New Hornbake Library exhibit shows the history of unions in America

By Madison Brewer

The art exhibit For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America, is now open to the public at Hornbake Library after an opening reception on Friday, Oct. 6, 2017.

The exhibit highlights major turning points in the labor movement while focusing on civil rights, social injustices, women’s equality, LGBTQ rights and higher wages for working families.

The UMD Labor Archives’ goal for the exhibit was to document the intersection of the labor movement with issues of economic equality. It focuses on the struggle for the eight-hour workday and a living wage. The exhibit also unveils the movement’s deep but lesser-known roots in the LGBTQ community.

The exhibit focuses on issues that are not generally associated with labor unions, like desegregation and gender equality.

A sculpture depicting A. Philip Randolph is one of the first things visitors see when they walk into the exhibit. Randolph, a major leader in the civil rights and labor movements, fought to desegregate the federal government’s civilian workforce, armed forces and defense industries.

Further in the exhibit is a large glass case with the title “Union Feminism: Sisterhood is Powerful,” which showcases the struggles women faced after World War II to find work that paid well, offered reasonable working hours and provided health benefits.

The history of the labor movement felt personal to some of the opening’s attendees the opening.

“I feel a very deep connection. I have roots in this archive… I’m delighted that the University of Maryland is showcasing this because I think that lots of people don’t know much about the workers’ struggle in this country,” said Lane Windham, a UMD alumna and former 20-year member of the labor movement.

University of Maryland Libraries Interim Dean Babak Hamidzadeh spoke about the exhibit’s social significance at the opening.

This exhibit…expresses our commitment to diversity and social justice while highlighting the labor movement’s historical struggle with civil rights,” Hamidzadeh said.

One of the exhibit’s focuses was the worker’s struggle for a living wage. The display titled “The Movement for Higher Wages: From Poverty to a Living Wage” explained that the fight goes as far back as 1675, when colonial American workers united with the Boston Ship carpenters to begin the fight for a higher wage. However, it wasn’t until the American Federation of Labor was founded in 1886 that the idea of a “living wage” was implemented.

University of Maryland Arts and Humanities professor Julie Greene said that she hoped her students would come see the display and learn how intertwined American history and the labor movement were.

I feel like the political propaganda we hear these days… is that so often unions are represented as just caring about a small separate society, but in fact when you look at the broad history and look at it today, the labor movement has been so central to almost every progressive struggle of the last 200 years,” Greene said.

The exhibit, For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America, will be on display in Hornbake through July of 2018.

Photo courtesy of UMD Libraries

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