Up the workers

You may remember trade unions. They used to be quite popular, but nobody much seems to bother with them nowadays.

The Winter of Discontent in 1978, and the subsequent union-busting actions of That Woman, sounded a death knell for the golden age of union power. Offered a choice between streets full of unemptied bins and the promise of a BMW three series, voters did some quick thinking.

Their chosen option means that only a small proportion of British Trade Union Posters – An Illustrated History features post-Thatcher era designs.

The posters, arranged chronologically, tell their own stories. Early examples leave the reader in no doubt as to the need for unions in the 19th century. Workers were treated so badly that to finish a shift alive must have been quite an achievement.

The ruling classes were keen to keep things that way. A poster issued by the County of Dorset in 1834 reminds uppity workers that attempting to recruit union members was punishable by seven years deportation to Australia.

The posters of the period are simple: little or no illustration, simple typography. Some are heavily laden with political text – suggesting that the oppressed working men of the day could at least read and draw their own conclusions.

Coloured paper seems to have become more commonplace for posters in the 1920s, as slogans were slimmed down and type size bumped up. The populist approach meant a move away from dull wordy manifestos to something nearer modern ad campaigns. A 1934 poster asking members of the National Union of Seamen to “Pull together” would probably be laughed overboard by sailors today, though.

By the 1940s and 1950s, the posters take on a more familiar image. Stereotypically British in tone, and worthy, but dull in message. Artwork – not credited to its designers – varies from the Happy Russian Worker style to modernist graphics which wear their age well.

There was more realism from the 1970s onwards. “Do You remember 1926?” the Trades Union Congress asked members in 1976, cleverly ignoring the irony that if people could remember the great strike of 50 years earlier and were still having to work, they had obviously been members of the wrong union.

Posters from this period often seem to feature images of bloody knives being stuck in worker’s backs, and, occasionally, classic and memorable slogans such as Coal not Dole.

But the posters on the last few pages of the book are a disappointment after what went before. A bit like the unions themselves.

British Trade Union Posters – An Illustrated History by Rodney Mace is published by Sutton Publishing, price £25

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