The veteran Oregon artist Betty LaDuke was 18 years old, and still Betty Bernstein from the Bronx, New York, when she drew the portrait above of this hard-working cafe cook. The style is very different from LaDuke’s mature work, but she reveals a sharp instinct for personality and the work forces that shape the unnamed cook, from his chafed and gnarled hands to his hunched shoulders and weary eyes. As the nation urbanized and began to take its everyday meals in cafes and restaurants and greasy spoons down the street from factories or offices, line cooks and servers and busers put in bustling and often grueling shifts feeding the masses of other workers who came to them for sustenance. In most cases they also worked for low, often minimum, pay, and often still do, especially in the fast-food industry, where unions have had a difficult time gaining a toehold and workers are often dismissed casually in the belief that fresh minimum-wage workers can easily take their place.

Max Beckmann, The Mill, 1947, oil on canvas, 54.5 x 50.4 inches, Helen Thurston Ayer Fund, Portland Art Museum

With the triumph of the Industrial Revolution, agrarian workers moved in waves to the cities, where they found work in the factories that made the goods that built the profits that kept the engines of the new economy churning. The work was long and arduous and repetitive, and the factory lines often made the workers feel as if they, too, were replaceable cogs in the machines. Money was being made at the top and trickling slowly and insufficiently toward the bottom, where the workers on the lines kept everything going yet often couldn’t pay their bills. It was in the industrial cities that the labor movement found its voice and slowly forced change.

The Resurrection of Wesley Everest, mural by Mike Alewitz in Centralia, Washington, 1997, sponsored by local businessmen, history buffs and unions to memorialize Everest, who was lynched by a mob, and the IWW side of the 1919 Centralia Massacre. Everest, a Wobbly member, was accused of shooting more than one American Legion member during the battle. Photo: Richard Coit/Wikimedia Commons

Across the nation, workers’ rights were not won easily. Marches, strikes, and demonstrations sometimes turned into violent clashes between workers and business owners, who sometimes were aided by police or hired militias. In Chicago, the Haymarket Square riots of 1886, which occurred after police attacks during demonstrations in support of the eight-hour day, resulted in seven deaths. In 1894 the bloody Pullman strike, also in Chicago, prompted the adoption of the official, government-approved Labor Day. One of the worst labor clashes occurred on Nov. 11, 1919, in the small city of Centralia, Washington, between Portland and Seattle, during a parade in celebration of the first anniversary of Armistice Day. Known variously as the Centralia Massacre, Centralia Conspiracy, Centralia Tragedy, and Armistice Day Riot, it pitted supporters of the city’s strong American Legion chapter against members and supporters of the radical union movement the Industrial Workers of the World, or the Wobblies, who were accused widely of being in league with the Bolsheviks in Russia. The clash, in Wikipedia’s words, “resulted in six deaths, additional wounded, multiple prison terms, and an ongoing and especially bitter dispute over the motivations and events that precipitated the event.”

Bill Brandt, Miner and His Wife at Dinner, no date, gelatin silver print photograph, 13.25 x 11.25 inches, Gift of Dan Berley, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, University of Oregon, Eugene

When coal was king, the miners were its subjects, working long and often backbreaking hours under dangerous and unsanitary conditions to make a living. Some of the nation’s toughest labor battles were fought in the deep shafts and plush board rooms of the coal industry, and advances were hard-won. Mining was (and in some places, remains) a tough master: It wore bodies out and shortened lives. But it also put food on the table.

Arthur Runquist, Lunch, 1939, oil on canvas, 30 x 35 inches, courtesy of the Fine Arts Collection, U.S. General Service Administration, New Deal Art Project, Portland Art Museum

In fields and factories and canneries and offices across the nation and the industrialized world, the union movement fought for shorter work days and living wages, even in the depths of the Great Depression, when work of any kind could be desperately hard to come by and workers often followed the crops from field to field and state to state. Where it took hold, the movement also guaranteed workers regular breaks during the day. That included meal times: sustenance for strength, a break for the mind, rest for the weary.

In the economic and cultural upheaval of today’s gig economy, fewer and fewer workers have union representation. Independent contractors often work long hours without benefits, at a time when medical costs are soaring and threatening workers who face emergencies with bankruptcy. Minimum wages, which prevail in places like the food industry, are too low for workers to be able to support themselves under the best of circumstances. Turns out, Labor Day is more than a historical remembrance. Its issues are vital and urgent today.

Jonathan Borofsky, The Hammering Man, 1991, kinetic sculpture; hollow fabricated steel, mechanized aluminum arm, electric motor, flat black automobile paint; 48 feet high. Stands in front of Seattle Art Museum. Photo: Seattle.gov

And then there’s that familiar Pacific Northwest landmark The Hammering Man, Jonathan Borofsky’s kinetic sculpture in downtown Seattle – one of several versions around the world, the tallest of which is in Seoul, South Korea. In Seattle, the mighty man hammers the air continuously during the day and rests at night 364 days a year. Each year on Labor Day, he rests, purposely, for all 24 hours, in observation of the holiday. “The Hammering Man celebrates the worker,” Borofsky said about the Seattle installation. “He or she is the village craftsman, the South African coal miner, the computer operator, the farmer or the aerospace worker – the people who produce the commodities on which we depend. … At its heart, society reveres the worker. The Hammering Man is the worker in all of us.”

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