‘May Day’ exhibit features political and labor posters
LYNN, Mass. (AP) — Stephen Lewis collects posters. Progressive political posters and labor posters. He has more than 8,600 of them in his attic. “They’re starting to expand into the basement,” the Malden resident said, then laughed.
Lewis, retired treasurer of Service Employees International Union Local 509, will bring about 50 of the posters to Lynn Museum for a May Day exhibit that runs May 1-28.
“May Day, the first of May, is known throughout much of the world as the day for workers. It is celebrated in over 100 countries by workers, many of them members of trade unions,” Lewis said, adding it is not a recognized holiday in the U.S. and Canada, which instead celebrate Labor Day.
“The year 1886 was a troubled one in labor relations. There were nearly 1,600 strikes, involving about 600,000 workers, with the eight-hour day being the most prominent item in the demands of labor. About half of these strikes were called on May Day.”
Rather than keeping the posters sequestered in his home, he wants everyone to enjoy and be inspired by them.
“The exhibit might help people appreciate the struggle of workers around the world to achieve better working conditions and benefits, which some of us enjoy today and many more continue to struggle for.”
Lewis said the exhibit is part graphic art, part history, part culture and part political message. In the posters, history buffs can see what social and political changes were being advocated for in different countries at different times. Activists can relate to favorite causes, including the celebration of May Day itself. Lewis said the rather tame writing in the posters from Liechtenstein, where workers are generally treated well, are in stark contrast to the much more militant language in posters from countries such as El Salvador, where labor unions are severely repressed and union activists have been killed by government forces.
Lewis said the posters he’s collected are from many different countries, in a number of languages, and from the past 60 years. In addition to May Day, themes include International Women’s Day, Health & Safety, Strike, Diversity, Anti-Apartheid, Green Politics and Cuban Political Posters. His May Day posters come from France, Spain, Namibia, Australia, Denmark, Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Cuba, Germany and Liechtenstein.
“Most of the posters were donated to me. The only ones I’ve paid for were during a trip to Cuba. I paid a buck or two for each, because they are great posters, and I wanted to show solidarity to the cause.”
His first posters were scooped up when he was a delegate at the Congress of Trade Unions in Moscow in 1990. From then on, he started collecting in earnest and always picked up donated posters in many countries during union-related trips.
Lewis stages about three exhibits each month. May Day shows are also being held at public libraries in Beverly and Wakefield in May. Each poster will be accompanied by a placard, offering such information as country of origin, the event, its key message, artist and year.
Lewis said Jeff Crosby, the president of the North Shore Labor Council, has for several years been encouraging him to stage a poster exhibit in Lynn, a longtime stronghold for organized labor. Crosby, who worked for General Electric for 33 years and served eight terms as president of IUE-CWA Lynn Local 201, is expected to give a gallery talk at the museum in tandem with the exhibit on a date to be announced, Lewis said.
Lewis has noticed that his posters often elicit discussion from observers.
In a post on the National Council on Public History website, Lewis wrote: “While the overwhelming response of people who view my exhibits is favorable, there are some reactionaries who take issue with just the idea of trade unions or find the progressive themes distasteful. They would just as soon make some of those histories vanish. This would be a tragedy for the type of posters I exhibit, because for the most part, the history, like culture, that is presented to society, is dominated by the powerful. My exhibits are more about working people, labor unions, people who do not have power but challenge it, and so the ability to commemorate and present these events and issues is much more limited. I think historians need to be conscious about whose history they are presenting, and be prepared to take risks by sometimes challenging the dominant thinking.”
“May Day: An international labor poster exhibit” at Lynn Museum, 590 Washington St., May 1 to May 28. For details, go to www.facebook.com/Lewisposters/ or www.lynnmuseum.org or call 781-581-6200.
Information from: The (Lynn, Mass.) Daily Item, http://itemlive.com