By Carol Quirke
Media buzz about Occupy Wall Street’s first anniversary began by summer’s end. That colorful, disbursed social movement brought economic injustice to the center of public debate, raising questions about free-market assumptions undergirding Wall Street bravado and politicians’ pious incantations. Most watched from the sidelines, but polling had many cheering as citizens marched and camped against the corrosive consequences of an economically stacked deck. Media fascination with Occupy was easily explained: the movement offered inventive, boisterous activism — think ballet atop the bronze bull statue in the Financial District’s heart — and sensationalism, with pepper-spraying police. Coverage was giddy and censorious. Many outlets and editorialists denigrated protesters’ naiveté, painted them as anarchic or as public dependents whose theatrics sapped limited public resources.
Three-quarters of a century before, another group of men and women’s quest for economic justice grabbed national headlines. From September 1936 through May 1937, a half-million workers, including Detroit hotel maids, Hershey chocolate workers, and Times Square movie projectionists sat down on their jobs and demanded unions to better their economic lot. Workers’ epic struggle to achieve security and the explosion of visual imagery in the news, two twentieth-century social and cultural transformations, neatly coincided, feeding each other in unrecognized ways.
Labor activism had always been good copy. The expression “If it bleeds it leads” describes press coverage of labor activism from the late nineteenth century. State and local authorities often perceived union drives as anti-American and repressed them; corporations even employed in-house spies and thugs, Henry Ford’s pugilist Harry Bennett being perhaps the most infamous. As early as the 1892 Homestead steel strike, photographs were reworked as engravings for Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Press. The Graflex and the Speed Graphic cameras came later and facilitated a photographic news, as did photo agencies like Bain’s or Brown Brothers. Major confrontations between labor, such as the 1910 strike of Philadelphia trolley workers or the 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts “Bread and Roses” strike now arrived in the pages of the Literary Digest, American Magazine, or Collier’s. The “social photography” tradition, embodied in Lewis Hine’s child labor photographs, was also found in middle-class journals. In McClure’s, articles about mining families faced with industrial disasters or working girls’ tight budgets, accompanied by documentary-style photographs, lent credence to narratives of working-class adversity. The rise of tabloids and of the rotogravure press, both in 1919, enhanced newspaper’s use of photos. That same year, when one in five workers struck, news readers could see Harvard boys with cocked guns poised to respond to Boston strikers and parading Gary, Indiana steel strikers. Even so, using photo-critic John Szarkowski’s term, news photography was “slow.”
As with Occupy, shifting technologies altered the news, and by the 1936-1937 sit-down wave photographs reached a nationwide news audience with speed. AP perfected its wire transmission system for photographs in 1935, and “for the first time in history the news picture and the news story rode the wires together,” according to one press photography text. Faster film and light-weight cameras also allowed photographers to wade into the thick of events. LIFE magazine’s “all seeing eye with a brain,” born in 1936, furthered the move to an image-saturated news. When late that year GM autoworkers in Flint, Michigan decided to sit down, Americans’ visual entrée to labor’s uprising was near immediate. Millions of Americans could see the same pictures of labor duking it out with police or corporate security.
Some media outlets seemed caught up in all the activism, celebrating it as a fad. The sit-down was LIFE’s top story in 1937. Its photo-spread on Detroit Woolworth strikers showed them bedded down on retail counters, and sliding down the store’s banisters in their “LIFE Goes to a Party” feature. But coverage also condemned. News photographs showed workers downed by tear gas, billy clubs, and even bullets — but captions and stories frequently blamed strikers for such violence. The National Association of Manufacturers capitalized on news photography’s pull, promoting a plan to foment disorder and capture photos that would, in the words of “King of Strikebreakers,” Pearl Bergoff, make unionists appear the aggressors and connect corporations to “America, free land and all that stuff.” Business often succeeded, though labor foiled such a campaign in the Chicago Memorial Day Massacre
Media coverage of labor’s mobilization provoked more activism — much as the Occupy camps, which began in Zucotti Park, a sliver of New York real estate, spread to 900 cities across the globe. Auto workers derived their 1936 sit-down tactic from Toledo workers. Following them was an avalanche. The Committee of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was inundated with requests for charters. Transit workers, pencil makers, golf-ball producers, char women, lunch delivery boys, pie bakers, glassmakers, bed-makers — all sat down to gain the upper hand with their bosses. Even regions and companies with long histories of resistance to unions saw workers rise up. In Central Pennsylvania workers were well familiar with the anti-union tactics of the steel and mining industries. One Italian immigrant had tried to bring the Wobblies to Hershey, Pennsylvania’s chocolate paradise after the Lawrence strike, but workers flinched. In the 1930s, riled up by images of sit-down successes, Hershey workers embraced the novel tactic.
Occupiers seized on new digital technologies like video streaming and Twitter to announce their presence. Similarly, the labor movement remade a stodgy labor press filled with “grab and grin” shots of union leaders shaking hands with local luminaries. Crucial to the new labor journalism that reached nearly thirty million Americans by WWII’s end were photographs. One union even started a camera club. Local 65 United Wholesale and Warehouse Employees Union began in 1933 as a handful of white goods warehouse workers on Manhattan’s Orchard Street, but by the 1950s it had become the city’s second largest union. Its location in New York City — the nation’s publishing capital and the heart of the Popular Front — sensitized members to photography’s punch. Internationally-known photographers from the Photo League, such as Sid Grossman and Robert Capa even hung out in the union’s darkroom. Local 65 cameramen and women followed members to the streets for their picket lines, but also to their Madison Square Garden theatre performances, to the union’s penthouse nightclub, and to its Hudson River boat trips, in keeping with an organizing strategy that melded shop floor, community, and cultural activism. Even unions with less rank-and file vitality, for example the United Steel Workers of America, one of the nation’s largest unions, developed a new “mass production journalism” that illustrated in pictures the security unionization could provide.
Battles over labor’s status in U.S. society took place in corporate boardrooms, at factory gates, in D.C. congressional corridors, and also in the pages of an increasingly visual mass media. Photographs re-imagined workers as part of the mainstream, but constricted labor’s promise by making strikes seem disruptive and promoting individual, private gains over collective solidarity. Today less than twelve percent of all American workers belong to unions. Organized labor pulled many out of poverty, allowing workers to conceive of themselves as middle-class. Labor’s dwindling power, including its precipitous decline since the 1980s, corresponds with growing economic inequality — hence Occupy. Its message, and its image, will have consequences.
Carol Quirke is an Associate Professor of American Studies at SUNY Old Westbury. She is the author of Eyes on Labor: News Photography and America’s Working Class. She has published essays and reviews in the American Quarterly, Reviews in American History, and New Labor Forum. She is a former community organizer, who worked on economic justice, immigrant rights, and public housing issues before receiving her Ph.D. in U.S. History.