Recently, the Western New York Area Labor Federation and the AFL-CIO co-sponsored an exhibition at the Albright Knox called Overtime: The Art of Work. This exhibition presents a series of paintings, photos, sculptures, and videos of working class people at their occupations. It was quite successful, enjoyed strong attendance, and was very favorably reviewed.
The exhibition was perfect for a city like Buffalo, with its large working class population, history and social experience. Buffalo has remained a strong center of manufacturing, and its union density at around 24% is among the highest of any city in the country. Yet, the question must be posed why would our labor federation co-sponsor such an event and what role can it play in the local labor movement?
The federation decided three years ago to promote plays, poetry, films, paintings, etc. that placed the role of working class people in a favorable light and that highlighted their struggles and history while promoting their goals and aspirations. The art exhibition is the latest example of this effort. This perspective begs several questions that remain relevant to our movement and to all struggles over the economic and political rights of the working class.
There is no question that art and culture have played a big role historically in the working class movement; the songs of the French Revolution, the poetry and movies of the Russian revolution, the wall murals in Mexico, and the songs of Woody Guthrie from the American experience, to name some highlightds. All of these examples have serious political content and have served to inspire ordinary people in times of turbulence.
So, a simple point should be made: We need a culture that inspires people in the struggle over everyday concerns. We need it today and we will need it in the future. Here a related point must be made: This culture must reflect the best of the working class movement. This is a culture that promotes positive values of humanity; that opposes racism, bigotry and white supremacy; that promotes a society that provides life-affirming work with real benefits and that meets real needs for health, education, retirement, etc. We should also oppose ugly hatreds, crass values, and the consumerist mania that permeates a portion of our society. These are values that we can support.
The working people make up an overwhelming percentage of the world’s population. Working class people have abilities and talents that are broad and profound in nature. We should promote, encourage and organize work in the artistic realm and use it in the struggle for a better world.
Richard Lipsitz is President Western New York Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO