“The view that few people ever learn what workers accomplish on the job turned out to be a common theme in the interviews. Another theme was the difficulty of describing one’s work to others: while most workers perceived their own work situations very clearly, some found it hard to explain the work they perform; others described their jobs in rich detail and in language colored by lifetimes of experience and by the idioms of craft.”— Jon Garlock
When the Rochester Labor Council revived the Labor Day Parade in 1986 its poster read “Walk With Those Who Make Rochester Run.” This exhibit explores the idea behind such a slogan: that there exists a network of community-sustaining labor.
Over several months in 1990 and again in 1991-1993 we documented 35 union worksites in Rochester, meeting and working with hundreds of members of 43 Labor Council affiliates. Active in our own unions and in the Labor Council, we discovered through this project the diversity of work that is performed in Rochester and which, in a real sense, constitutes the community.
One of the things we learned is why it is so difficult to know about work. First, many tasks, especially in the industrial sector, are invisible because they are done behind factory walls. Also, it is not easy to gain access to worksites: scheduling shoots required a great deal of planning and coordination between labor and management.
Still more important is the way our culture perceives and portrays work. We simply do not notice or we take for granted a great deal of that labor which is visible. We tend to observe work tasks singly, apart from their context and rhythm. Moreover, we lack a strong tradition of interpreting the world of work: many images of workers show them posed with their implements rather than using them.
Perhaps that is why the “community of workers” project was greeted with enthusiasm by so many workers. “This exhibit is a good idea,” commented one, because “there's a lot of misrepresentation of union workers. A lot of people think we don't do anything, think we get paid for nothing.”
The view that few people ever learn what workers accomplish on the job turned out to be a common theme in the interviews. Another theme was the difficulty of describing one’s work to others: while most workers perceived their own work situations very clearly, some found it hard to explain the work they perform; others described their jobs in rich detail and in language colored by lifetimes of experience and by the idioms of craft. Many spoke of their labor with humor and perspective, as well as a sense of personal worth and pride in skill.
Another recurring theme was the transformation of work tasks over time, especially the impact of computer-based technology and the introduction of new materials. Finally, most of the workers understood that the work they do contributes to others — easing pain, nourishing, entertaining, educating, transporting, sheltering.
This on-line exhibit cannot convey the full extent of the project’s documentation. Less than half the project images are included and only a portion of the interviews were transcribed. Furthermore, the project itself covered only a representative sample of organized workplaces. Many kinds of work were omitted including tasks not covered at documented worksites, jobs performed by dozens of other Council affiliates, and the tasks of unorganized workers. Still, hopefully the exhibit justifies the expectation of many of the workers shown here — that others might better understand and appreciate what they do, that the world of work might be made more visible.
About the Artists
Marilyn Anderson is a professional photographer and graphic artist especially interested in documenting both craft and industrial work. In addition to the exhibit she has adapted many of her “Community of Workers” images as a coloring book to help children understand the world of work. More information about the “ Work Curriculum” coloring book can be found on the Rochesterlabor.org page: Our Community of Workers Coloring Book.
Jon Garlock is a writer and labor historian. He serves on the Executive Board of the Rochester Labor Council and chairs its Education Committee, coordinating many of the Council’s Education Events and Programs. He has collaborated on the many Education materials found at this web site, including a history of the Labor Council itself.
A husband and wife team, Jon and Marilyn have collaborated on many projects, including “The Honor of Labor,” documenting a Long Island City silk mill for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, and “Granddaughters of Corn,” an exhibit and book on disappeared Guatemalan women.