You won’t get me, I’m part of the union. An admirable sentiment, expressed in a song by The Strawbs in the late 60s, but sadly one that is all too out of fashion these days in the west. Unionisation was one of the first targets of the neo-liberal alliance of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and with the backing of the mainstream media the campaign to discredit unions was successfully fought through the 1980’s. From a peak of 13.2 million workers in the UK in 1979 (ONS data), membership now has fallen to 6.5 million, and the majority of these are in the public sector ( Dbis statistical study 2013). In the US, membership has dropped from 20.1% in 1983 to 11.3% in 2013 (US Dept Labour bureau of labour statistics). Nowadays more and more restrictions are placed on union activity, and the right of workers to withdraw their labour when in dispute with employers is now tenuous at best. Images of the arrests of striking McDonalds workers have recently filled my social media pages, and the governments reaction to public sector strikes in the UK is to look at legislation to stop the strikes, rather than attempting to address the core issues behind disputes. All this is done with, it would seem, the support of the population, especially if you believe the reportage from the broadly right of centre press with have to live with these days. That the campaign to discredit unions has been so successful is reflected both in the declining membership figures, and in the at best ambivalent attitude new workers have to the idea of joining in the first place. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is not until conditions reach the point of active dispute that many workers feel the need for representation, by which time it can be too late. Discussions with union organisers in the 1990s suggested that the easiest way to get people to join in the first place was through the provision of cheap insurance and financial services as a hook to draw people in, a sorry state of affairs indeed.
Against such a backdrop in the advanced capitalist economies, it is hardly surprising that attempts to set up workplace unions in the developing economies of Latin America and the far east have been difficult, to say the least. In Columbia violence against union members is widespread, with more than 2,800 having been assassinated in the past 20 years with apparent impunity for the perpetrators of violence http://www.usleap.org/usleap-campaigns/colombia-murder-and-impunity/more-information-colombia/background-violence-against- Similar problems affect workers across the developing economies, and many are highlighted by the International Labour Rights Forum http://www.laborrights.org/releases/198 . These are problems that affect us all – in the face of global capitalism and increasing wealth inequality, unions are the only opportunity for workers to protect themselves.
You won’t get me… is a response to the extreme violence against union activists in Coca-cola bottling plants in Columbia, and is also the third piece in the triptych I have been working on based on the ideas underpinning the French revolution – Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. The painting represents equality, and is intended to underline the fact that in the absence of fraternity, workers exist in an unequal struggle with exploitative employees. It’s been the most difficult to paint, partly because mainly white is not a great base for my work, but mostly because of the difficulty of coming up with an image that can bring across such a complex idea and set it in keeping with the other two paintings and in the same elongated portrait format. I hope the result speaks to you.