David Bacon Stories & Photographs


Inkworks book project
By David Bacon, 4/25/99

When Inkworks began printing posters, I was on my way to Cuba.

A printer myself, I had already been fired from a sweatshop job at a small San Francisco shop on Mission Street. Full of enthusiasm and inexperience, I made the big mistake of trying to recruit an older press operator as a union supporter, and came to work the following day to find all my things heaped up in a little pile by the door, a pink slip on the top.

Charlie Tobias, then our organizer and later head of the typesetters division of the Newspaper Guild, stood by me. He found me a place on the sub board at Cleo’s Printing and Copying, where I got a few days of work a week. It was enough to keep me going, while I picketed for the United Farm Worker boycotts and put medicine on the shelves at the George Jackson People’s Free Medical Clinic, a Black Panther Party project. That was what I considered my real work.

Looking for deeper answers and gravitating towards what I though was the imminent revolution, I signed up to go to Cuba on the Venceremos Brigade. To raise money, we printed up a little, pocket-sized book of revolutionary songs from around the world, Venceremos Cantando. And led by the erstwhile Rebecca, another graphic artist, we spend our evenings at Inkworks’ first shop, cutting pages, running them through the folder, stapling them and stacking them in boxes.

I have no idea if we actually made any money. But it certainly served a higher purpose. I learned wonderful, revolutionary and working-class songs from around the world. Those nights on the folder gave me an idea of what a movement shop really was – a resource serving the needs of people trying to change the world, whether raising a little money to send someone to the embattled island of socialism, passing on the cultural heritage of revolutionary music, or just being a focus for collective work -- the glue that binds people together in the struggle.

Venceremos Cantando isn’t in this catalog of posters. But the working-class causes of the day were certainly celebrated by the first works that came off the Inkworks presses. We took them with us to Havana as presents for the Cubans, as I’m sure every subsequent generation of brigadistas has done.

Those posters of the early seventies have that in-your-face, militancy-as-a-matter-of-principle attitude. It infuses one of the first labor works in the catalog, supporting the UFW Gallo wine boycott, probably the most difficult one the union ever undertook. “Drink Gallo Wine,” the poster urges. “Drink the blood of farmworkers!”

While that one certainly appealed to our take-no-prisoners stance, Inkworks’ UFW poster from this last year, which asks the Driscoll strawberry company to “Be Fair,” and to “Support strawberry workers” shows that we’ve learned (perhaps the hard way) to try to appeal to an audience beyond the already-convinced.

There is a utilitarian strain that runs especially through Inkworks’ labor posters. Some of them were designed, not only for agitation, but as actual picketsigns.

A few years ago, San Francisco janitors walked out of the Embarcadero Center at midnight, marching up Market Street in a raucous, chanting snakedance of hundreds of hard-working immigrants. They surrounded the Sheraton-Palace Hotel, blowing whistles and shouting to wake up the sleeping guests, while inside their union representatives tried to move the Shorensteins and other emperors of San Francisco real estate.

The sign they carried, a fist holding a broom on high, red ink on black, emblazoned with a bilingual call for Justice, was designed by Kristin Prentice and printed at Inkworks.

So was Local 1877’s similar placard from its contract fight in 1996, which must have caused nervous tics and ulcers among building managers as it appeared on the union’s rolling strikes and picketlines, from Pleasanton to downtown Oakland. Local 1877 took a leaf from the slogan of South Africa’s anti-apartheid trade union movement -- One Industry, One Union. East Bay janitors used their poster to outline in six words their strategic plan to line up the expiration dates of all the janitorial contracts on the west coast, so that in the year 2000 the union can fight for a single master agreement. One Union, One Industry, One Contract it declared, in another Kristin Prentice work.

As a photographer, I know it feels good to see one of my images in a leaflet or magazine, hopefully stirring people to action, or at least to a new understanding of the world as we see it from below. When 200 Latino workers were fired by Sprint two weeks before voting in a union election, we took a big portrait of the workers holding a banner proclaiming “We only wanted a union.” At Inkworks, we turned the image into a poster, and then plastered it on every store window on Mission Street from downtown to the Excelsior. It got lots of support and donations for the fired workers, and for a few weeks, walking up Mission Street was visible experience of solidarity.

Workers at Inkworks, I think, must also feel their labor and imaginations have had a similar, visible, concrete impact on the world. Inkworks posters find their way onto picketlines and marches. They grace the walls of union halls and offices where workers go to get organized or find help and support.

They are truly art that is of this world. Rather than emphasizing the gulf between artist and audience, they link artists, production workers and the users and viewers of the finished product as members of one big social movement.

But labor posters can also be high art, celebrating working-class history and culture with beauty, passion and grace. Inkworks reproduced one of Rupert Garcia’s series on radical U.S. heroes and heroines, originally a silkscreen set including Leonard Peltier, Ruben Salazar, Angela Davis and others, as a lithograph. Blocks of solid color frame the wizened face of Mother Jones, wire-rimmed glasses looking out sternly, old-fashioned hat squashed on her head. The fire in her eyes threatens woe to the editors of her namesake magazine, for whom the poster was produced, should they fail in a commitment to the labor movement she spent her life building.

Mike Alewitz’s murals have also been reproduced as Inkworks lithographs, in a series of five posters for the International Chemical and Energy Federation, one of the most progressive bodies in international labor. Stylistically linked to the best and most vibrant traditions of the Mexican muralists, and even to the original crusading class spirit of socialist realism, they show workers as forceful actors on the world stage, defending humanistic ideals against a corporate enemy.

Through the two decades represented in the book, the style of labor posters changes with the messages themselves. The first ones from the seventies are rough, and the messages come from outside the established structures of the unions. They appeal for support for struggles that the almost-moribund unions of the time wouldn’t or couldn’t defend – the strike the Stearns miners, the JP Stevens boycott, and organizations like the Trade Union Educational League, which have become a distant memory.

As the years pass, and the labor movement itself begins to revive, Inkworks posters are part of the cutting edge of the pressure for reform. They crusade for women fighting for equality in unions. They popularize efforts to get labor to address issues of stress and health and safety and international solidarity. They advertise, as in Doug Minkler’s inaugural poster for the labor television series, We Do The Work, the first efforts to get unions to make sophisticated use of the media.

It is a testament to Inkworks’ politics that this is the shop chosen by the most progressive unions, the most militant ones, the ones fighting hardest for change. Today Inkworks is an institution of the labor movement itself, recognized for the contribution it makes to building a progressive vision of working-class culture.


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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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