Customer Stories

Labor Northland Posters

These are some Northland stories that were posted on our old site. To add your own stories, memories or comments, please join in on our blog.

Approved by Management

Dear Northies,

A few years ago I got a bunch of militant union posters from you. I posted [them] on the union bulletin boards around the plant. I told you at the time I’d report back how it went. Although the posters were pretty militant, the Local President approved them. Management was quite upset and made the following contract clause one of their top bargaining issues later that year:

All such matters may be posted only upon the authority of
officially designated representatives of the Union and must be
approved by Management.

So for several years I had to get a foreman’s initials on anything I posted. I am able to ignore that now, but only because I impose “self-censorship.” Such is life under the dictatorship of the owners. Now I distribute this stuff at union meetings and in person.

We did do a successful campaign using buttons during negotiations a couple of months ago. We had been getting “lump sum” payments in place of some raises for many years and we decided we’d had enough. I had a local shop make up 250 buttons saying “DUMP THE LUMP” and our Rapid Response team saw to it that on the designated day 85% of the members wore the button. When management still refused, we took a vote and a big majority voted to strike. On the last day of negotiations management agreed to give across the board raises each year. The VP of Personnel said, “Now you can tell the people to throw away all those damn buttons!”

It’s people like you that inspire us to use such tactics. Thank you for being there and doing what you do.

Doug Marshall
USW Local 8957

Happy Anniversary

Congratulations on your anniversary. May you celebrate many more. I have a little story about Northland Poster’s place in my life.

Five years ago, when I was 52, I happened to be an apprentice at [an engineering union]. Heavy equipment operators. In the normal course of events, one gets a job as an operator and then gets signed up by the union. Two years earlier, I’d been given a job by a major excavating company. The job was given to me as a favor to my partner who worked for the company as a site supervisor. But I was a competent operator and a hard worker, so the main supe decided he keep me on and called the union BA to come sign me up. I was very excited. The BA came to the job site, saw that I was a woman, and refused to sign me up.

I was hired back by the same company in the spring, and once again the union refused to sign me up, a different BA this time. I finally made it into the union through the back door, the one reserved for women and people of color, the apprenticeship program. It was not an easy apprenticeship, especially the classroom portion. Oh, the work was doable, but the racism and sexism of the union officials and instructors (except one, who really did try) was overt, constant, and appalling. Every day was a trial. Then one day I discovered your ABCs of Organizing poster in a seldom used room. At every break I would stand in front of that poster, feeling a sense of comradeship, taking in the energy of people who were making a difference for women and people of color. My kin were there in that awful place, my kin were you and I felt you through your poster.

That poster played a large role in my ability to continue returning to [the Local] day after day. Every morning, before I went to class, I’d stand in front of the poster and say, “Here I am, and I know you’re out there. You remind me that the world is bigger than this union, and that makes me stronger. Thank you.”

Thank you indeed. Happy anniversary.

Nancy Evechild

Bunnies on the move

Nothing had worked for the American Postal Workers in Danbury, Connecticut. Postal authorities continued to dismiss worker demands for contract compliance. The contract required that workers whose jobs were eliminated be offered new work within a fifty mile radius. Management claimed that this was not possible to do.

“Bosses Beware: When We’re Screwed We Multiply” read the backs of 300 bright red shirts with an image of militant bunnies marching arm in arm. The local’s logo was emblazoned on the front. Every worker at the General Mail Facility arrived to work wearing the t-shirt on the day of the Post Master General’s visit from Washington D.C. Mortified, management began to pay attention.

The attention wasn’t the welcomed kind. Fuming over their embarrassment, management sent a letter to all employees prohibiting the wearing of the shirts because they violated the Postal Service’s “zero tolerance for violence” policy. The workers, amused but not deterred, knew they had disoriented the employer. They contacted the Northland Poster Collective-the group that had design the T-shirt-and ordered 300 more shirts but this time without the offending text. They also requested other bunny paraphernalia and threatened to picket national postal officials scheduled to come to town.

Fearing more embarrassment, management reached a settlement with the local, discovering that they could find local jobs for their workers after all. They also backed down on their T-shirt ban. The replacement shirts remained in their boxes.

Management had walked right into an untenable position in which they would look ridiculous whether they accepted the right of workers to wear the shirts or not. The workers were able to come up with creative ways to follow up that could keep the heat on indefinitely.

Bunnies 2

Bosses at the Minneapolis Star Tribune also faced the power of workers with bunnies tees from Teamster drivers on the loading dock when shop steward Rick Sather began to distribute them to drivers. Workers began to wear them some days and other days wear plain red t-shirts under their jackets. Supervisors got sore necks trying to figure out if the shirts had bunnies or not. When they tried to discipline one worker for wearing the shirt, others decided that that was unfair and started sporting them as well. Sather was told that the wording was threatening, but the supervisor was not satisfied when he covered the letters with masking tape. In the end, management agreed to drop disciplinary charges against one worker (in a case­unrelated to the bunnies­that could have led to his dismissal) if only the workers would stop wearing those pesky wabbits!

Cartoon Story

Rainbow Foods in the summer of 1999 had gone too far this time and Minnesota workers weren’t going to take it lying down. Management installed a new “anti-shrinkage” policy and set up a toll free anonymous hotline where employees could rat each other out for shoplifting. If management busted a person called in by a worker, the worker was given a substantial cash reward. Lunch bag searches and other intrusive policies were instituted. Morale among the Rainbow Food workers was at an all time low. Management ignored the union’s requests to meet, and refused to even return phone calls.

Although Minneapolis’ local took a traditional route and filed charges against the company, St. Paul United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789 picked a more creative first strike. They enlisted Ricardo Levins Morales to design a series of cartoons expressing their frustration with the company.

A brainstorming session between the artist, Rainbow workers, and union staff resulted in cartoons that irreverently lampooned company policy, renaming the company: “Blameyou Foods,” and illustrating the workers’ complaints. With representatives from every store at their general membership meeting on Tuesday, Local 789 decided to distribute the cartoons among workers at 8 am in all eleven stores the next morning.

After the first cartoon was unleashed on the shop floors (and under supervisors, doors), management left a message on Local 789’s answering machine by 8:30 am asking to meet with union President Bill Pearson on Thursday. Workers had started to make badges out of the cartoon for their uniforms and were passing on the cartoon to truck drivers who carried it to other parts of the country.

The unusual tactic brought about an unprecedented and speedy response from the company. Rainbow Foods agreed to hold five informal meetings with workers representing different stores, and to listen to their complaints. These meetings gave workers a real voice and brought about noticeable changes rapidly, including improved lighting in the parking lot. New cartoons featured thermometers that rose and fell according to the workers happiness or dissatisfaction with Rainbow Foods’ behavior.

Local 789 caught Rainbow Foods off guard with a creative response that still played by the rules. A well coordinated action and the accompanying surge in worker morale convinced management that a more humble approach to worker relations might be the wiser course.

The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend

Labor Organizing Posters

Of all the slogans Northland has ever popularized, the one which has gone the farthest is “Unions: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend”. As far as we know, it originated with a local labor council on the West Coast, but we borrowed it and put it (and its sister, “The Labor Movement: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend”) on bumper stickers, mugs, t-shirts, buttons, and many other surfaces.

Many people, seeing that, have suggested other things that unions have brought us. The carpenters commissioned a whole series of bumper stickers highlighting these benefits. Now we’ve put together a poster which tries to consolidate some of the victories, past and pending:

To me, though, the most important part of this poster is the much-quoted observation from Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.” None of the gains highlighted on this poster — unemployment insurance, overtime pay, workers’ compensation insurance, farm labor rights — came easily. Each of them required years and years of struggle to bring them from the margins of political debate into the mainstream. Asking nicely didn’t quite do the trick! Lawsuits, strikes, small-scale protests, massive marches, lectures and speeches, firings, pamphlets, worker defense committees, endless meetings, and many other methods had to be used to build up enough power to win the concessions. And, of course, at the bottom of everything is organizing.

We recently attended a conference for APWU organizers, designed to help people think outside of the box when it comes to building unions and advancing new demands. It must have been a great conference, because even on the last full day, the workshops were well-attended. (From our position as vendors, we can tell how things are going: on the first day, usually everyone goes to the scheduled events. By the last day, we usually have lots of shoppers during the break-out sessions!)

Everyone knows that there is a tendency within the labor movement towards accommodation with management, and a desire to avoid confrontation. I once studied an oral history interview with a long-time business agent of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers’ Union in Minneapolis. He began his career in the late 1930s with a spirited and unprecedented strike of the city’s restaurants to gain recognition for the union. The rest of his career gradually changed his perspective. As business agent, he grew to have more contact with the hotel and restaurant owners than with the ever-changing ranks of his own membership. Unwittingly, as he told his story, he revealed his shifting loyalties — until, when the membership in his local demanded a second strike in 1953, he told the hotel owners, “We’ll take the strike-happiness out of ‘em, and then we can talk.” Not surprisingly, under those circumstances, the strike petered out after a month and the resulting contract fell far short of the workers’ wishes. It’s a microcosm example of what can happen on the international level as well.

Stories like these are dispiriting, and point to the need for constant grassroots refreshment — such as we saw at the APWU conference for organizers. (I’m happy to say that the hotel and restaurant workers in Minneapolis came roaring back in the early 1980s, after that business agent — and his son! — had served out their terms.) Cooperation with management has definite limits, and ignores Frederick Douglass’s accurate advice. When you look at the accomplishments of the labor movement which we take for granted today, and how making demands of power has paid off, you can feel a bit more hopeful about seemingly impossible tasks — such as unionizing Walmart. (Remember, Henry Ford flirted with Fascism, and maintained that there would never be a union at his company, either!)

So, organizing! The work that brought you the unions!

If You Have Come To Help Me



If You Have Come To Help Me

I first came across this quote in the early-mid 1990s. “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” The poster I made with these words first appears in a Northland catalog in 1994. Since then it has become a widely-known quote, cited in thousands of web-site, books, articles, speeches, school board meetings, conference themes and who knows what else. It is usually attributed to “Lila Watson, Aboriginal activist.”

In fact this attribution is not correct (but not completely wrong). Here is our experience with the quote and its source. When I frost saw it, it was quoted in a student newsletter of some sort. It was attributed to “Australian aboriginal woman.” When I got hold of them, the editors of the newsletter did not know any more than that. Not able to find the source (or even know how to look for it–remember, the internet was fairly rudimentary still) I went ahead and designed the poster. We were not happy with the attribution, though. It was easy to see that the insight revealed by those words was not something that comes cheap. This was someone with some organizing experience under her belt. It was tempting to credit it to a “leader” but we didn’t have enough information to take that leap. We ended up attributing it to an “Aboriginal activist sister.” At least we were giving her credit for at least being an “activist.” We felt that, at least, would be safe to say.

We create a lot of art based on quotes and are always trying to get the most accurate information we can on them. After some years we found some citations of it that mentioned Lila Watson. Excited to finally find a source for the quote we decided to research it. We finally tracked Lila down. She is still a community leader and activist (in Brisbane, I think). Anyway, we explained that we wanted permission to use the quote in a poster. Her husband (who acted as go-between in these conversations) knew exactly what quote we were calling about. It had already made the rounds widely. Lila explained that she had been part of an Aboriginal rights group in Queensland (the hot-bed of Black Power organizing at the time) in the early 1970s. They had come up with the phrase in the course of their work–probably for some of the printed literature they produced as part of their organizing. She could not remember the exact process of how it had come about. She was quite clear, though, that she was not comfortable being credited for something that had been born of a collective process.

After some back and forth we came to an agreement on how it could accurately be credited. Now our poster simply attributes the words to “Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s.” Of course, we still get the occasional indignant e-mail “you know you should attribute that quote Lila Watson, an Aboriginal activist and educator…”

Lila Watson is not sure how the quote became attached to her name alone. It is a tribute to the power of the Internet that once it was, it has taken on a life of its own and has been replicated across the world and in several languages. It’s easy to see why, though. The words reflect a political clarity that is both sharply critical and generous. Who can resist them?