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Author: Paula James
  • Video
  • 5 minutes

Protest Banners: Trade Union

Updated Friday, 16 March 2018
Dr. Paula James looks closer at the use of a Trade Union banner and the strong statements it conveys. 

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Dr Paula James:

I am Paula James, research fellow in the faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and I want to share my excitement with you over this 1920s Transport and General Workers Union banner.

It’s a dockside branch banner and the Dockers have quite a history of protest from a mass strike of unskilled and skilled workers in the late 1880s (the struggle against casualization and for a daily living wage, the Dockers’s tanner). The leaders of the union at that time were taught to read by Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx and they bucked the trend of elaborate designs on banners and membership certificates for the unions by producing a big banner with a Hercules muscle man at the centre of a circular picture, the roundel or medallion. The semi naked heroic worker was depicted wrestling with the serpent of capitalism. Or so the words on the ribbon around the medallion about sweeping away destitution and prostitution proclaim. The TGWU banner does not look so confrontational, so let’s zoom in and see what story it is telling, what message it is sending.

Originally the colours would have been much brighter and like many banners, it is an accomplished painting (many emblems were commissioned by Trades Unions from Royal Academy artists and produced in the large George Tutill workshops). If we put ourselves in the place of this upright worker and read the words he is uttering ‘we seek knowledge that we may wield power’ then I think we should be quite stirred by his dignity and determination. On the other hand he is far lower than the three establishment figures on the rostrum and seems to be pleading with them. We have a full view of their contemptuous faces, the officer, the teacher in his academic robes, the bloated industrialist, they are probably all serving in the house of Commons or the House of Lords and they block the way to books and betterment and education. The church is not represented here but the trio sitting in judgement on a son of toil are like an unholy trinity and they occupy a god like place on the raised platform. In fact, there is a carefully thought out structure here as the flattened pyramid shape is actually the ziggurat or crepidoma, an ancient temple structure for the shrines of the gods. It was a humble blacksmith designer, James Sharples, who placed the craft workers of his trade, on just such a ziggurat as the heroes of their newly amalgamated engineering union, way back in 1851. I find it fascinating that the workers have been relegated to the floor in the 1920s TGWU banner but if you were one of the high and mighty would you be wondering if this image is about toppling the privileged, portrayed as corrupt, contemptuous and cruel? In short the ruling classes were not for persuading but for sweeping away!? The thing to remember about the banners is that they were in your face popular art, paraded at open air events and especially on marches. They were unfurled at union branch meetings and trades council events. So they made strong statements about the workers they represented but for many years they were not confrontational, rather reassuring about sharing the culture of the ruling classes. We don’t know when and where this banner appeared but surely it was paraded in public during the 1920s. I thought about it while demonstrating for the NHS on February 3rd this year, as the tradition of witty and creative placards and also new and historic banners are still very much a part of protest. They are a visual feast, every picture tells a story, and they also cement solidarity and identity amongst the marchers, communicating a strong sense of triumph and victory to be won! As we started with some historical context let’s remember that the human cost of WW1 was the loss of millions of working class lives. There was a new mood of militancy in Europe reinforced by a revolutionary surge in Russia. Soviet posters depicted toiling masses with outstretched arms being ground down by larger than life, wealthy and heartless capitalists (they might even come in threes!) And Lenin and the leadership of the Bolshevik government prioritised education and free access to knowledge and culture for all. And harking back to the Hercules strike banner of 1889, the British Dockers’ homegrown cry for justice and equality, it too had a green and red background.

These are the colours of conflict, so curtain up for a new dawn of a better society I would say

(End of Mini Lecture)


Trades Union banners and membership certificates have a rich visual history. The banners and certificates (the latter proudly displayed like paintings in workers' homes) might be designed by Royal Academy artists and were monumental in their structures.  They tended to be packed full with classical symbols, biblical scenes and quotations, celebrating the history of the craft, and drawing upon the emblems of freemasonry and friendly societies.

The TGWU banner is part of that heritage but its red and green background is displaying the colours of conflict. This harks back to a very different kind of banner, the 1889 Dockers' strike banner which used the same design to frame a picture of a Hercules style muscle man wrestling with a snake. The image is modelled on some high end culture, the renowned sculpture by Lord Leighton of an athlete struggling with a python.

In 1889, the dockers were conducting a fight against the poverty caused by casualisation and the lack of a living wage (they demanded the Dockers' tanner) and the words on the ribbon read 'we shall fight and we shall win until all destitution and prostitution are swept away.' The serpent is the serpent of capitalism and the hero is a hard working but unskilled labourer. The craft unions around the dockyards made common cause with the strikers and the Catholic church got involved on their side. The Australian wharfside workers sent money to the strike fund.  Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl Marx, revolutionary philosopher) taught several of the strike leaders to read!

So, though it might look as if, 30 plus years later, the Dockside branches were beaten back down, the 1920s banner does portray a strong well set up worker, a worthy heir to those who struggled to have a bigger share of the profits they created for the empire back in the 19th century. The 1920s docker is centre of a scene which shows that the aspiration to culture and education was very vocal and very much alive.

You can find many other examples of Trade Union banners and membership certificates in the online archives of the People's History Museum in Manchester and the Working Class Movement Library in Salford. You can also read Annie Ravenhill-Johnson's work on Trade Union emblems in The Art and Ideology of the Trade Union Emblem 1850-1925 (Anthem press 2014). 

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