13) TELLING LABOUR HISTORY THROUGH A GRAPHIC NOVEL


SHOWDOWN! Making Modern Unions, published by Between the Lines, graphic novel written and illustrated by Rob Kristofferson and Simon Orpana, with additional art by Matt McInnes. Book review by Michael Zaharuk.

 

SHOWDOWN! chronicles the struggles of the trade union movement across North America, from the late 1800’s to the 1940’s: a decade where millions of workers took part in strikes across the continent.


In Windsor Ontario in 1945, 10,000 UAW workers walked off the job. In Hamilton in 1946, 12,000 workers went on strike from Westinghouse, Stelco and Firestone.


The book is wonderfully written and illustrated by Rob Kristofferson and Simon Orpana, with additional art by Matt McInnes. It also includes a forward by Paul Buhle. The imagery sends you back in time and invokes the struggles of working people and the conflicts in their community.


In the1930’s labour unrest was rife, large meetings were held and also broken up by authorities in Hamilton’s Woodlands park. Tim Buck, leader of the Communist Party, spoke there, among many others.


In 1947 after the strikes of '46 the park was “renovated”. Large swaths of trees were cut down to make way for a “modern empty expanse”. It was thought at the time that this was done to deter large covert gatherings of people.


The struggles documented in SHOWDOWN! are impressive, and many were successful. Often vast community support was crucial to the victory of striking workers. In Hamilton, strike support committees went door to door collecting food and money. In the city’s east end “an army of women” made huge pots of spaghetti and an estimated 300,000 sandwiches.


Unions across North America also pitched in and provided financial aid. The book covers acts of mass solidarity: railway workers refusing to run trains to strike-bound plants, war veterans marching with strikers, OPP and RCMP forces sitting idle, refusing to break up picket lines. The Stelco picket line featured nightly morale-boosting events; Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger both performed.


The book recalls many pivotal events in Canadian labour history.

In 1944 when the Mackenzie King government passed the order that legally certified unions in workplaces, he said: “Industrialists aren’t going to like this, but we cannot afford labour unrest with the war going on.”


In 1946 the Rand Formula was established. This created financial security for unions: “It determined that employees should not be required to join a union if one was formed in their workplace, but should be required to pay union dues, since they benefited from the gains the union had won.”


More recent events are also covered in the book. In 2015 punk band D.O.A. performed for striking steel workers for free, at the very spot where Pete Seeger played for strikers in 1946.


SHOWDOWN! is an inspiring book that shows what determination and solidarity can bring, and how successfully our history can be told through a well-crafted graphic novel.   

 

(Michael Zaharuk is an illustrator, art instructor, and union member based in Toronto.)

 

(The above article is from the November 16-30, 2018, issue of People's Voice, Canada's leading socialist newspaper. Articles can be reprinted free if the source is credited. Subscription rates in Canada: $30/year, or $15 low income rate; for U.S. readers - $45 US per year; other overseas readers - $45 US or $50 CDN per year. Send to People's Voice, c/o PV Business Manager, 706 Clark Drive, Vancouver, BC, V5L 3J1.)