Artists & Trade Unions by Francis J. Gorman

Artists and Trade Unions by Francis J. Gorman
First American Artists’ Congress, 1936

Photo by Lou Block (May Day Parade, NYC, 1935)

“Too long have the professional man and woman considered themselves apart from the sordidness of this world’s economic chaos! Too long have the artist, the doctor, the dentist, the engineer and the architect allowed themselves to be exploited in precisely the same manner which the unorganized worker is today exploited in industry, simply because the professionals have considered themselves ‘above’ organization.

This present crisis, however, and the rapid advance of the forces of reaction in the form of destruction of our democratic and economic rights, have begun to teach the professional workers, and the hitherto un-class-conscious white-collar workers that if they are to protect themselves, they must enter into the political and economic scene with a group organized of and by themselves. This group, however, if it is to serve as protection must act in conjunction with other groups, and thus present to the forces of reaction which seek to compel the people of the United States to accept the decadence and destruction of our present order, with a united people’s group, ready to demand its rights and protect the few vestiges of democracy left us.

This, it seems to me, is particularly important for the artist and for the writer. These two professions are among those most ruthlessly attacked when they are not organized into economic and political groups for their own protection. It is in the miserable rewards for culture that we find some of the most blatant forms of exploitation. The rich throw crumbs from their tables to the living artists and writers in order to pacify their ‘cultural whims’ while they put millions of dollars into the purchase of dead artists’ pictures, because the premium has gone up with the centuries. It must not be thought that I deprecate the culture of the ages, nor that I feel that pictures of Old Masters are not worth handsome prices. It merely occurs to me that the living artist might well demand his share of the bounty also. It occurs to me that the artists today have not taken advantage of the opportunities to organize and demand a living in return for their works which enrich civilization culturally.

My interest in the organization of professional men and women is not wholly an unselfish one. The professional is more and more making inroads on the living standards of the workers, many of whom have protected their wages and working conditions for years by dint of hard effort to form trade unions. Furthermore, the unorganized sections of our exploited classes form the most fertile field for the advancement of reaction and fascism. And with fascism comes the end of trade unionism and all democratic rights.

We cannot under-estimate the danger of fascism. Nor can we under-estimate the unconscious part which unorganized professional workers play in helping the advent of fascism. It is historically a fact that the bulk of the mass support of Italian and German fascism lay amongst the professional and intellectual class together with the vast, dispossessed middle class. That is what any believer in democracy must prevent in those countries where the formal forces of democracy still exist.

It is time that the artist came down from his aloof position, and soiled his hands with helping his fellow-workers struggle for a living wage. His fellow-workers will then help him in the same struggle. For too long has the artist and the intellectual professed disinterestedness in political and economic matters. But artists and intellectuals are beginning to realize that as the economic crisis deepens, and the entire economic structure begins to wobble under the weight of decay, that they, too, must organize to protect themselves.

Though the first attack upon democracy comes with the destruction of the trade-union movement, it is followed quickly by the suppression of freedom of expression in cultural fields as well. How many German and Italian artists, writers, philosophers and intellectuals have had to flee from their native countries with the advent of the barbaric regimes of Mussolini and Hitler? How many people felt like weeping as the giant funeral pyre of the intellectual contributions of Germany’s foremost artists and writers wrote the bloody story of Hitler across the midnight sky?

The same fate awaits us in the United States if we do not act now to prevent it. Events are moving swiftly in that direction. Our foremost middle-class champions and writers have discarded the outmoded liberal theory of ‘It can’t happen here’ in favor of the grim, realistic realization that it not only can happen here, but that it is happening here. One of the first steps to be taken in the prevention of this mass enslavement is the militant organization of professional workers and intellectuals. I cannot stress this point too much. It is a vital necessity if we are to win over decadence and the rebirth of the Dark Ages.

There is a second step to be taken also. It must come closely on the heels of the solidification of a strong economic organization of artists. It might even come simultaneously with economic organization. This second, or simultaneous step, is the organization of the artists, together with the entire mass of under- privileged and dispossessed, into a political front-into a militant, determined Labor Party.

We are beginning to discover in the trade-union movement that our trade unions, our economic organizations, are no longer sufficient protection for us. We cannot, indeed, even continue with our trade unions if we do not also band together in political unity. Big Business and the controlling financial and industrial interests are making organization harder and harder. They are turning more and more to the use of troops in times of strike; to the hiring of the industrial spy to break up trade unions; to the persecution, framing and murder of trade-union leaders. State legislatures are passing sedition bills. War becomes an ever-nearer menace. These things, this terrible march of events, have as vital a meaning to the artist as they have for the textile worker, the miner or the garment worker. For all of us are treated with the same ruthless cruelty in concentration camps; all of us, no matter whether we be textile workers or artists, feel the vigilant terror of storm troop activity.

My message, then, to the artists of the United States is two-fold. I would urge the immediate strengthening of an artists’ union, all-inclusive, embracing every artist, whether he be the ‘successful’ artist or the struggling, unrecognized artist. I would hope, also, that this artists’ front would include also provisions for unity with all working-class organizations, organizations of unemployed and consumer and other professional groups in the common struggle for a decent standard of living and for other economic rights.

Next, I would urge that the artists not confine themselves to activity in the economic field alone. For this, we believe, is now inadequate in the face of the marching legions of fascism. Therefore, I would hope also that the artists will unite their organization with the thousands and thousands of other organizations now behind the movement for a Labor Party for the United States.

With the workers, the small business men, the bankrupt farmers, the professionals and intellectuals banded together first in strong, militant economic organizations, and finally coalesced into a powerful political vanguard, there is no way that the fascist bands can invade our ranks. We will present to the agents of reaction a solid, invincible front, and defy them to invade our ranks with the destruction of a dictatorship of dying capitalism!”

— (via Artists Against War and Fascism)