What does a worker look like?

Nick Driedger and Marianne Garneau argue that union propaganda needs to stop framing workers as victims.

There’s a lot to criticize about old IWW art – it wasn’t diverse enough, it leaned too heavily on virile masculinity (shirtless white guys), etc. But it also got something right.

It made the workers look powerful. Pictures of 100-foot-tall factory hands shaking down men in suits. Images of workers brandishing clubs and their capitalist opponents shrinking back.

The workers were clever, brave, strong, and able to take on the bosses. They may have been cartoons — this was propaganda after all — but they put forward a powerful image of the working class as it could be.

A lot of current union propaganda paints the workers as burned, betrayed, or under someone’s boot.

Take this campaign by the SEIU on behalf of health care workers. The posters and videos showcase testimonials about being underpaid and lacking benefits, one ending in the line “I’ll probably be working until I die.”

Or take this Justice for Janitors campaign, “From Invisible to Essential,” talking about the risks workers are taking with their lives during the pandemic.

This UFCW campaign just cuts to the chase and shows a worker on a slab in the morgue.

Workers in this CUPW campaign are appealed to as “stressed,” “hurting,” “overwhelmed.”

Not all union propaganda is like this, but it definitely is a genre in union communications these days: workers are beaten down, suffering injustices, living out tragic stories.

The victimization narrative seems especially tempting when it comes to workers who are already part of marginalized groups, like migrants, women, or people of color. No one is going to see white trades guys as “poor workers,” but people who are already oppressed, that’s easier.

But painting these workers as victims adds to the mistaken idea that they have no power. That’s highly deceptive. The reason why workers — any workers — struggle is not because they’re downtrodden, but because they have leverage.

Worker victimhood… or power

Why do unions so often try to paint a picture of the “poor worker”? They’re looking for mass appeal, and they think it’s easier to see people as victims, and that doing so will make the public sympathetic to their cause. It’s a deeply Christian kind of thinking: “the meek shall inherit the earth.” If workers are the victims, they deserve to get what they want. There’s a fear that if you look strong, you will get painted as a bully.

There was a famous incident in 1975, when postal workers in Canada were on strike. The president of the CUPW, Joe Davidson, was asked by a reporter, “What if the public doesn’t support you?” Davidson initially answered, “Well our demands are just and reasonable,” but the reporter asked again – over and over as he followed Davidson around the legislature grounds. Finally the reporter wound him up so bad Davidson said, “Then to hell with the public.” That was always treated by CUPW as a disaster. But the fact is postal workers made huge gains during that strike, like pay equity for female workers.

The impulse to paint workers as victims comes from this bifurcated outlook, where people feel obligated to balance workers’ interests with the business class’s interests. But workers aren’t a special interest group; they’re the vast majority of society. Narratives about “injustice” act like workers are a picked-on, discriminated-against minority — instead it’s a structural function of our society to exploit the vast majority of its members.

We don’t want a fair hearing in the court of public opinion. We’re trying to build power.

Portraying workers as victims sets a limit or horizon on what you’re fighting for. It makes it damn hard to get gains, because the framework is: the boss is pushing you around and you’re just trying to hold on to the basics. It’s a concession approach and mentality. It puts the worker in a subordinate position instead of acknowledging that we are the ones who build the cities, plough the prairies – that society doesn’t function without us, and we have the latent power to throw the capitalists off our backs.

Workers should be portrayed and appealed to as strong because the counterintuitive truth is that the public might see you as a bully, but a lot of the time they will see you as dignified, and they will map their own struggles on to yours. Every strike has some aspect of the universal struggle encapsulated in it. That’s why they inspire workers elsewhere.

Again, the working class is almost everyone and there are more workers now than at any time in human history. These victim-oriented communications are training “concerned citizens” to sympathize with workers as some kind of mistreated minority, rather than seeing themselves as workers who are part of the same struggle.

The best thing about the old IWW art was that it had faith in ordinary working people. Nowadays, when we do see someone portrayed as strong it’s a leader, a party official or some big personality. In the IWW propaganda, the protagonist was the ordinary working class.

Nick Driedger is a former member, shop steward, Local Organizing Officer and National Organizing Coordinator for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. He is currently the Executive Director of the Athabasca University Faculty Association and a member of the Industrial Workers of the World.

Marianne Garneau is an organizer with the IWW and the publisher of Organizing Work.