Carol Quirke, Eyes on Labor: News Photography and America’s Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)

As a European I have often wondered why perceptions of labor in the United States are surrounded by contempt, and why so many Americans, including working-class Americans, are often hostile towards labor unions—a sentiment that has become particularly evident in recent years as union power has been undermined by draconian anti-labor bills. Carol Quirke’s recent book helps answer these questions. Based upon a close visual reading of news photos, the book offers a fascinating interpretation of the shifting construction of labor and the contested meanings it has assumed over the course of the first half of the twentieth century.

The book is divided into six thematic chapters or narrative case studies, each exploring how news photography helped shape conceptions of labor. Quirke looks at pre-war photogravures and stereographs; photos in the popular LIFE magazine, media coverage of the Hershey Chocolate sit-down strike and the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937; as well as visual representations in union newspapers such as Steel Labor and New Voices.

Quirke begins her story by noting the increasing centrality of news photography in early twentieth-century American life and the simultaneous consolidation of organized labor, culminating in the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1935. Although images of labor and workers appeared in the illustrated press already in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—from the 1877 railroad strike and the 1892 Homestead strike to labor tragedies such as the Ludlow Massacre or the Triangle Fire—Quirke contends that it was not until the1930s that photos came to occupy a central role in visualizing labor. Quirke anchors this transformation to innovations in publishing, distribution and mass media (particularly the rise of rotogravures and tabloids) which allowed for faster, cheaper and more practical reproduction of photos. Whereas early photography was slow,” with most photos looking “motionless and staged” and taking “days, even months to appear” (25, 29), by the mid-1930s new wire transmission and reception systems made photo reporting available within mere hours even in the nation’s most remote corners. Technological changes in photography also contributed significantly to creating a national visual news culture. Cameras became lighter, faster, and more versatile, making photo-taking much easier. Photographs became increasingly more popular and prominent, eventually becoming in the words of James Agee “the central instrument of our time” (3).

Although the salience of photojournalism has been noted by other scholars, few have explored visual imagery in depth. News photos of workers, in particular, have been almost completely ignored. Filling a serious gap in labor and cultural history, Quirke has interpreted over 100 photographs of labor over time and across fifteen publications, ranging from popular mainstream magazines to national and local dailies and labor newspapers. Complementing her visual sources with extensive archival research (she has consulted over fifteen archives) and secondary literature, Quirke argues that, far from merely representing labor, photos helped to also construct distinctive meanings and competing, even contradictory, images of labor. Through a series of lively and interconnected stories, she shows how government agencies, businesses, the mass media, and labor unions, all seized upon the growing influence of news photos to further their political goals and shape public understanding of labor to their benefit.

For example, in her analysis of Henry Luce’s LIFE, Quirke shows that from its inception in 1936 the magazine embraced labor, featuring many photo stories of union leaders, average workers and even strikes. But, as she notes, its portrayal of labor was ambiguous. On the one hand, LIFE contributed to enshrine America’s common workers in the nation’s mainstream, elevating their political, social, and economic status to a new level. On the other, it helped construct a conservative stance towards labor, which rejected activism, radicalism, and class struggle, identifying, instead, corporations with core American values and interests.

Workers appeared “heroic, but also menacing and passive” (3). Working-class struggles were celebrated but also diminished. Labor leaders were applauded for their efforts to spread American prosperity, but managerial power was unquestioned. Perhaps more importantly, LIFE depoliticized workers. As Quirke shows, LIFE published hundreds of photos of workingmen and workingwomen. These photos showed workers sleeping, eating, lounging, and having fun, but rarely explored workers’ real living and working conditions or their contributions to both production and labor. In fact, as Quirke convincingly suggests, LIFE, like other mainstream media, deliberately obscured class inequities by interweaving news stories into a larger “consumerist fantasy” (65) which fed the ideal of American exceptionalism as a classless nation.

Publications like LIFE also contributed significantly to imbue the American public with a fear of labor strife, portraying class violence as un-American. After 1937 news photos extensively covered the sensational violence and disorder that characterized the strikes of this period. After all, as Quirke sardonically notes, “violence sells” (81). Americans saw police “lugging strikers off to jail,” workers “beaten bloody on the ground” or charged with tear gas and clubs (79). But photos, and the stories that accompanied them, clearly implied that workers—often identified as immigrants, typically Italians—were to blame for the violence and that police repression was therefore necessary and justifiable.

Quirke’s discussion of the Hershey strike and the Memorial Day Massacre (in Chapter 3 and 4, respectively) offer cases in point. Photo coverage of these epic labor battles clearly illustrates how businesses and public relations used news photos, and their presumed objectivity, “to awaken Americans to the ‘whole black mess’ engendered by the CIO” (129). For example, “Civil War in Hersheytown” a photographic booklet produced by the National Association of Manufacturers, powerfully intimated strikers’ menace by linking them “with communism, foreign interference and danger” (132). Mainstream magazines such as LIFE, Newsweek, and TIME echoed similar tales of “a corporate paradise torn by CIO activism” (142). Magnates such as Ford, Maytag, and Hershey were systematically depicted as “the best America had to offer”: living examples of the self-made man and social mobility. By contrast, “the agitators were amorphous—perhaps foreign, perhaps outsiders, but probably lazy and always fractious” (147). Whereas corporate business ethos was seen as key to industrial progress and democracy, labor activism was negatively portrayed as limiting America’s freedom and progress, by destabilizing order and disrupting production.

That this narrative found a place even in the Memorial Day Massacre of May 26, 1937, when ten people died and ninety were wounded by the police during a demonstration of steel workers in Chicago, speaks volumes for the media’s power to influence the news. As Quirke shows, despite overwhelming evidence of police brutality, news stories immediately blamed strikers for the conflict. As in the Hershey’s drama, mainstream media justified police action, by alleging that the violence was caused by a “mob of foreigners and radicals” who “threatened law and order” (156). Unlike the Hershey story, however, this corporate version of the massacre did not go unchallenged. Unions and their allies used news photos and a Paramount newsreel, Steel Strike Riots, ably secured by Senator Robert La Follette Jr., to discredit the widespread belief that the strikers were responsible for the killings and to show, instead, police culpability. In a rare victory for labor, a congressional investigation validated the union’s account, reversing the initial story of the Massacre and officially condemning the police actions. Yet, as Quirke points out, the ensuing memory of the Massacre reveals a more ambivalent outcome. Police brutality did not stop, nor did corporate attacks on labor activism. Sadly, even unions betrayed a discomfort over what had happened, eventually shyingaway from addressing violence altogether.

Quirke further explores this ambiguity in the book’s last two chapters by focusing on two popular CIO newspapers: Steel Labor of the United Steel Workers of America and New Voices of Local 65 Wholesale and Warehouse Employees Union. Both papers were crucial to broaden support for the CIO and promote the union’s agenda, and both made extensive use of visual imagery. But their illustrations reflected different understandings of the union’s role and culture. As in LIFE, photos of union members and activism in Steel Labor clearly betrayed a “culture of constraint,” which emphasized members’ passivity and “right behavior” (paying dues, attending meetings, casting union ballots), and union organization and strength. Like LIFE, Steel Labor also typically constructed labor as a male, white worker, despite the fact that women and African Americans made up a large component of the labor force, especially after World War II. As Quirke points out, Steel Labor’s photos ignored class-based inequities; yet stratified members by gender and race. Women were sexualized, appearing either as attractive bouncy “girls” or “stalwart supporters of their husbands and hence the union” (202), whereas blacks, although respected, were represented as being markedly different.

In sharp contrast to Steel Labor, New Voices, to a larger degree than most union papers, represented the union as “a haven of racial ethnic and gender diversity” (237), portraying women and blacks as co-participants in the labor movement. Its photos also promoted a vision of labor ‘from the bottom up’ emphasizing members’ activism, collaboration and contributions to union life. As Quirke shows, what accounts for New Voices’ distinctive imagery is the communist culture embraced by its union, New York’s Local 65. “A bastion of the left” (234), Local 65 wanted to create a union culture that went beyond everyday bread-and-butter issues and transformed American society. Seeing culture as a weapon for social change, the union ran a broad array of political, social, cultural and educational activities, boasting a camera club, a nightclub, a book shop, and cooperatively run welfare programs. But for all its success and visual appeal, New Voices too eventually failed to achieve the far-reaching social and cultural transformation its union fought for. For reasons both intrinsic and extrinsic to labor, it shied away from its earlier radicalism, eventually losing its propulsive force and drive.

Indeed, since World War II unions have been falling off a cliff in all western countries. Yet this trend is nowhere as dramatic as in the US. In most of Europe and Canada, for example, despite diminishing membership, unions still wield great influence and people regularly protest (sometime even violently) against governmental attempts to curtail benefits and economic security, including in nations like France where unions represent only 9% of the labor force. So what accounts for the particularly deep apathy of workers in the US? Why are Americans still quiescent, despite the incredible widening of social inequality, persistent recession, and unemployment? Is there something distinctively “American” about indifference to the plight of workers? Quirke hints in her conclusion at some of the historical reasons for labor’s post-war demise—the end of governmental support for documentary photography, the rise of anticommunism, greater economic security and increased wages. But, as the book reveals, corporations and their public media are perhaps the main culprits. Through their pervasive and perverted manipulation of news photos and information, they succeeded in promoting anti-unionism in the public mind and narrowing labor’s economic and political visions.

Full of interesting material and personal insights—from the wonderful photos and Quirke’s penetrating interpretations of them, to the spirited stories of forgotten labor leaders and strikes—Eyes on Labor is a powerful testimonial to labor’s dynamic history, the contested struggle between capital and labor, and the enormous challenges faced by organized labor vis-à-vis the emergence of a pervasive mass culture, political repression, and cold war anticommunism.

Quirke’s book is also an important reminder of “the fluid relationship between culture and politics” (270), and the belief embraced by other cultural historians, including this reviewer, that to understand labor and political activism we must grapple with workers’ and unions’ culture, as well the larger culture of which they are a part.

Perhaps more importantly, Quirke shows the political implications of imagery and the crucial importance of visual culture to historical research. As Eyes on Labor demonstrates, photos powerfully shaped modern conceptions of labor, helping promote a distinctively “American” labor culture which emphasized material gains, respectability, and political moderation but ignored workers’ real needs. Although unions in the 1930s and 1940s managed to cement their power and attain more security for their members than ever before, they ultimately left “America’s class structure unchallenged.” Unlike the more militant and radical unions of the early twentieth century, and despite the organizing efforts of unions like Local 65, they relinquished labor’s historic mission of fighting capitalism, “ultimately constricting,” as Quirke concludes, “workers’ place within the American Dream” (283). With membership estimated at less than twelve percent, American unions today should take note of this terrible mistake and return to their early socialist vision of social justice and equality, to remake the world into a place where the workers are at the center and “labor shall—finally—rule.”

©2013 Marcella Bencivenni
Hostos Community College/City University of New York

This entry was posted in 62, Volume 27, No. 2. Bookmark the permalink.